Sun Still Cool on Linux

As Linux's importance as a strategic platform grows among major server vendors, Sun Microsystems may find itself the last man standing on proprietary ground

As Linuxs importance as a strategic platform grows among major server vendors, Sun Microsystems may find itself the last man standing on proprietary ground.

Hewlett-Packard stepped up its Linux commitment with last weeks release of HP Secure OS Software for Linux, in advance of this weeks LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco. The company claimed the software brings enterprise-class security to Linux for the first time. The bundle, which includes a modified version of the Linux operating system kernel 2.4 and other programs and utilities, prevents unauthorized communication between programs, networks and files; detects hacking attempts; and is able to lock programs if the system has been penetrated.

HP said Secure OS Software for Linux goes well beyond other secure versions of Linux, such as Guardian Digitals secure Linux-based server appliances and Bastille Linux, a project that aims to "harden" the Linux OS. "What we bring to the table is putting it all together and providing support for it," said Roberto Medrano, general manager of HPs Internet security division.

With its secure version of Linux, HP is targeting enterprise customers and service providers that are using Linux on the network boundary in firewalls and Web servers. While HP is making the modified Linux kernel available for free as open source software, it will charge $3,000 per server for the security configuration and auditing tools. Thats a very steep price tag that defeats the low-cost proposition of Linux, said Stacey Quandt, a Giga Information Group analyst. "That challenges the volume economics of commodity architecture and a commodity operating system," she said.

HPs secure Linux play is another front in its battle to capture mind share from IBM, which famously pledged to invest $1 billion in its Linux efforts this year. Compaq Computer, Dell Computer and Intel have also thrown significant resources behind developing the OS. Last week, Intel released two new compilers for C++ and Fortran, designed to help developers optimize Linux applications for Intels Itanium and Pentium 4 processors.

Sun remains virtually alone in following a proprietary Unix OS and chip architecture road map, basing its future on its Solaris OS and Sparc processors. "Sun refuses to buy into the common logic that vendors who choose the Intel platform architecture can lessen their lock-in to a tightly coupled hardware architecture and operating system," Quandt said. "Theyre ideological about their strategy."

Other analysts think Suns reluctance to make a bigger shift toward Linux is mainly an image problem. "It is a mistake to put Linux on the back burner," said Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs OS analyst. "It leaves the impression that others, including IBM, HP and Compaq, are adopting new technology more quickly than Sun."

Herb Hinstorff, director of Suns Linux program office in Menlo Park, Calif., said Sun is fully committed to Linux — but in certain low-end segments. "In general, we think Linux is a great thing for what its done for the overall Unix market," he said. Suns Linux initiatives include participating in open source development; ensuring compatibility between Solaris and Linux; and selling Linux server appliances, a business it entered through its acquisition of Cobalt Networks last year.

About Sun adopting Linux for its core higher-end systems, Hinstorff said, "Theres not a strong incentive to do that. Users who buy our systems are free to put Linux on it, but were not seeing demand."

Its not good news for Sun that its strategy is most similar to that of Silicon Graphics Inc., the struggling high-end Unix vendor that has seen its business plummet dangerously fast this year. SGI laid off another 1,500 employees this month, leaving it with 4,000. SGI has so far experimented with Linux development, but still rests its business on its proprietary Irix OS and MIPS Technologies processors.

"Sun is on a similar path as we are," said SGI CEO Robert Bishop.