Winners and Losers in Dell Deal with Sun

Opinion: Dell is adding, believe it or not, Sun Solaris to its server lines. Who wins and loses with this move?

If you had asked me what computer vendor was the least likely to start offering Solaris on its servers, I would have said Dell or HP. Whoops. I sure got that one wrong.

Sun has really changed its tune from back in 2003, when it was dismissing Dell, Linux and open source. Today, Sun sells Red Hat and Novell Linux, has open-sourced both its main operating system, OpenSolaris and programming language, Java, and, yes, Sun is now partnering with Dell.

Over the last year, Sun has been trying hard to get Solaris on other vendors hardware. It took Sun a long, long (one more time with feeling) long time to realize that it wasnt going to make any more big bucks from selling Solaris on high-priced SPARC servers. But the company finally got it.

Earlier this year, Sun managed to get Solaris on select x86-based IBM System x servers and BladeCenter servers. Now, with its new Dell deal, Sun has gotten one of Microsofts staunchest vendors—well Dell used to be a Microsoft loyalist anyway—to agree to bundle Solaris on its servers.

But, how much difference is this really going to make? It makes a nice headline for Sun. Theres no doubt about that. Still, that still leaves the question: "Whos going to buy OpenSolaris on Dell?"

You could argue that former SCO UnixWare and OpenServer and Sun SPARC customers will be eager to make the switch. Will they? Ive been talking to the last of the SCO resellers and each and every one of them is heading for Linux as fast as they can.

And SPARC customers? The latest IDG server survey pointed out that Linuxs growth rate was slowing down because, to quote IDC analyst Matt Eastwood on why the rate of migration from Unix (to Linux has slowed down) over the past few quarters, its "because much of the low-hanging fruit has been moved and the applications that remain on Unix are stickier because they are seen as business critical."

In other words, Im sure there will be a few Unix customers who will move to Solaris on Dell or IBM. I dont expect there to be very many of them. After all, as George Weiss, a Gartner analyst, recently said: "I expect that, around 2009, we will have seen the last application developed specifically for Unix."

Linux is just too darn cheap, too easy to deploy and use, for Solaris to make a come back. Dont get me wrong. OpenSolaris is a fine operating system. Its just that its too little, too late, even with the IBM and Dell deals, for Solaris on Intel/AMD to try to claim the low-end from the Linuxes.

Where I think Solaris can hang on as a significant niche player is what I call the new high end. These are clusters and blade servers with multiple CPUs and multiple cored CPUs that use inexpensive AMD and Intel chips. These arent edge or department servers, which is where Linux makes it home. Instead, Solaris on Dell and IBM will have a shot at replacing mid-tier servers and clusters where we used to find lower-end SPARC systems, IBM AS/400s and HP 9000s.

I can also tell you whos going to like this move the least: Microsoft. Dell, who used to be one of Microsofts most faithful partners, is proving to be fickle. First, it started offering RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) on some of its servers, then Ubuntu Linux on several of its desktop and laptop lines, and now Solaris—"Solaris!? What the heck!" they must be saying in Redmond today—on its servers.

Dell isnt done yet either. I have reason to believe well be seeing the latest Ubuntu Linux popping up on desktop and laptop lines before the years end.

As Microsoft gets ready to start offering Server 2008 next year, the news that one of its main server partners is now offering not just Linux, but Solaris, cant be going down well. Is that screaming I hear from the Pacific Northwest?

So, while Im not sure that this move is going to do much for Dell or Suns bottom line, I do think that theyll be very successful indeed in annoying Microsoft. And, maybe, just maybe, that will put a dent in Server 2008s business adoption. Sun, Im quite sure, wont be unhappy if thats one of the results of its newest and most unlikely partnerships.


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