New Sun exec wants to close Solaris usability gap

Ian Murdock says he drew a lot of puzzled looks from his colleagues in the Linux community when he joined Sun Microsystems Inc. in its newly created position of chief operating platforms officer. “What’s a Linux guy doing at Sun?” he was asked.

After all, Ian Murdock is the “Ian” in Debian Linux, the distribution he created with his wife, Deb.

Only eight days on his new job, Murdock spoke at a Software Developers Forum Tuesday in Santa Clara, California, where Sun is based. Murdock, 33, outlined what he thinks needs to be done in his new job in an interview. An edited transcript follows.

IDG News: What do you think it means that people ask why you, a Linux guy, are working for Sun?

Murdock: Sun’s Linux strategy is not well articulated. People who ask why I’m at Sun say “I thought Sun was anti-Linux.” That’s not true at all. Solaris is the operating system of choice, no doubt at all, but there is a certain part of the market that wants Linux so why argue with that? So we can do a better job of articulating the Solaris strategy

IDG News: You say you want to make Solaris look like or be as appealing as Linux. What are the issues with Solaris you have to confront?

Murdock: I refer to it as the usability gap. Solaris has some great technology and I think Solaris has innovated more than Linux in the last few years. I thought that before I came to Sun, so it’s not just the company line. But at the same time, as a Linux user, I download Solaris and install it and my first thought is it seems like it’s where Linux was 10 years ago [in terms of] installation, packaging and just general usability. It comes down to how do you remove those barriers to adoption so that the truly unique and innovative features of Solaris are what people see.

Some of the desktop-oriented Linux distributions, like Ubuntu, for example, have garnered a tremendous amount of developer mindshare. But what people love about Ubuntu is not the Linux kernel but all of the stuff that lives above it. So, could we take all that stuff above Linux and put it above Solaris in a way that does not leave behind all of all the differentiating features of Solaris? [Differentiating features of Solaris, Murdock said, include DTrace, the feature for troubleshooting system problems in real time, and ZFS, Solaris’ file management system. Linux’s main shortcoming, he continued, is backwards compatibility. With various flavors of Linux from Red Hat Inc., Novell Inc. and others, all with disparate update schedules, it’s hard for application developers to maintain backwards compatibility with all the different versions. “I cannot stress that enough coming from Linux,” he said.]

IDG News: You’re speaking to a group of software developers, many of them startups in the Web services area. What is Sun’s interest in connecting with that community?

Murdock: Very, very high. I think a lot of very good things stem from developer mind share. When I was at Purdue University as a computer science student in the early ’90s, Sun technology was cool and it had the developer mindshare. At some point along the way Linux has captured that most-favored status. As a result, when people start a Web 2.0 company or any startup, they don’t want to spend their time building infrastructure, they want to get to the application development. So they reach for what they know, which is Linux and they use Linux in production. At the beginning, there’s not a whole lot of money in [technology companies] selling to these companies because they don’t have any of it. The thing is, as those companies get bigger there is opportunity there. So gaining developer mindshare [early] gets you in the door at startups. Sun needs to get in the door with startups so as they get bigger you can sell more things to them.

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