Solaris for Intel to return

Sun Microsystems Inc. has a busy week planned for the LinuxWorld conference next month.

First up, Sun is expected to release its first general-purpose server — codenamed Big Bear — to run the Linux operating system on Intel Corp. processors, as reported in June by IDG News Service. This move marks a major philosophical shift away from its long-held stance that the Sun Solaris OS and UltraSPARC processors are the best combination for every kind of server.

Sun also will use the LinuxWorld venue here to discuss its second change of heart — the resurrection of Solaris for the Intel architecture, sources said.

Sun decided in January to close a download program for a version of Solaris 8 that runs on Intel chips, as well as cancelling work on the newly-released Solaris 9 OS for the Intel architecture. The move infuriated a large number of users and prompted Sun to meet with a group of fans of Solaris on Intel dubbed The Secret Six to seek a compromise on bringing support back. The talks between Sun and The Secret Six stalled over the last seven months, and the group was largely cut off from communication with the company, causing them to doubt the return of Solaris on Intel, according to its members.

In August, however, Solaris on Intel fans are expected to see their preferred version of the OS return as an option on the Big Bear server, formally called the Cobalt LX50. Sun is expected to offer both its own Sun Linux distribution and Solaris 8, and possibly Solaris 9, on the Intel-based server, sources said. Scott McNealy, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Sun, is scheduled to discuss both the Cobalt LX50 server that will use dual Pentium IIIs and the return of Solaris on Intel during his LinuxWorld keynote address.

Susie Quitter, a Sun spokeswoman, declined to comment on either the Big Bear server or the return of support for Solaris on Intel chips.

Along with bringing a version of Solaris back for Intel servers, Sun is expected to release a reference architecture for Solaris on Intel-based laptops. Some users like to work with the same OS across all their systems and recompile code, for example, while travelling, which makes Solaris for laptop systems handy, said Alan DuBoff, president of consulting company Software Orchestration Inc. and a user of Solaris on Intel.

Sun may also eventually release a version of the OS dubbed Solaris 10 Community Edition. With this version, Sun would give developers a chance to see the source code and help the company with bug tracking, device driver writing and other maintenance tasks, the sources said. This would help reduce some of the support costs for Sun, the burden of which was one of the reasons the company cancelled the Solaris on Intel project. However, Sun’s lawyers have blocked this move thus far, citing concerns about including outside work in a Sun product, sources said.

“If we can get the source code and do some of the work, then all the weight of supporting the OS would not be on them,” DuBoff said.

Another form of cost savings could come as a result of Sun’s decision to make its own Intel-based hardware, one analyst said. Sun could put out a list of the device drivers and hardware configurations it had tested for the Cobalt LX50 and only support those, instead of the entire gamut of Intel hardware and peripherals.

“Having a bounded set of hardware support would certainly help,” said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. “If they were to resurrect Solaris on Intel, they would be looking for ways to limit their offerings and keep costs down.”

Internal friction within Sun still could prevent Solaris from returning to the Intel platform. Sun has moved its Solaris and Linux efforts under the supervision of Anil Gadre, former vice president of Solaris and now vice president of marketing and operations for software at Sun, combining the OS teams for the first time, sources said. Gadre has been a vocal Linux proponent and attempted to persuade some members of The Secret Six of its merits during a meeting at Sun’s Santa Clara, Calif., campus. The suggestion that the group consider Linux outraged one of The Secret Six, who insisted that the group was there to talk about Solaris.

Sun had been reluctant to have an OS for Intel systems compete with its own UltraSPARC-based servers. The introduction of the Cobalt LX50 could remove some of these concerns, said one user.

“One of the problems internally for Sun has been the idea of introducing competition in the hardware line,” said Bruce Riddle, a Unix administrator at Agere Systems Inc., in Allentown, Penn. “Now that they have their own Intel hardware, maybe that will change.”