Sun close – but no cigar, says industry

Almost, but not quite, is the response to Sun Microsystems Inc.’s announcement last month that the firm will make its Unix operating system, Solaris, available for free.

Users and industry insiders are now waiting for Sun to take the next step by releasing an open source version of Solaris.

In early November Sun said it would announce its open source plans before the end of 2004. In recent years, many users of Sun’s mid-range Unix boxes have shifted from Solaris on Sparc in favour of Linux on the cheaper x86 chip set. Solaris on x86 has been available since the mid-1990s, according to Shirley Horvat, with Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc.

But Horvat, the director of marketing, said Sun is now increasing its focus by ramping up hardware support for the operating system on x86. Sun expects to make money by selling support services for the free version of Solaris, Horvat said.

Gordon Haff, senior analyst and IT advisor, at research firm Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. said Sun’s recent move could make users think twice before dropping Solaris for Linux, but it won’t be a magic bullet that will pull Sun out of its doldrums.

The idea that Linux is cheap is rhetoric, Haff said. Commercial Linux distributions really are not free because users are required to buy support services, he explained. Yet, Solaris does have one advantage: it is the only major commercial Unix available on the x86 platform, although some free Unix like FreeBSD and OpenBSD are available for x86.

One reason why Sun might be successful in competing against the Linux space is the Linux Application Environment (LAE) available in Solaris 10, which lets users run Linux applications directly on top of Solaris, Horvat said. But Haff doesn’t think any user would want to run their mission-critical Linux applications on an emulator. He sees the LAE as primarily a migration tool. Additionally, he said Sun needs to get more independent software vendors (ISVs) developing and certifying for Solaris on x86 since, unlike Linux, Solaris does not have a global community of developers dedicated to it.

“Open source is more than just seeing the source code,” Haff said. “It’s really about having a community development process and it remains to be seen how successful Sun will be in fostering and developing such a community.”

But Sun contests this perception. Sun officials said there are 200 Solaris developers in Canada alone and 20,000 worldwide.

However, Ranbir Sandhu, owner and consultant of Systems Aligned Inc., a systems integration firm in Brampton, Ont. agreed with Illuminata’s Haff. He said an open source Solaris won’t make a difference until a community is built around it. “I don’t think it’s going to slow down Linux or open source…at all,” he said.

Sandhu said the acceptance of Solaris as an open source package hinges upon how much control Sun retains over the operating system. He said the community is nervous they won’t have the opportunity to contribute code to Solaris in the same way users can with Linux. So far, Systems Aligned has had one customer switch off Solaris in favour of Linux because the service and maintenance costs were too high.

Chris MacPhee, scientific computer specialist at the Advanced Computational Research Laboratory (ACRL) at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) said Solaris being free doesn’t impact the academic community because they already pay a very small licensing fee for Solaris.

ACRL has a cluster based on Red Hat Linux and is planning to build a symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) machine on one of the following commercial Unixes: Solaris, IBM Corp.’s AIX or Silicon Graphics Inc.’s Irix. If Solaris had been free when the Linux cluster was built, MacPhee said the ACRL would still have chosen Linux because it was a requirement of the faculty of engineering. But he said that an open source Solaris will attract developers. “If Sun opens [Solaris] up fully and if you can go in and hack the source code that will really attract people.”