Sun takes page from Linux playbook with Solaris 10

Executives from Sun Microsystems Inc. outlined their response to the growing popularity of Linux, speaking at the launch on Monday of the most significant update of the Solaris operating system in over two years. Key to the effort is a plan to release Solaris under an open source license with a new subscription pricing model, as well as a software updating system similar to those used by Linux vendors Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc.

Though Sun executives say they have yet to chose a software licence for the open source version of Solaris, this announcement will be made within the next 45 to 60 days, according to Sun. In addition to the release of Solaris source code, which must be compiled into machine-readable binary code before it can be used, Sun also plans to release a binary version of Solaris, free of charge, by Jan. 31, the company said.

For systems with four processors or fewer, Solaris revenue will come from subscription pricing, which will cost between US$120 per processor per year and $360 per processor per year, depending on the level of support. Also expected in January is an automatic software updating system, called the Sun Update Connection, which will be available to Solaris subscribers. A version of the system that will let users create and distribute their own Solaris updates via a proxy server is planned for later in 2005, Sun said.

Pricing for Solaris 10 on systems with more than four processors has yet to be determined.

Sun’s efforts to promote itself as an open source provider have been greeted with skepticism by many developers, in part because of Sun’s historical antagonism toward Linux. On Monday, Sun executives continued their pattern of both dismissing Linux, while at the same time promising to interoperate with it.

With the first release of Solaris 10, expected in January, Sun will add support for the Solaris version of the standard Linux compiler, called the GNU (GNU’s Not Unix) C Compiler. Follow-up releases in 2005 will include a Solaris version of the Linux boot loader, called GNU GRUB (Grand Unified Boot Loader), which will speed up the Solaris booting process on x86 machines. The company is also readying technology called Janus, which is designed to let Linux applications run, unchanged, on Solaris.

To ease application migration from Linux to Solaris, Sun expects to announce shortly that Solaris is compliant with the Linux Standard Base, a specification designed initially to encourage interoperability between software written for different Linux distributions, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s president and chief operating officer. “If you write to Red Hat, you’ll be very easily able to move that application … into our environment,” he said.

Despite the talk of Linux interoperability, there was also criticism of the open source operating system at Monday’s event. Hardware makers have been frustrated with their inability to get the approval necessary to have their code submissions accepted as part of the Linux kernel, Schwartz said.

In choosing the model for open source Solaris, Sun will build on the lessons it has learned in developing the Java Community Process, which standardizes and advances development of Sun’s Java platform, Schwartz said. “The Linux community model currently is much freer, but there is a single conduit,” he said referring to Linus Torvalds, the founder of the Linux kernel project who has ultimate say in what software gets added to the kernel. “The challenge is trying to build the best of both worlds together.”

Schwartz was also critical of Red Hat’s Open Source Assurance program, which protects Red Hat customers in the event of intellectual property disputes over the Linux source code. “If you look at what Red Hat does, Red Hat ships their product and then says, ‘We can’t vouch for the IP (intellectual property).'” Sun will be able to use its massive software patent portfolio and cross licensing deal to protect open source Solaris users, he said.

“We plan on making open source safe,” he said. “Do we think that will be a competitive advantage against Red Hat? Yes.”

Sun has good reason to be focused on open source. According to research company IDC, Linux server shipments grew by 38.2 per cent during the second quarter of 2004, the last period for which data is available. But, though the Santa Clara, Calif., computer maker has lost ground to Linux over the past three years, the volume of Sun’s Solaris-based servers also rose quickly during the second quarter of 2004, growing at a respectable 33.8 per cent rate, according to IDC.

Sun’s announcement reflected a renewed embrace of the x86 processors shipped by Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Sun is shipping a range of x86 systems itself, and the company has now signed up 35 equipment manufacturers to distribute Solaris x86 on their systems, including blade vendor Egenera Inc. and Founder Group Ltd., China’s second largest PC manufacturer. “They used to not want to push Solaris for x86, but we’ve really seen a departure from that,” said Jean Bozman, an analyst with IDC.

A number of software vendors, including Oracle Corp., BEA Systems Inc., and Computer Associates Inc., have thrown their support behind Solaris x86 and on Monday, Sun executives even expressed optimism that major U.S. manufacturers such as Dell Inc. or Hewlett-Packard Co. may some day support Solaris in the same way they’ve embraced the Linux operating system. “We’ll get them, it’s just a matter of time,” said Schwartz.

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