Sun Microsystems Inc. this week revealed that user feedback has led the company to reconsider its decision to halt development of a version of the Solaris operating system for Intel Corp.’s 32-bit chip architecture.

Loyal Solaris fans were quick to reprimand Sun en masse for its announcement in January that the company would freeze the Solaris download program for Intel-based computers and not support Intel chips at all with its upcoming Solaris 9 operating system. Sun had made a free download of its Solaris 8 operating system available for Intel servers and has completed most of the work on the code for Solaris 9 on Intel.

Slumping server sales prompted Sun to eliminate the program as a cost-cutting measure, and executives said the effort would not continue unless something changed to make it worthwhile.

However, just three days after the announcement Sun agreed to re-examine the issue, as Solaris users flocked to discussion boards and launched a campaign to bring Solaris on Intel back. The grassroots effort led to the formation of “the secret six,” a group of users of Solaris on Intel who were elected on the discussion boards to meet with Sun. The company flew the secret six to its headquarters and has since been convinced that reactivating downloads of Solaris 8 on Intel’s x86 architecture and reviving efforts for Solaris 9 on Intel might be feasible, particularly with many customers offering to purchase the software.

“Since my last status (report) there have been interactions between the secret six and me on crafting proposals which are being considered by senior execs in Sun,” wrote Graham Lovell, director of product marketing for Solaris at Sun, in a discussion board posting from late March.

“While I cannot yet reveal the content of those proposals, they are targeted at greater community/customer involvement with the Solaris x86 product…While the work is not complete at this time (pending outcome of the above proposals) there is now an understanding of how we might begin to re-design our processes to fit with community engagements to our mutual benefit.”

Of the more than 1.2 million licenses for Solaris 8 that have been distributed through Sun’s Web site, the vast majority have come from users putting Solaris on Intel systems, according to Sun. This number does not include licenses included with shipments of Sun hardware, which runs on the company’s own UltraSPARC chips.

Some users of Solaris on Intel charged Sun with “bean-counter thinking” for ending the software support, and they have offered to pay for the operating system and help with bug tracking and other development efforts. Although Sun continues to deny that a final decision has been made, the public outcry has caused a rapid turnaround in the company’s thinking.

“We are still in the middle of figuring this out,” said Anil Gadre, vice-president and general manager for Solaris at Sun, during a meeting April 16 with reporters. “We are thinking of ways to actually productize (Solaris on Intel) and charge a support fee for it. The alternative is to say, ‘No on the Intel architecture; we are going to make the Linux offering.'”

Sun announced its plans to roll out low-end Linux servers running on the x86 Intel architecture earlier this year and will make its own distribution of the Linux operating system.

Some users, however, claim that the more mature Solaris has advantages over Linux.

Running Solaris on Intel allows users to manage one operating system all the way from a company’s low-cost PCs through to its high-end servers, users have argued in discussion groups. In addition, although Linux has emerged as a popular Unix-like choice on lower end gear, many users argue that Solaris remains a more stable and scalable platform.

One analyst said that Solaris on Intel is of particular help for users looking to create large-scale SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) systems on low-cost hardware. Neither Microsoft Corp. Windows nor Linux can match Solaris in this type of high-end architecture, said Tony Iams, an analyst at Port Chester, N.Y., research company D.H. Brown and Associates Inc.

“Solaris has earned its reputation over a long period of time,” Iams said. “They have been working on high-end scalability features for ten years, and that’s the only way you can get solid results.”

Although there is hope for Solaris on 32-bit Intel chips, the same cannot be said for Solaris’ future on 64-bit Itanium chips from Intel, as the two companies are locked in a stalemate over the idea even though a great deal of work on porting the software to Itanium has been completed according to Sun.

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