November 26, 2004

Sun to Offer New Solaris Version of Unix for Free

Sun Microsystems, the US software company with a centre in Dublin, announced last week it was going to offer its new Solaris 10 version of Unix free next year, and will also make it open source.

These moves, says Sun, will make it directly comparable with Linux. It will also launch a Linux Application Environment, so you can still run your Linux programs on Solaris.

Solaris should then win because it is technically superior to Linux, more innovative and because, as Sun UK's software director Ms Arlene Adams says, "we'll be able to prove that Solaris is cheaper to run".

These are dramatic moves on Sun's part, but it is under attack. About 15 years ago, "open systems" Unix, running on Risc (reduced instruction set computer) chips, was the hot ticket.

The combination offered a cheaper and faster way of processing data than proprietary minicomputers.

Today, however, some companies are keen to get rid of them. They believe Risc/Unix systems are more expensive to buy and maintain than clusters of cheap Intel servers running Microsoft Windows or Linux, and they didn't deliver much of the promised freedom.

Windows is expanding its share of the server market, and Microsoft has programmers working on ways to make it easier to move from Unix to Windows. However, since Linux is basically a clone of Unix, switching from Unix to Linux is a simpler proposition and enables technical staff to re-use their Unix skills.

Ease of switching has made Sun customers a prime target for companies selling Linux. This is particularly true for Red Hat, which offers the leading version of Linux for serious corporate use. Sun is simply fighting back, but it still looks exposed.

There used to be four major Risc/Unix server vendors: Sun, IBM, HP and DEC. Now there is IBM and HP (incorporating both DEC and Compaq), and one much smaller company, Sun.

IBM and HP already have huge businesses selling Windows on Intel boxes, and have spent years building up their Linux businesses. If a customer wants Risc/ Unix, Linux, Windows or even a proprietary system, IBM and HP can still do the deal. Sun can't.

Sun is trying to extend its range by putting some weight behind its marketing of cheap Intel-compatible servers, particularly 64- bit Solaris running on 64-bit AMD chips. But its faith in its technical superiority may be misplaced. Technical merit didn't help the FreeBSD and OpenBSD versions of Unix (which have the same roots as Sun's version) stave off the growth of Linux over the past decade. Linux has momentum: they don't.

In the end, I suspect Sun will probably lose, because Linux is fashionable. Solaris isn't. - (Guardian)