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Will Linux, Intel Put out Sun's Lights?

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2003-01-17 Print this article Print

As big customers see big gains from dropping Sun servers and Solaris for Linux on Intel, Sun is finally shifting its strategy to software. Is it too late?

Is it time for Sun to set? Probably not. But there are plenty of reasons to think twice about basing your critical systems in the long run on Sun's proprietary hardware.

PDF Download While the combination of Intel processors and Linux operating systems is gaining ground, Sun Microsystems is trying to play a whole different game. It wants you to believe it can convert from being the best hardware company in the world, to being the best software company. On its own terms.

"We had a line we used for 15 or 20 years now at Sun—'All the wood behind one arrowhead,'" says John Loiacono, Sun's vice president in charge of operating systems (Solaris and Linux). "That's still the case, but the arrowhead has moved. The arrowhead is Java-based applications in the Sun One environment."

But Sun has stumbled frequently in its past software efforts, despite its success in achieving wide adoption of the Java language for creating Web applications.

Two years ago, McNealy dismissed software as just "a feature" during his keynote interview at Gartner's ITxpo conference. And Sun botched several chances to lead in the commercialization of software for serving up those Web apps that Java creates.

When America Online purchased Netscape Communications, Sun got Netscape's server software through a joint venture called iPlanet. But Sun never put its heart into it.

Now, Sun is integrating iPlanet's software (renamed SunONE) into its Solaris operating system. But that effort has shot Sun in the foot on the server sales side. Market leader BEA Systems has moved its WebLogic application server software to Linux with a passion. IBM, trying to overtake BEA, also is backing Linux big-time. Sun, by contrast, is being dragged to Linux—which operates on "industry standard" Intel processors—by its customers.

Sun's acquisition of Cobalt Networks two years ago put it into the Linux server market on the low end. But as recently as this past summer, Sun said it would not produce a new version of Solaris for Intel-based servers. (Sun finally released Solaris 9 for Intel this month.)

Sun contends Linux is "good enough" for Web servers and other low-power applications. But, for really powerful stuff, the combination of Solaris and its specialized hardware bests hardware based on Intel's commodity (read: low-cost) processors and the open source (read: free) Linux operating system.

But some customers didn't buy that. "Our feeling was, why are we looking at these proprietary chip sets?" says E*Trade CTO Josh Levine. "We asked, 'Are we missing out?' It turns out we were."

In December 2000, the online brokerage began to get rid of the racks of Sun E4500 midrange servers that ran its Web-based apps, replacing them with Linux-based systems from Hewlett-Packard and IBM. E*Trade saved $13 million in operating costs the first year alone.

And the performance of its applications has actually improved. Levine says E*Trade can safely run its Linux servers at a higher utilization rate than Solaris servers—using up to 80% of their processing capacity. So he needs fewer servers.

Amazon.com dumped Sun, too, and in the financial world, Deutsche Bank has begun using Linux for applications that once would have been the domain of large Unix servers like the ones Sun sells. The financial services company is using "grids" of as many as 40 inexpensive Linux servers, at a cost of about $100,000—a fraction of what the equivalent computing power would cost the Sun way. Plus, "Linux gives us a lot more flexibility," said one Deutsche Bank executive.

McNealy and his team have made efforts to show that they're serious about Linux. McNealy even dressed up in a penguin costume for a recent Linux event. But if Sun can't prove it's serious about the change, the company's future could go into a deep freeze.

Maybe Mr. McNealy should at least extend the lease on that costume.

Sean Gallagher
Technology Editor

Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.
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