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Editor's Note: What Goes Around

Nov 10, 2006, 23:30 (16 Talkback[s])

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

While the rest of the open source world reels from the Oracle-spanks-Red Hat and Microsoft-embraces-Novell news, it left me wondering, where does this leave Sun Microsystems?

There are, I'm sure, a fair number of you out there that are thinking "who cares"? And I would tend to agree. In my bi-weekly column over on ServerWatch, though, I examined the potential fate of Sun and its Solaris operating system, and the prospects do not look good for either in the enterprise server space.

That was taking only Sun into consideration. As I delved into the archives to put the ServerWatch piece together, I kept bumping into something that many are aware of, but perhaps not paying too much attention: the Canonical-Sun connection. This is no big secret, mind you, but I cannot help but wonder if we are starting to see a larger trend take place in the commercial Linux world.

The bridge between Sun and Canonical is fairly straightforward: Sun is supporting Canonical's Ubuntu on its UltraSPARC T1 boxes and, more recently announced, on its x86-based Sun Fire X4100 and X4200 servers, and Sun Ultra 20 and 40 Workstations. That latter piece of news almost got lost in the deluge of the Novell/Microsoft prom, and that's too bad, since any hardware vendor's support of Linux is still a nice thing. Granted, the shock of Sun going with Canonical instead of one of the "big" players faded after the initial announcement last May, but I believe the announcement is significant regardless.

As I mentioned last week, the Oracle and Microsoft news is evidence that proprietary software companies now recognized Linux as a player in the IT arena. I am still holding out on whether this recognition is such a good thing, however. The advancement of the Sun-Canonical relationship is really just further evidence of that. The trend, to me, seems clear: proprietary companies are more willing than ever to directly deal with open source companies or--as in Oracle's case--open source software.

This leads me to my main question: is anyone willing to deal with Red Hat?

To answer that, let's look at why Oracle, Microsoft, and Sun are coming to the open source table.

Oracle's motivation is pretty clear: they believe the best way to win the market is to own the stack, from operating system to middleware to application set. They had that pretty well in hand with their earlier partnership with Red Hat, until Red Hat went out and acquired JBoss and started building a stack of their own. Their move to distribute and support their own Linux is just a way to re-assert their stack-worthiness.

Microsoft's motivation is less clear, because--for me, at least--it's harder to figure out. According to the origin story related to the public, it was actually Novell's Ron Hovsepian who went to Microsoft and extended the hand of partnership. His motivation was very clear: Novell needed an edge against Red Hat. Now we are all left trying to figure out why Microsoft took them up on their offer. The most likely rationale seems to be they saw a chance to marginalize Red Hat, which was coming up fast. But I am more than willing to entertain other theories.

Sun's partnership with Canonical is also direct: at the end of the day, Sun wants to sell boxes. They don't care if they are running Solaris, Linux, or even Windows. They want to ship shiny purple machines. Period. In the past, Sun had a decent, though strained, relationship with Red Hat because they were the biggest commercial Linux game in town. But the two companies never really got along that well. Several Sun employees, past and present, told me that much of their animosity towards Red Hat was due to the high-handedness Red Hat treated Sun and the expense of Red Hat's pricing model. It's easy to dismiss those comments coming from the maker of Solaris, but believe me when I tell you, these kinds of comments were made a lot of firms concerning Red Hat.

So, the one common thread to these three companies moving into the open source space the way they have recently seems to be in direct response to animosity with Red Hat. You'd expect Microsoft to be in the enemy camp, but it is a bit disheartening to see that vendors who should have no reason not to work with Red Hat are shifting away from Red Hat so strongly.

Which brings me back to my question: is anyone willing to deal with Red Hat?

Right now, if anyone is willing to lift a finger and help the beleaguered company, it might be IBM. IBM probably doesn't care about Oracle's plan to clone Red Hat code and support for itself IBM doesn't care about stacks. But they do care about shipping--you guessed it--shiny black boxes. Sun's expansion of its arrangement with Canonical last week is a direct threat to IBM's commercial goal. More purple boxes equals less potential customers for black boxes.

Alongside that, the Microsoft-Novell deal may threaten IBM, too. Presumably any integration deal Novell is a part of will use commoditized x86 white boxes. Again, less of a market for new IBM server sales (though IBM may be able to shoehorn their way into legacy systems' support).

Clearly, IBM would be benefited by some sort of stronger partnership with Red Hat. Perhaps even an acquisition. But even if it didn't go that far, IBM's Global Services division would be a very good fit to take over or supplement Red Hat Linux support. And goodness knows, Red Hat could really use a friend right now.

Because without friends, Red Hat's going to have a long road back to recovery.