The interesting thing about Sun's plan to purchase Cobalt
Networks is how little Sun has had to said about Linux. Sun
undoubtedly has a "Linux strategy" that goes way beyond anything
they're saying publicly -- care to make an educated guess as to
what it is?
While just about every other hardware vendor has been steadily
extending their Linux support over the past two years, Sun
Microsystems has been somewhat schizoid in their official
pronouncements about Linux. Besides ticking off many in the Linux
community, this has allowed IBM to "leverage Linux" in a major
market thrust against Sun (LT
It's not at all clear that lack of Linux support has had a
negative impact on Sun's bottom line thus far. A March
report from IDC (IT-Analysis
3/00) indicated that IBM's RS/6000 thrust was seriously eroding
Sun's market share. But this report credited sales of the high-end
S80, which did not (at that time anyway) support Linux.
Six months later a Giga Information Group report (TechWeb
9/00), titled "Linux -- The Dark Side of Sun," stated that
"...the open-source operating system on Intel Corp. chips is
eroding sales of low-end and midrange Sun servers running Solaris,
Sun's Unix-based operating system." The Giga analyst concluded:
"Sun... which reported record earnings last quarter and is
currently riding high on the Internet wave, would hurt itself
financially in the long-term by failing to recognize Linux as a
threat and not supporting the operating system in Sun servers."
However, each quarter when Sun reports earnings, there's been no
mention thus far in the financial press of Linux having any adverse
impact. It was undoubtedly just a coincidence that Sun announced
plans to purchase Cobalt Networks just a few days after the Giga
What's Sun Saying Now?
So what has Sun said about Linux in conjunction with the Cobalt
announcement and in the days since? Well, there's still no sign of
an official, coherent Linux strategy, but what have Sun execs said
about Linux lately?
Just days before the Cobalt purchase announcement,
CNET (9/00) reported: "Sun executives say they aren't afraid of
Michael Dell or the free Linux software. To the contrary, they
claim to be thrilled by Linux's popularity because it has revived
interest in Unix overall, hurting no one but Microsoft."
In Sun's announcement of the Cobalt buy: "'The really odd thing
about this is they don't mention Linux once [in the press release
announcing the deal],' said Al Gillen, research manager for systems
software at IDC, Framingham, Mass." When asked about Linux, Sun COO
Ed Zander "...said the company did not walk into the deal 'with
Linux stamped on our foreheads,' but insisted Sun is not
When asked about the AMD chips and Linux OS that Sun was
acquiring with the Cobalt products, Sun's senior VP of corporate
strategy and planning, Jonathan Schwartz, didn't mince his words: "
'We like AMD. The enemy of our enemy is our friend,' Jonathan
Schwartz, Sun's senior vice president of corporate strategy and
planning, said in an interview today. However, in the long term,
Sun expects to move Cobalt's products over to Sun's UltraSparc CPUs
and its Solaris operating system, Schwartz said." (CNET
What Are Others Saying?
Eric Raymond thinks the Cobalt purchase is a harbinger of a covert
Sun plan to embrace Linux in a major way: "There are skeptics in
the open source world who think Linux is Sun's true game plan.
'This is just another step in the stealth Linuxization of Sun,'
said Eric S. Raymond, president of The Open Source Initiative."
More or less echoing Raymond's suspicions: "Charles King, senior
analyst at Zona Research, said: 'While this will enable Sun to
create an immediate presence in the low-cost server market [made up
of] small and medium size businesses and small-time web hosts, it
also allows Sun to easily and logically embrace what others might
interpret as a less than subtle shift in corporate philosophy.' "
Another analyst on Sun's purchase of Cobalt: " 'It's a
endorsement for the open source space,' says Keith Bachman, an open
source analyst for ABN AMRO. 'Coming from Sun, I think that's
particularly interesting.' " (Upside
But Robert Young, Red Hat CEO, thinks that buying Cobalt was
just the best way for Sun to get quick entry into the low-end
server market, that its Linux connection didn't even enter into
Sun's strategy: "That [Sun's acquisition of Cobalt] was a small
business server hardware play they were focused on. The fact that
Cobalt ran on Linux, primarily Red Hat Linux, is almost incidental
to Sun's reasoning." (TechWeb
What Can We Infer About Sun's Next Moves?
The next upgrades of Cobalt's products are already well along --
the next Qube is due out later this year and the next Raq "early
next year" (ZDNet
UK 9/00). Even if Sun wanted to, it's probably already too late
to make any changes in these products. Sun will certainly
provide an "upgrade path" from the Cobalt appliances to Sun's
traditional server hardware running Solaris, and that is likely to
be in place just as soon as the Cobalt acquisition is
Sometime next year Sun may offer an optional
configurations of the Cobalt Qube and Raq that substitute Sun's
chips and Solaris, but only if it's feasible to do this without
significantly increasing the cost or complexity of the Cobalt
products. "[VP/analyst Daryl] Plummer of Gartner Group additionally
forecasts that Sun will use the acquisition as a launch pad into
the Linux game. 'It won't happen right away,' he said. 'But I would
expect them to eventually bring Solaris into the mix.' " (InternetNews
What About the Longer Term?
None of the major hardware vendors are tipping their hands as to
how far they plan to go, or how fast, in abandoning their
proprietary Unices in favor of a future "Linux on steroids,"
although the handwriting is on the wall" (LT
Right now Sun can afford to treat Linux as a second tier OS, but
that state of affairs seems unlikely to last too much longer. IBM
is putting its considerable corporate clout behind accelerating the
development of Linux. Besides turning over to the kernel team
important pieces of its proprietary AIX code (LT
9/00), IBM is committing major resources to catalyze high-end
Linux development through a series of "Linux development centers"
in Europe (PR
8/00) Asia-Pacific (PR
8/00). And at least one source sees the open source development
lab (OSDL) thrust by IBM, HP, Intel, and NEC USA as possibly having
a "hidden agenda" of "eclipsing" Solaris. (Smart
Sun will hang onto Solaris as its preferred OS for as long as it
pays -- that is, as long as they can sell their customers on the
idea that the Solaris/UltraSparc combination provides a
price/perfomance value that is worth paying a premium for. As soon
as Linux begins to be competitive with Solaris on Sun's
hardware, I would expect Sun to begin to offer an "overlay" to the
Linux kernel that optimizes its performance on Sun hardware.
Seeing that day coming, I would expect Sun to quietly begin
participating in Linux kernel development -- so that their job of
creating a hardware-specific overlay is kept is simple as possible
and the combined kernel and overlay get the maximum performance out
of the hardware.
I think Eric Raymond is right -- Sun's purchase of Cobalt will
turn out to be an important step in the "stealth Linuxization" of
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