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In Context: Sun's "Linux Strategy" -- What Is It?

Sep 28, 2000, 09:26 (13 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Wolley)

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?

by John Wolley, Linux Today

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 9/99).

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 report appeared.

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 anti-Linux." (TechWeb 9/00)

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 9/00)

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." (TechWeb 9/00)

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.' " (VNU Net 9/00)

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 9/00)

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 9/00)

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 finalized.

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 9/00)

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 9/00).

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 Partner 8/00)

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 Sun.

Related Stories -- Sun's Statements & Actions:
TechWeb: Red Hat Founder Sees No Halt To Linux Momentum [Robert Young Q&A](Sep 27, 2000)
ZDNet UK: Sun grabs Cobalt appliances [& Cobalt details next-gen Qube & Raq](Sep 22, 2000)
Upside: Sun-Cobalt deal boosts confidence in Linux sector(Sep 22, 2000)
TechWeb: Sun, Cobalt Deal Puts Linux In Spotlight(Sep 20, 2000)
CNET News.com: Sun scoops up Cobalt for $2 billion in stock(Sep 20, 2000)
Sun buys into low-end web device market [w/Cobalt purchase](Sep 20, 2000)
Sun Takes a Shine to Cobalt(Sep 19, 2000)
Techweb: Sun Needs To Warm Up To Linux, Analyst Says(Sep 06, 2000)
CNET News.com: A kinder, gentler [Sun CEO] McNealy? Don't count on it(Sep 02, 2000)
Linux Journal: Sun Starting to Shine on Linux(Oct 20, 1999)

Related Stories -- IBM Challenging Sun:
In Context: The Handwriting's On The Wall; Proprietary Unices Are Morphing into a Future Super-Linux(Sep 22, 2000)
ZDNet: Unix vendors, sans Sun, line up for Linux(Sep 01, 2000)
BW: IBM Launches $200 Million Linux Initiative In Asia Pacific, Including Linux Development Centers(Aug 31, 2000)
Smart Partner: Will Linux Group Burn Sun? - The OSDL may have a hidden agenda against Solaris(Aug 31, 2000)
CNET News.com: IBM aims to boost Unix server line against Sun(Aug 11, 2000)
LinuxPR: IBM Launches $200 Million Linux Initiative in Europe... Major Linux Development Centers(Jul 21, 2000)
SRO: Will IBM Eclipse Sun?(May 03, 2000)
IT-Analysis: Sun suffers another blow at the hands of IBM [D.H. Brown study](Mar 29, 2000)
CRN: Intel-Sun Rift Helps IBM's Monterey(Mar 25, 2000)
IT-Analysis: IBM hammers Sun with sales figures(Mar 14, 2000)
Red Herring: IBM wants to kick Sun butt(Jan 25, 2000)
LinuxWorld: IBM hopes to block out Sun with new Unix initiative(Sep 16, 1999)
Wired: IBM Set to 'Cause Sun Pain'(Sep 14, 1999)
IBM Leverages Linux in Sun Challenge(Sep 14, 1999)