Analysis: Behind Sun’s Embrace of Windows

Last week, Microsoft and Sun announced the unthinkable: Sun agreed to become a Windows Server OEM.

Last week, Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. announced the unthinkable: Sun agreed to become a Windows Server OEM.

Sun’s action is not simply an empty gesture: the Unix giant—and once bitter Microsoft foe—pledged to collaborate with Microsoft to facilitate the deployment of Windows Server on Sun’s x64 systems.

Officials position the move as an expansion of Sun’s existing alliance with Microsoft, which the two companies announced over three years ago. In this case, Sun officials say, the deal helps extend Sun’s platform coverage and enhances Sun’s virtualization play.

"Sun is now a single source for today’s leading operating systems," said Sun executive vice-president John Fowler, in a statement. "Customers can now take advantage of the virtualization benefits of Windows and Solaris on Sun’s energy-efficient x64 systems."

The accord is about much more than platform coverage, industry watchers say. To a degree, says Jonathan Eunice, principal IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata, it’s also a reflection of a changing marketplace—and of a milieu in which customers have a lot more clout.

"Sun and Microsoft were historically famed for looking inward, to their own solution sets and standards, for all things IT," Eunice writes. "[Customers] will no longer let vendors ‘go it alone.’ The network connects all, pulling everything together. In our networked, integrationist age, everything must work together. Just about every solution must cooperate with every other—even if they compete."

Eunice sees the agreement as integral with Sun’s Intel rapprochement earlier this year (see http://esj.com/Case_Study/article.aspx?EditorialsID=2425). That accord was unprecedented—and market-changing—too. To recap: in January, Sun and Intel announced a "strategic alliance" spanning the former’s Solaris, Java, and NetBeans software and the latter’s Xeon microprocessors. Intel agreed to endorse Solaris while Sun committed to deliver Xeon-based servers and workstations. "This is a market-changing event," Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said at the time. "This totally changes the perspective that a customer has on how they can do business with Sun and similarly how they can do business with Intel." What’s more, Schwartz asserted, Sun was as open to Solaris and Linux (which the Unix giant had only grudgingly accommodated) as it was to Windows: "Our servers at this point … are not just about running Solaris, they’re about running Windows, they’re about running Linux, they’re about running Red Hat."

In a sense, Eunice says, Sun’s embrace of Intel was a necessary first step—an important indication, he argues, of maturation. After all, Sun’s largest competitors—Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and IBM Corp.—both market Windows-based servers in addition to their RISC/Unix, Linux, and proprietary system offerings.

"That opening up to the once-dreaded x86-based ‘commodity’ world proved successful, yielding strong growth rates. Adding Intel to the mix and offering up its network acceleration IP earlier was a sign of maturation," he comments. Adds Eunice: "While it may still prefer Solaris or its own … SPARC designs, Sun is putting aside its earlier insularity and thereby increasingly putting itself on the same footing as Dell, HP, and IBM."

The Virtualization Connection

There’s also a virtualization angle to the agreement between Sun and Microsoft: Redmond pledged to fully support Solaris under its existing Virtual Server technology and in its forthcoming Windows Server 2008, which will boast an improved virtualization implementation (dubbed "Viridian").

Ditto for Sun, which has promised to support Windows in a future iteration of its Xen hypervisor. In this respect, Eunice argues, last week’s Sun-Microsoft pact might be an even more noteworthy development than the two companies’ 2004 farewell to arms: "While the Sun-Microsoft interoperability confab of a few years back … has proceeded at a predictably mossy pace, there’s nothing like putting products in close proximity to force developers to take interoperability seriously."

If last week’s deal helps Sun accomplish two important objectives—namely, shoring up its cross-platform credentials and reassuring customers that it isn’t the same old bigoted Unix giant of old—it achieves a very different purpose for Microsoft, which, in the virtualization arena, has lagged behind x86 and Win32/64 competitor VMWare Inc.

"Microsoft’s virtualization strategy has been slow to play out, especially compared to the juggernaut that is VMware. And Microsoft has tended to be the most insular and inward-looking [virtualization player]—an increasingly challenging proposition in a heterogeneous world," Eunice notes." So accommodating Solaris, much as it’s recently done for Linux—this can only be counted as a sign of a broader and more inclusive worldview."

Moreover, Microsoft, too, appears to be paying more than just lip service to the importance of cross-platform breadth—in the virtualization space, at least. It has already said that its SCVMM virtualization management tool will support non-Microsoft VMs, Eunice points out. Redmond is also playing "fairly nicely" with partner and competitor Citrix Systems Inc.

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