Sun Backtracks on Branded Linux

Red Hat, UnitedLinux to benefit

It looks as if Sun Microsystems Inc. will abandon its plans to develop its own Linux distribution, plans it announced back in August 2002. Instead, sources say, Sun will deliver components of its Project Orion initiative for Linux distributions from third-party vendors.

In February, Sun unveiled Project Orion—an initiative that aggregates all its disparate software offerings into a single stack. The Unix giant says Project Orion will make its software easier to manage during different phases of deployment. Key to Orion will be a subscription-based licensing plan in which Sun will introduce quarterly updates.

At the time of the Project Orion launch, Sun’s executive vice president of software, Jonathan Schwartz, confirmed that Sun would extend Project Orion to Linux, in addition to its bread and butter Solaris operating system.

Sun has had an often-adversarial relationship with Linux and has consistently groped for an effective strategy to position the open source operating system against its Solaris environment. To that end, the company last August announced its own Linux distribution, based on a core distribution from Red Hat, for its new LX50 Intel-based servers. At the time, Sun proposed to bundle additional features with the Red Hat operating system, including support for version 1.4 of Java 2 Standard Edition, its Sun Grid Engine grid computing software, and the open source mySQL database.

Last week, Sun confirmed that it will abandon its own version of Linux and will instead deliver Project Orion for several Linux distributions. Although it hasn’t yet indicated which Linux vendors it will support, sources say Sun could deliver Project Orion for as many as four different distributions.

Sun VP of operating platforms John Loiacono acknowledges that his company is “currently in discussions with the top Linux vendors” and confirms that Sun “plans on licensing Linux distributions from some of these companies by the end of the calendar year.” Loiacono declined to specify which Linux vendors Sun was talking with, however.

Where does that leave customers that have purchased systems outfitted with Sun’s version of Linux? According to Loiacono, “Sun will continue to support its customized version of Sun Linux and ensure that our customers have full support from Sun" until it notches agreements with other Linux vendors.

Red Hat, UnitedLinux Strengthened

In this respect, Sun’s announcement appears to strengthen the hands of two Linux vendors, in particular—Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat Inc. and German Linux stalwart SuSE Linux AG, which produces Enterprise Server 8.1.

SuSE enjoys considerable credibility in the high-end Unix space. Enterprise Server is the preferred Linux distribution for IBM Corp.’s zSeries mainframes and pSeries Unix systems, after all, and is also the core Linux distribution on which version 1.0 of UnitedLinux is based.

UnitedLinux was developed by a consortium of Linux vendors—Caldera International Inc., Connectiva S.A., SuSE, and TurboLinux Inc.—to compete against Red Hat for enterprise market share. Although UnitedLinux is based on SuSE’s Enterprise Server, all four companies sell applications and services based upon the core UnitedLinux operating system and plan to share royalties associated with sales of UnitedLinux.

UnitedLinux enjoys support from a variety of industry players, including Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. IBM, for example, has pledged to support UnitedLinux on its eServer platforms.

Red Hat has also sought to garner broad industry support. IBM signed an agreement ( with Red Hat in September to jointly develop and market enterprise Linux solutions.

HP has also partnered with Red Hat. Last week, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company signed a deal with Red Hat in which it will become a global services provider for Red Hat’s enterprise Linux software line (which includes Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS, Enterprise Linux ES, and Enterprise Linux WS).

Because its own Linux distribution is based on Red Hat, odds are that Sun will deliver Project Orion technologies for Red Hat's enterprise Linux operating systems. But because Sun’s foremost competitors also support UnitedLinux, chances are that Sun will also deliver a version of Project Orion that supports it as well.

If, as expected, Sun delivers Project Orion for Red Hat and UnitedLinux, both distributions will enjoy extensive support—in the form of joint or custom development efforts, marketing initiatives, or extensive services offerings—among the three largest Unix vendors.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.