Sun Issues Mixed Message on Linux

Sun may be on a comeback, but its inability to articulate a Linux vision that’s all things to all people could continue to dog it

Sun Microsystems Inc. brought it all back home last week, taking its pitch directly to blue-chip Wall Street firms, a customer base with which Sun has had one of its longest and most fruitful relationships.

But Sun’s gambit was, to some extent, overshadowed by its inability, once again, to articulate a Linux strategy that is all things to all people.

Sun has long been cozy with blue-chip firms, which continue to rely on Sun’s technology even as its prestige and influence have diminished in recent years. Officials claim, for example, that 70 percent of firms listed on the NASDAQ depend on Sun technology.

In a media event last Tuesday, Sun President and COO Jonathan Schwartz ate his fair share of crow as he addressed a group of financial analysts and investment bankers gathered in what he called the “swamp from which we spawned”—i.e., Wall Street.

Schwartz acknowledged, for example, that Sun hadn’t been as responsive as it should have been to the needs of its customers, ignoring, for example, repeated requests for operating system and application portability, x86 support, and more cordial relations with many of its arch-competitors. “Your rhetoric is of a company that views itself as an island. You’ve been isolated, and our businesses are fundamentally not isolated,” he said customers told him.

But the real impetus of Sun’s Wall Street media event was Linux, as the Unix giant sought to blunt—or get a handle on—the momentum of the open source operating environment into its bread-and-butter accounts. Schwartz, for his part, didn’t try to sugarcoat his message: “We are absolutely targeting Red Hat specifically,” he said during the launch event, which featured benchmark comparisons between Sun’s Solaris operating environment (running on both Sparc and x86) and Red Hat Linux.

At the same time, Schwartz and other officials spent some time burnishing Sun’s open-source credentials, pointing out, for example, that the company’s first workstation, the A100, was built with off-the-shelf parts and ran an open-source operating system (BSD, according to Schwartz). Since then, Sun has donated its StarOffice productivity suite to the open source community; ported Solaris to the x86 architecture; and—thanks to a deal with Red Hat, of all vendors—also resells Linux on its x86-based servers.

During last week’s event, Schwartz performed a precarious balancing act, attacking one Linux vendor by name (Red Hat) and attempting to pigeonhole Linux vis-à-vis Solaris, even as he trumpeted Sun’s own support for (and contributions to) open-source software. To that end, Schwartz touted Sun’s support for several distributions of Linux—Red Hat, Novell Inc.’s SuSE, and Debian—along with Microsoft’s Windows. What’s more, Sun announced a new 24-by-7 support service for Linux.

Even so, Schwartz made it clear Sun still considers Solaris its crown jewel. For example, he compared Linux to Microsoft’s own Windows NT development initiative—a near-unpardonable offense in open source-dom. Schwartz suggested that the rush to embrace Linux reprises a similar phenomenon that attended Microsoft’s “Chicago” Windows NT development effort.

He also sought to attack Linux on what’s purported to be its strongest issue—price. “Linux isn’t so free anymore. It’s about a thousand bucks per CPU,” he argued, claiming that Sun licenses Solaris on x86 hardware for $700 a CPU. And because Solaris 10 is able to run applications written for the Red Hat, SuSE, and Debian distributions of Linux, Schwartz said, there’s ample incentive for customers to make such a move. “[W]e moved [one customer’s] entire Linux farm on to Solaris, and we can still run their Linux applications,” he claimed.

To help drive this point home, Schwartz announced a significant discount (50 percent) on Solaris right-to-use licenses for customers who upgrade to that platform from Linux. In addition, Sun unveiled a trade-in program that gives customers between $560 and $1,250 when they swap out their Intel Xeon-based servers for Sun’s new SunFire systems running AMD’s 64-bit Opteron processor.

Sun’s big deliverable will ship next month, when the company’s Solaris 10 operating environment is expected to become generally available. But the Unix giant also touted a pair of hardware-related product announcements at last week’s event: the Sun Fire V490 (a four-way system) and V890 (an eight-way). Both systems are powered by Sun’s dual-core UltraSPARC IV chip.

Not everyone was completely won over by Sun’s presentation, of course. Long-time industry-watcher Charles King (formerly of the Sageza Group) believes that even though Sun is executing much better under Schwartz’s steady hand—“their message has gotten a lot more coherent, they’ve been moving forward a lot more comprehensively”—the company’s rhetoric is still at odds with its goals.

“If you make the argument on one side that you’re going to fully support Linux and be a leader in open-source development, and then come back the following week and say, ‘We’re going to do that, but Solaris is going to provide better performance and be cheaper than Linux across the board,’ that’s an area where the messaging is still a little complicated, and is not getting across as effectively as it might,” he argues.

Part of Sun’s problem, says King, is that it is incredibly reluctant to let go of its bread-and-butter Solaris operating environment. “Sun is more deeply wedded to a specific operating system than really any other systems vendor is. Sun’s go-to-market argument has always been that the combination of Sparc/Solaris provided optimum performance, and optimum price performance, up and down the line,” he notes. “I think it’s really been drilled into their personality. They clearly don’t have as coherent a Linux strategy as IBM or HP.”

Sun partner Red Hat, which found itself squarely in Sun’s cross-hairs, struck back, arguing that Sun’s refusal to donate Java to the open-source community puts the lie to its claim of open-source friendliness. “[Y]ou say that you love the open-source community, but how much? If you love the open-source community, you'd open-source Java. If you won't open-source Java, it means you don't love us, or at least you don't trust us. Why, then, should we trust you?” demanded Michael Tiemann, vice-president of open-source affairs for Red Hat, in a post to his blog (

About the Author

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