Potentially, Sun's Solaris, a version of Unix, will become a more direct competitor to Microsoft's Windows NT operating system because Solaris will likely be more readily available on Intel servers. At the same time, Intel servers running Solaris should become more prevalent, and thus represent increased competition to Sun's own servers, which are based on its Sparc chip.
"By bringing Solaris to Intel, it provides a powerful alternative to NT," said Janpieter Scheerder, president of SunSoft, Sun's software division.
Under the agreement, Intel will support Sun's effort in porting the Solaris operating system to Intel's 64-bit "Merced" processor technology, due in 1999. Sun said that a version of Solaris for Merced will be available commensurate with the release of Merced. Additionally, Sun will create a "Solaris on Intel" center to help independent software vendors optimize their 32-bit and 64-bit Solaris applications to Merced. Intel will provide technical help.
The two companies will also cooperate on other 32-bit and 64-bit server platform initiatives.
"The addition of Solaris as a strategic operating environment supporting Merced will be a strong benefit," said John Miner, vice president and general manager of Intel's Enterprise Server Group.
Miner said that the two companies have also signed a patent cross-license agreement.
The agreement involves royalty-free patent cross-licensing covering microprocessors, systems, and software technologies, according to the two companies. This allows the "companies to continue their histories of developing innovative technologies with minimum risk of infringing each others' patents," according to a prepared statement.
Merced, the main focal point of the agreement, is a powerful chip architecture slated to take Intel into the next century. Intel has been collaborating with Hewlett-Packard on the design of the chip, which is expected to run a future version of Microsoft's Windows operating system as well as versions of the Unix operating system.
Sun ported Solaris to the Intel platform in 1993. However, Santa Cruz Organization's version has generally been the leading Unix platform for Intel machines.
One of the big questions coming out of the announcement is what will happen to the Sparc processor. Sun uses its own 64-bit Sparc processors in workstations and servers but the chip has never had the broad base of support which Intel enjoys with its processors.
Sun said that it will continue to support the Sparc architecture in the announcement and pointed to a recent alliance with NCR to underscore its commitment. NCR, however, concentrates on making Intel-based servers that run Solaris. Intel produces far more chips than Sun and, historically, has been able to use this ability to undercut competitors on processor price. If the math holds up, Intel-based Solaris servers will cost less than Sparc-based servers.
Intel is already cooperating with a number of major PC manufacturers on Merced-based server and workstation computers, including Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer, Sequent Computer, Siemens-Nixdorf, Unisys, and NCR. Microsoft is also working with the chipmaker.
Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.