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Should Sun buy Novell?

Sun needs a better foundation for its open-source story: Novell's Suse Linux could be it.

Sun Microsystems has adopted an ambitious business model that depends upon commodity open-source downloads serving as loss leaders and gateways for hardware and services revenue. According to a report in The Register, however, profits have been hard to come by for Sun, which may have been what scuttled its merger with IBM.

Using Red Hat as a foil, The Register suggests that the way forward for Sun, which has seen its proprietary businesses commoditized, may be to commoditize itself further:

The open source distribution model cannot generate the kind of profits that Sun's shareholders became accustomed to in the dot-com boom, where every deal started out with a Sparc/Solaris server and moved on to Oracle databases....

I can't imagine how Sun's software business--particularly if customers abandon Sparc platforms or Sun has to basically give Solaris support away for free to cover the costs of Sparc chip and server development--can do any better than Red Hat has done on commodity x64 iron. And in the end, the decline in Sparc prices cuts Sun's profits, no matter how it dices and slices the categories and numbers in its presentations, just as the same economic pressures from x64 iron on the one hand and Linux and Windows on the other have done for all proprietary and RISC/Unix vendors.

There is no escaping the pinchers, other that to use the tool yourself. And that means Solaris and x64 are likely Sun's future--and Sparc, for all its great engineering, is probably not.

Let's take this one step further. Maybe it's time to move past Solaris entirely, as the Linux Foundation's Jim Zemlin has argued, and focus Sun's impressive engineering abilities on Linux. Sun could do this by creating its own Linux distribution.

Or it could buy Novell.

Novell has recently seen its Linux business slide, but on balance Suse Linux has been a buoyant force for Novell over the past few years. While I'm not sure Sun can afford to spend much more money to give away free software, I believe the rest of Sun's offerings (software, hardware, and services) will look much more palatable to IT buyers if the conversation starts with Linux, rather than Solaris.

IDC predicts that Linux will grow 21 percent year over year in 2009. I'm guessing Solaris isn't seeing that kind of growth this year...or any time in the future.

Buying Novell would give Sun immediate access to a vibrant partner ecosystem, which is critical: ISVs and IHVs don't want to have to certify for a new Linux distribution.

Again, I know there are plenty of reasons for Sun to not buy Novell, but Suse Linux is an excellent reason why it should double-down on its open-source strategy and fully embrace the operating system to beat in the 21st century:


Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.