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Sun draws heat over Solaris roadblock

In a half-page ad, users of Solaris for x86 lambaste Sun's decision to offer the next version of its operating system for only one configuration of the Intel architecture.

In an open letter to Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, a group of users has called for the company to make Solaris 9 available on the lion's share of computers based on the Intel architecture.

The letter, published as an ad in the San Jose Mercury News and titled "Shame on you, Scott," is the latest move in an eight-month war of words between Sun and a vocal contingent of its users. The spat kicked off in January when the software maker said it would put its next operating system, Solaris 9, on indefinite hold for the x86 architecture.

Sun released Solaris 9 for its own Sparc server architecture in May. In mid-August, Sun CEO Scott McNealy announced at LinuxWorld that a new server, the LX50, would run both the Linux operating system and Solaris 9.

But John Groenveld, an associate research engineer at Pennsylvania State's Applied Research Lab and the author of the open letter, said the move was "off the mark."

"What they are doing is they are pigeonholing the product," Groenveld said. "When Solaris for x86 was first released, it worked on a very wide variety of hardware...from laptops to big servers. Over the past three years they have shrunk the number of systems."

Sun's move to nix the lowest end of Solaris-capable systems comes as the company fights against the encroachment of the Linux operating system and Microsoft. Linux has beaten out Solaris in several visible instances, including a revelation by almost a year ago that the company had moved over to Linux from Solaris.

"This was a very, very difficult decision in very difficult times," said Bill Moffitt, Solaris product line manager for Sun Microsystems. "It doesn't bring as much return per dollar as compared to other places that we could spend that money. In times of reduced operating budget, we have to go with things that have better business cases."

Sun manufactures the hardware and develops the operating system and software for its high-end products, making them by far more profitable then software-only products such as Solaris for x86, now under price pressure because of the popularity of the open-source Linux operating system.

In January of this year, Sun announced that it would delay releasing an Intel-capable version of its newest operating system, Solaris 9. When the company did that, it broke a promise to its users, Groenveld said.

"Sun's tradition is to announce its end-of-life statements in release notes," he said, explaining that "they will have notes that tell you hardware that will not be supported in the future."

Sun first supported the x86 architecture in May 1993, when it shipped Solaris 2.1.

The community outcry over Solaris 9 caused Sun to call for meetings with developer representatives. Six people were chosen to have a closed-door meeting with Sun, and while Groenveld wasn't one of them, at least one of the six agrees with the sentiments in the open letter.

"I think this ad sums up the situation very well," Alan DuBoff, an independent computer consultant and one of the six developers that represented the community, wrote on the Solaris x86 mailing list. DuBoff is one of seven contributors listed on the Web site maintained by Groenveld. The half-page ad cost more than $9,000.

Sun contests any claim that they planned to discontinue support for Solaris 9 on x86, stressing that the company has only said that the project was being put on indefinite hold. That changed after customers reacted angrily to the announcement and Sun began meeting with the six developers, which it refers to as "the Secret Six," since they are all bound by nondisclosure agreements.

"We have and continue to engage with the community, practically on a weekly basis," Sun's Moffitt said. "We are aware, with or without the ad, of the concerns at this point."

In the Mercury News ad, Groenveld said, "Scott has failed to demonstrate that he understands his customers... Nor does he appear to recognize the user community's deep sense of betrayal." He concludes: "A challenge is being made to Scott McNealy to meet face-to-face with members of the Save Solaris Organization and the technical press in an open, public forum."

While Sun made several conciliatory gestures to representatives, DuBoff says that the community still feels Sun hasn't taken the single most-important measure.

"We still don't have a standalone product for non-Sun hardware, and that is the biggest issue for the community," he said. "Without Sun being committed to non-Sun hardware, the business community is going to be reluctant to use it."