The move marks a slight warming in Sun's attitude toward Linux. Sun has credited Linux with helping to undermine Microsoft's dominance, but it hasn't been offering Linux-certified systems the way Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer and other competitors have. Red Hat and others have offered a version of Linux that runs on Sun's UltraSparc chips for years.
Although customers can now order Red Hat Linux 6.1 Deluxe Sparc directly from the Sun Store, Sun does not offer Linux as a preinstall option, favoring its Solaris flavor of Unix instead. Sun also defers on customer support, which Red Hat provides.
Linux is a Unix-like operating system collectively developed by Linus Torvalds and countless other programmers. While popular in servers, some companies believe Linux will compete in the desktop computers where Microsoft Windows currently prevails.
Sun's move doesn't mean the company is concerned Linux will overtake Solaris, said analysts.
"This move makes it easier for customers to work with Sun and Sun platforms," said Technology Business Research analyst Jim Garden, who sees the decision as positive. "It also shows Sun's confidence. They're not scared of Linux. It's a complementary cousin and not a foe."
Sun started working with the Linux community about a year ago to port the Unix variant to the UltraSparc processor. The project, code-named UltraPenguin, got limited Sun support, with loaner machines and some engineering assistance. But Sun did not dedicate any full-time engineers to UltraPenguin, mainly limiting its support to distributors looking to offer Linux alongside Solaris in a "dual-boot" configuration. All Sun's initial engineering support focused on both operating systems running on one UtraSparc system.
Distributors of Sun computers started offering Linux as an option after the beginning of this year, but companies such as EIS Computers that build their own UltraSparc-based computers have been offering Linux for longer. For its part, Sun added a Linux area to its Web site with Linux distributors' links.
Sun may also be positioning itself to stave off the advances of Dell Computer, which in the third quarter captured the top spot in Windows NT workstations, according to International Data Corp. (IDC).
Dell, with 37 percent U.S. and 27 percent worldwide PC workstation market share, took the crown from Hewlett-Packard less than two years after entering the workstation market. While Sun commands a huge lead in the Unix workstation market, 56 percent worldwide market share vs. 15 percent for second-place HP, it is a bit player in Linux workstations, according to IDC.
That market is still largely open, but it is an area Dell may be better positioned to exploit than Sun. Sun's entry-level Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 workstations, also known as Darwin, account for the majority of its workstation sales, according to IDC. Those systems, on price and performance, compete squarely against Windows NT workstations.
If Dell can successfully leverage Linux alongside Windows NT, it can steal sales from Sun, said analysts. Dell, for example, in the third quarter shipped more workstations in the United States than did Sun, according to IDC.
Growth is on the side of PC workstations, said IDC, up 33 percent in the third quarter vs. 4 percent for Unix workstations, something that could benefit any PC maker looking to add Linux to the mix.
Dell in February started offering Linux on its PC workstations, now accounting for about 5 percent of sales. Unlike Sun, Dell offers Linux as a preinstall option.