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Sun slashes Solaris prices, opens code in marketing move

The company will move its Solaris operating system two steps in the direction of Linux, cutting its price and making it easier to scrutinize the software's blueprints.

Sun Microsystems will move its Solaris operating system two steps in the direction of Linux, cutting its price and making it easier to scrutinize the software's blueprints, the company will announce tomorrow.

The expected moves, designed to increase Solaris' appeal, are the Palo Alto, Calif., company's latest efforts to keep Linux and Microsoft from making inroads on Sun's strong position in the Internet market.

Solaris 7 costs about $695 for commercial use, but the upcoming Solaris 8 will be free--except for a $75 fee to cover the cost of several bundled software applications, according to Sun vice president of Solaris Anil Gadre. In addition, users will be able to modify the innards of Solaris without permission from Sun, though there will be restrictions on commercial products using such modified software.

Sun derives most of its revenue from hardware, but even cut-rate Solaris will make Sun money through sales of services, Gadre said. Telephone-based technical support for desktop use will cost $199 a year, and $449 for use on a low-end server, he said. The model of selling services for free software has been pioneered by the Linux and open-source movements, which let anyone see and modify the original programming instructions.

Linux, which is available for free with fewer restrictions than Solaris, is encroaching on the low end of Sun's dominion, while Microsoft's new Windows 2000 is expected to become a more serious competitor than its predecessor, Windows NT. When NT first emerged, it was recognized as less capable than the brawny Unix OS, but good enough for many common tasks and considerably cheaper. However, Microsoft hasn't been as successful as Sun in associating its name with the booming business of powering corporate adoption of the Internet, analysts say.

The changes in Solaris distribution are designed to appeal to "server appliance" companies, which build special-purpose servers that don't have the all-around abilities of the type of servers typically sold by Sun. Most server appliances are based on Intel hardware, though some aren't, such as Network Appliance's high-speed machines with the Compaq Alpha chip. In addition, Linux is a common operating system for server appliances.

"I think we have not been as aggressive in chasing these people. We probably should have been doing things like this earlier with these people," Gadre acknowledged.

But Sun hardware and software should be more popular now, and the standards for server appliances are rising. "Better late than never. This is very early in the game," he said.

"By liberalizing the license fee, we believe we're going to get access to a lot of appliance makers," he added.

Server appliance companies need to be able to look at an operating system's source code, Gadre said, something that now will be easier. Moreover, server appliance makers "see the value in the ability to have a stable set of code drops that come their way, and that someone continues to further the state of the art...rather than having to do it themselves," Gadre said.

Solaris 8, in beta testing now and due to ship at the end of February, contains several new features, including the ability to fix operating system problems without shutting the computer down and underpinnings that eventually will allow "clusters" of as many as eight Sun servers to work together, increasing performance and taking over in case one fails.

Microsoft is aiming to catch up to Sun in running heavy-duty servers. Sun's approach--very powerful centralized servers--is less flexible than Microsoft's, said Chris Ray, Windows 2000 product manager.

"Sun's approach is to focus on large, single-system solutions with multiple processors, but these systems are very expensive, not as flexible, and set customers up for single points of failure," Ray said.

Microsoft's approach toward running on big systems is two-pronged, a combination of multiprocessor systems and sharing work among a cluster of servers, he said. The new Windows 2000 Advanced Server edition works on eight-processor systems, the Datacenter edition due in a few months will support 32 processors, and Microsoft load-balancing software can divvy up jobs among as many as 32 of either type of machine, Ray said.

Included in the $75 bundle will be several e-commerce software packages from the Sun-Netscape Alliance, Gadre said. Also bundled will be the free Sendmail email software and Apache Web server software, as well as a copy of Oracle 8i database that may be used only for research and development purposes.

In addition, Solaris 8 will include directory software--a module that makes it easier for administrators to keep track of the numerous computers, printers, servers and other hardware attached to a network. Microsoft is working on this area through its Active Directory software, and Novell believes its Novell Directory Services (NDS) software will be the staple of its future revenue. Novell is working with Linux seller Caldera Systems to bring NDS to Linux.

Though Solaris will be cheaper for end users, companies selling products using Solaris still will have to pay Sun, Gadre said. In addition, Solaris will still cost for computers with more than eight processors.

Gadre acknowledged that Linux made it clear Sun needed to re-evaluate how it dealt with customers. The days when a company "held certain kinds of code very close to the vest" are over, he said. "You've got to make your source more widely available."

Sun won't release the Solaris source code under the Sun Community Source License, which has come under attack by open-source advocates who chafe at the control Sun retains through that license. It also won't be released under the Gnu General Public License, under which Linux is released.

However, Gadre hinted that Sun could release some networking software under the GPL next week at the Linux Expo. Sun will release software under a "full range" of licenses ranging from completely open to completely controlled, he said.