Sun's next goal: A Linux ecosystem

A top exec says Sun is "dead serious" about an open-source push for its Sparc chips. Critics say it's trying to save an endangered species.

Sun Microsystems' ambitions have grown another size larger.

The server and software company launched its servers based on its own UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" chips in December, a major part of a drive to restore its lost luster and financial strength.

But alongside the hardware launch came a more quiet software push: an attempt to make the Linux and BSD Unix open-source operating systems a serious option for buyers of Sparc-based computers. To promote the technology combination, Sun is trying to coax an accompanying software business into existence.

Sun has had some experience building such software "ecosystems." For example, it's in the process of resurrecting a version of its own Solaris operating system for computers with x86 processors such as Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. But Sun, which already has several irons in the fire, faces formidable challenges in the Linux and BSD effort.

"The time for Linux on Sparc as any kind of major market phenomenon has come and gone--over five years ago now, maybe longer," Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said. "It just serves to split the available development resources."

Through projects such as UltraLinux and Aurora Linux, Linux and some BSD variants can already run on Sparc processors. But the products are not commercially relevant for most potential customers. The two major Linux sellers have already pulled back--Red Hat dropped its Sparc support in 2000, and Novell Suse's last supported version was released in 2002.

Still, Sun has no shortage of gumption. "Linux on Sparc is dead serious," President Jonathan Schwartz said in an e-mail interview. "I'm personally talking to leaders in the community. BSD, too."

The effort is part of Sun's attempt to restore its relevance and financial fortunes by shaking its image as a proprietary technology company. That legacy from the '90s hurt the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company when it missed out on two major growth trends that spanned the rest of the server industry: machines built with x86 processors such as Opteron and Intel's Xeon, and the open-source Linux operating system.

Now, one 180-degree turn later, Sun is making its Solaris an open-source project and plans to do the same with its UltraSparc processor. "To be successful, Solaris has to go beyond Sparc. But also to be successful, Sparc has to go beyond Solaris," said David Yen, who as executive vice president of Sun's Sparc server group is trying to make the chip family "the new industry standard."

A "daunting task"
To make Linux or BSD on Sparc a real option, Sun must hook in outside open-source programmers. More challenging, it must also convince major software companies such as Oracle that there's enough customer interest to make it worth their while supporting the operating system-chip combination.

One company that knows just how hard it is to build new software ecosystems around a particular chip-operating system combination is IBM. Big Blue hired dozens of programmers to make Linux usable on computers using the company's Power processors--work that extended to IBM's software group as well.

"Whether Sun is the lead, or a supporter, is less relevant than answering the question 'Is there customer interest?'"
President Jonathan Schwartz, Sun Microsystems

IBM labels its Linux on Power effort a success, as it attracted some customers and partnerships with several major software companies after years of work. However, it does also have a keen appreciation of the difficulties involved.

"If (software companies) stand to gain additional business, and if customers are feeling a pain that the solution addresses, then the ecosystem occurs naturally," said Karl Freund, vice president of IBM's pSeries Unix systems. "If the market doesn't really want the stack, it could cost about $50 million to $100 million a year."

More skeptics are at Hewlett-Packard, another major Sun rival that has learned from its own ecosystem-building experiences. Faced with difficulties getting Intel's Sparc rival, Itanium, to catch on, HP is underwriting a large portion of a five-year, $10 billion effort to popularize the chip family.

"They're late, they don't have a particular price-performance advantage or any particular reason the Linux market would move there," Don Jenkins, vice president of marketing for HP's Business Critical Server group, said of Sun's move. "It strikes me as a pretty daunting task."

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