Sun to simplify its software

At its annual analyst conference, the server company talks up the "Orion" project, an effort to make its software simpler to install, run and pay for.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems will build its entire collection of software into a single, gigantic version of its Solaris operating system and release updates once a quarter, Sun's top software executive said Tuesday.

The project, called Orion, is Sun's attempt to make its software simpler to install, run and pay for, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's executive vice president for software, at the company's annual analyst conference here.

"Project Orion is a total redefinition of our software. All will be delivered on a quarterly release train. All will be part of a single product called Solaris," Schwartz said. Strictly speaking, however, it won't be just Solaris, because Sun will release the Orion components for Linux at the same time.

And though Orion is a response to Microsoft's broad collection of software, the "uber-operating system" is designed to make Sun compete better against its chief rivals, IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

"We believe Orion will drive a lot more revenue," Schwartz said. "And not only revenue for software. It will make us more effective as a systems company."

Although Sun will keep current pricing models, a key part of Orion will be a simpler pricing setup for customers who want to use it, Schwartz said.

"The licensing nightmare is worsening. You buy directories by the entry, messaging systems by the mailbox, application servers by the CPU, file systems by the terabyte, and that doesn't make any sense," Schwartz said.

Orion initially will include the Sun Open Network Environment (Sun ONE) collection of server programs, including directory software for handling username-password combinations and authentication; application server software for running Java programs on servers; portal software for presenting information tailored for individuals; messaging software for handling e-mail and sending instant messages; and provisioning software for controlling what programs run on what computers in a data center. Eventually, Orion will expand to include other products, including Sun's storage management offerings.

Sun, a company battered by the recession and collapse of corporate computer spending since the late 1990s, is trying to increase its software revenue while not giving the impression that its software business stands apart from its hardware. More than half the company's research and development budget goes to software, with 4,500 employees working to improve the products.

Nevertheless, Sun's software business has had hard times. For example, although the company won over most of the industry with Java, which lets programs run more easily on many different types of computers, IBM and BEA Systems lead the market for the application server software that runs those Java programs. Some projects, such as Jini, flopped.

And Sun lagged IBM and Microsoft in embracing Web services, a still-crystallizing set of standards that governs how programs run in concert across numerous computers scattered across the Internet.

Java and Web services are complementary, Schwartz said, and Web services standards will be built into Orion.

Java is impressive, but it's not great for all tasks, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. While Java is good for heavyweight corporate Internet operations, Microsoft has an edge for simpler tasks.

"Microsoft will get you that active Web page running fast," Eunice said.

Sun's strategy
Schwartz also said Sun is working to build more usefulness into Solaris. A beefed-up version of the company's "containers" strategy, code-named Kevlar, will move Sun in the direction IBM and HP have taken in trying to run multiple operating systems simultaneously on the same computer.

Sun's current higher-end machines can run independent copies of Solaris on four-processor modules, but the company plans to break down the close tie between chips and operating systems, Schwartz said. That move will let Sun bring the technology to lower-end servers, not just mammoth machines with numerous processors, he said.

It's an approach that has been taken by IBM, which has had the capability for years on its mainframe systems.

Sun's current approach permits many instances of Solaris on many processors and one instance of Solaris on many processors. In the future, that ability will expand to permit many instances of Solaris on a single processor, Schwartz said. "The notion that there's one operating system and one microprocessor goes away," he said.

Schwartz also described other details of Sun's software work:

• Of Sun's research and development effort, about a quarter of the company's staff is working on Solaris, a quarter on Java, and a half on the newer Sun ONE server software and N1 server management software, Schwartz said.

• Sun has sold its Trusted Solaris operating system product to defense customers who need to compartmentalize different jobs--for example unclassified and top-secret work. As mainstream customers such as banks also seek such features, Sun is moving those features into its regular version of Solaris.

• Sun will announce on Wednesday a deal with Vodafone under which Sun is providing the computing infrastructure to offer customers Java games on mobile phones.

• This summer, Sun will release its Mad Hatter project, desktop PCs running the Linux operating system along with the GNOME user interface and the StarOffice software suite.