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Sun eyes alliances with Linux rivals

The server giant is considering a shift from its own Linux in favor of striking up partnerships with mainstream Linux sellers such as SuSE and Red Hat.

Sun Microsystems is considering striking up partnerships with mainstream Linux sellers such as Red Hat and SuSE--a move that would turn the tech giant into an ally, rather than a rival, of those companies.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based server seller uses its own version

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of the open-source operating system in its computers. But Linux development, marketing and support is expensive, and faced with scant support for its version of Linux from third-party software companies, Sun instead is exploring having established Linux sellers provide the software, CNET has learned.

Sun is in talks with SuSE, whose Linux version is the foundation for the products from the UnitedLinux consortium, SuSE spokesman Joe Eckert confirmed. He declined to give details of the talks.

Sun's plans may also include other established distributors. "I know they've been talking with the current people out there, like Red Hat," said Jason Miller, director of information technologies for biotechnology software company Incogen and a member of Sun Linux ISV (independent software vendor) Advisory Board.

The shift toward outside versions of Linux would bring Sun more in line with rivals such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, which have chosen partnerships with Red Hat and SuSE, and Dell Computer, which has a Red Hat partnership.

"In general, Sun's coming into the Linux space a little late. I don't think it would be advisable for them to reinvent too many wheels. I would see it as most efficient for them to partner up with one of these experts," said Miller.

Read more about Sun and Linux

While Sun representatives declined to comment for this story, the head of Sun's software division has said the server seller is willing to make changes to better accommodate software companies that are reluctant to extend to support yet another version of Linux.

"Over time, we may look at the definition of Sun Linux and modify it to get the greatest uptake," said Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president of Sun's software group, in a recent interview with CNET

A bigger splash
Cooperation with mainstream Linux companies such as top seller Red Hat and No. 2 SuSE would help Sun play a bigger part in the computing industry's ever-warmer embrace of the Unix-like operating system. It could also free Sun from the costs associated with Linux development, marketing and support work.

Independent software vendors, or ISVs, such as Veritas, Oracle, Reuters, BMC and BEA Systems certify that their software works with versions of Linux. Typically, they back mainstream editions such as those from Red Hat and SuSE, but don't support Sun Linux.

Sun partnerships with established Linux companies would make it easier for it to assure customers that the software they use will work on Sun Linux servers.

Basing a new Sun Linux on more widely used versions of the open-source OS would still leave room for the company to pursue its Orion plan. That project aims to integrate all the Sun Open Network Environment (Sun ONE) server software with Linux and to release sweeping product updates once per quarter. Indeed, adapting the Orion plan to Linux could serve as a way for Sun to make its Linux products stand out from those of competitors--even if the foundation of the OS is the same.

While Sun prizes its own research and development, such as the Orion project, it isn't afraid of using others' technology.

A partnership with Red Hat, though, wouldn't come easy. Red Hat isn't happy with Sun's characterization of Linux as good only for lower-end computers, said Mark De Visser, vice president of marketing for Red Hat. Another thorn is Sun's argument that software companies wanting to take advantage of less-expensive Intel servers will favor a version of Sun's Solaris over Linux.

"We don't see why we should get any cozier with them," De Visser said. "(If) we bend over backwards to help them be successful, then they say it's not really for (high-end) enterprise deployments--why would we do that?"

De Visser acknowledged that Sun and Red Hat keep communication channels open, but declined to characterize them.

When Sun embraced Linux last year, it used its own version of Linux, which came to the company via its acquisition of Cobalt Networks and is based on Red Hat's Linux. Today, Sun Linux 5.0 (the first general-purpose edition) is "highly compatible" with Red Hat's Linux version 7.2, according to Sun's Web site, with only a few differences.

Sun shipped a number of freely available open-source packages with its Linux machines: the Apache Software Foundation Web server, the MySQL database, the Tomcat system for running Java applications on servers and the Sendmail e-mail software.

So far, the biggest software company backing Sun Linux is Sun itself. The company has released Linux versions of seven Sun ONE software components, spokesman Brett Smith said.

Safety in numbers
Analysts laud a move away from a Sun-only version of Linux and toward partnerships. "It would be prudent for Sun to form a formal partnership with SuSE and Red Hat," said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt.

In addition, Gartner analyst George Weiss said he began voicing his objections to Sun's go-it-alone plan as soon as the company initially announced in August.

Creating its own Linux would make more sense for Sun if the company wanted to diverge from prevailing Linux versions, Weiss said. However, Chief Executive Scott McNealy has expressly said the company won't do that.

"They don't want to bring a high degree of customization to this market. They want to compete on the merits of their hardware and (higher-level) software and not on the merits of their Linux distribution per se," Weiss said.

When explaining its initial Linux strategy, Sun argued that customers want a single company to call when there are problems--as they do today with Solaris or Sun servers. But supporting a "distribution" of Linux--the core components and accompanying higher-level software--is time-consuming.

The responsibilities for supporting a Linux version show clearly when it comes to the issue of fixing critical security problems. For example, Red Hat and SuSE released fixes to the Sendmail vulnerability on Monday, when it was announced. Though Sun released its own Solaris patches shortly after the Sendmail alert, its Linux alert wasn't issued until Wednesday, and the company is still is working on its own Linux patches, Sun's Smith said.

At least one of Sun's rivals has chosen to let Linux specialists handle the task of staying on top of the constantly shifting swarm of packages and bug-fixes from the open-source community.

HP, augmenting partnerships with Linux sellers, began work in 2001 on its own Secure Linux product. The company canceled the project, though; HP Linux Program Office Director Judy Chavis explained, "We're not in the (Linux) distribution business."

And Steve Mills, senior vice president of IBM's software group, told CNET in a recent interview that IBM has "no plans and no reason" to create its own version of Linux.

Linux standards not sufficient?
Partnerships with established Linux companies would be a shift for Sun, which initially backed standards rather than alliances with Linux leaders as a foundation for ISV certification. Specifically, Sun placed its faith in the Linux Standard Base, (LSB) an industry effort to standardize some aspects of Linux.

"We need to force the world to LSB compliance, not Red Hat compliance or IBM compliance," McNealy said at a keynote address at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in August. "We need better stewardship and compliance so we don't get the retesting requirements that are so expensive for enterprise application developers from one Unix to the next."

But while computing companies such as IBM have lauded the LSB as helpful to ensure Linux doesn't veer off in different directions, analysts have said it's not sufficiently broad to guarantee one version of Linux will work exactly like another. In other words, it's not enough for a software company to certify that its software complies with LSB standards.

Sun's move toward using partnerships to simplify its Linux for the benefit of ISV business allies is an approach used with some success by the UnitedLinux consortium. That effort, which bases versions of Linux from SuSE, Turbolinux, SCO Group and Conectiva on SuSE's product--got started as a way to simplify support for software and hardware companies that otherwise would have to test their products with numerous versions of Linux.

Consolidating under fewer versions of Linux--as happened with UnitedLinux--"simplifies life for ISVs," Jon Perr, vice president of marketing for software start-up Ximian. "The development and testing process, when a distribution is based on another distribution, can be quite rapid."