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Major Solaris revision this week

Sun Microsystems will take the next step in bringing high-end capabilities to its Solaris operating system this week.

Sun Microsystems will take the next step in bringing high-end capabilities to its Solaris operating system this week in a bid to highlight its software efforts.

The company hopes new investments in technology that allows fast data-crunching of even the most intensive tasks, an industry-specific thrust that tailors software features for new markets, and interoperability tools that allow computers running Sun's Unix-based Solaris operating system to work with other software, such as Microsoft's corporate Windows NT, will help differentiate itself from competitors.

These themes will highlight an event scheduled for tomorrow in New York, according to sources.

All of these enhancements have been a long time coming. Sun announced detailed plans to embrace the growing installed base of NT systems last month and has been testing its Solaris upgrade--to be called Solaris 7.0, according to sources--since this spring.

The centerpiece of Sun's software efforts is the Solaris operating system upgrade. Perceiving itself to be ahead of competitors, Sun has has decided to rename its soon-to-be-released update version 7.0, a big leap from current 2.6 versions of the software.

The move is the latest in an oft-used technique in the software industry to use version numbers as a comparative measurement. The Solaris upgrade completes a multi-year effort at Sun to develop a 64-bit version of its operating system, technology that allows the software to handle even the highest data-crunching duties. Though most computing tasks are capable of being handled by more ubiquitous 32-bit systems--such as the installed base of Solaris and current versions of Windows NT--some markets require the new technology, like industrial modeling or oil industry topology mapping.

"What we'll have is ways to do things better, faster, cheaper," said Scott Turvey, vice president of systems and networking for Nicholas-Applegate Capital Management, a large user of Solaris-based systems and part of the company's test program for the upgrade.

Also, the ever-increasing needs of the Web--a traditional strength of Sun systems--requires a boost in data-crunching performance as more and more people surf through their companies' intranet information as well as external data. "With the Web, companies are faced with the challenge of taking internal data and latching it up to the Web," said Jim Groff, chief executive at Times Ten Performance Software, a third-party maker of a high-end database that runs on Solaris.

"We're riding some very significant trends," he said.

Some analysts believe that companies offering 64-bit versions of their software have yet to make a coherent case that companies should upgrade to the new technology. "No one is really making it clear what the business advantage is," noted Dan Kusnetzky, analyst with market researcher International Data Corporation. "Sun is as guilty or not guilty as any other vendor.

"It's not really clear why people should care" Kusnetzky said.

Sun plans to trumpet Solaris 7.0 as an alternative that provides mainframe-class reliability and stability. It will also stress the benefits of centralizing software functions on a single Solaris-based Sun system over a more distributed model as well as advances ease of use, which has been a criticism of Unix-based software in the past. The new version, which will include backwards compatibility for all current 32-bit applications written for Solaris, will include also include an updated Java Development Kit (JDK), version 1.1.6.

Other Unix-based systems companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer subsidiary Digital Equipment, IBM, and Silicon Graphics, among others, are also embracing 64-bits. Linux, the Net-based software phenomenon, has similar technology options.

Sun hopes that the availability of Solaris 7.0. due to ship next month, will prompt the creation of new types of applications that take advantage of 64 bits. "When you throw this kind of capability out there in volume, you're going to see a lot of crazy things," said Brian Croll, director of marketing for Sun's Solaris products.

Sun executives refused to comment specificially on the nature of this week's announcement, to be held in New York.

Sun also plans to offer three vertically-oriented add-ons to Solaris as well: an upgrade to its Easy Access Server, part of the company's NT interoperability effort code-named Cascade, an Enterprise Server, and an Internet service provider server, according to sources, each with tailored features.

The most significant of these additions is the Easy Access Server, a tool that Sun hopes will allow it to convince users to go with its own systems over those based on software from rival Microsoft, a company that continues to plow ahead with work on its NT 5.0 upgrade, a delayed improvement to current versions that should see the light of day sometime next year.

"One of the things we're clearly making sure happen is that we're becoming more accessible," Croll said.

Even though the release date for the NT 5.0 upgrade remains hazy, Sun executives remain cognizant that for its own software to remain a key component of an information technology (IT) department's strategy, it has to strengthen its ties Microsoft's offering.

As part of that strategy, Sun will release series of tools to allow greater inter-operability between Windows and Solaris, including an update to SunLink, a piece of software that allows various Windows clients-as well as Novell NetWare, IBM OS/2, and Apple Computer Macintosh desktops-to connect to Sun systems.

To buttress the company's enterprise version of Solaris, Sun will roll out an update to its clustering software package, its Bandwidth Manager tool, and new service level and security features. Pricing for the various versions was not available.

Sun executives were quick to point out the disparity between the current capabilities of Windows NT 4.0 and the soon-to-be-released 64-bit Solaris upgrade. "They've got to get their 32-bits right first," said Croll.

Microsoft does currently offer a 64-bit file system and includes an option in the second test version of NT 5.0 that allows programmers to recompile their applications to take advantage of 64-bits, according to the company.