New Solaris key step in Sun strategy

Technology built in to the company's new operating system is key to its long-term strategy for making collections of computers act like a single, mammoth machine.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
MENLO PARK, Calif.--New technology built in to Sun Microsystems' new operating system is key to the company's long-term strategy for making collections of computers act like a single, mammoth machine.

Sun released Solaris 9 Wednesday, along with a plan to integrate its application server software into the operating system. But a less obvious part of Solaris 9, a concept called "containers," could be just as important.

In Solaris 9, containers will let administrators define how much processor power, memory and network bandwidth can be used by groups of computing processes called tasks. But in the future, containers will let tasks run anywhere in groups of servers, not just on a single machine--the core idea behind the N1 strategy Sun unveiled in February.

"Think of tasks across the data center and not on a (single) machine," Mark Himelstein, vice president of management, application and security services in Sun's Solaris group, said in an interview Wednesday.

The N1 strategy to manage computing processes in data centers bypasses the stronghold of software such as Hewlett-Packard's OpenView, IBM's Tivoli or Computer Associates' Unicenter that manage lower-level hardware and software, said Jean Bozman, an analyst with IDC. "They want to create a new category with N1 and leapfrog where those guys are," she said.

Solaris is a key part of Sun's business. It's the foundation for software from companies such as Oracle and SAP that make servers useful to customers that want to accomplish tasks such as keeping track of inventory and corporate accounts. Improving Solaris is critical for Sun to stave off other Unix sellers such as IBM and HP, and to encroach on the turf of IBM's higher-end but more expensive mainframe servers.

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Sun is also encouraging software developers and customers to look at higher-level software coming in the future. Customers should worry about what computing services are running, not the fundamental hardware and software on which they run, according to Sun executives.

That direction dovetails with the Web services push under way at Sun, IBM, Microsoft, HP and elsewhere. Web services, a new way to build software, moves computing tasks on PCs or servers to self-assembling collections of computers connected by the Internet.

"I don't think we'll talk about operating systems five to 10 years from now," said Sun Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander at a news conference here on Wednesday. Solaris 9 isn't an operating system, he said, "It's a Web services delivery platform."

To enable these services, Solaris 9 will have Web services software and Java software called an application server that runs e-business programs. Integrating these new parts will happen by the end of the year, Sun said.

Integrating this "app server" poses a challenge to BEA Systems, which sells app server software commonly used on Sun servers. However, BEA has extra features not available in Sun's product.

Sun the software company
Zander, who 10 years ago ran Sun's software group and led the introduction of Solaris, touted Sun's software expertise, which he said is often overlooked given Sun's hardware focus. But with each purchase order, Zander divides up revenue and assigns it to hardware and software categories, he said.

"If we ever did report revenue for software business, you'd be stunned. We'd be one of the largest software companies on the planet today," Zander said.

"People say you buy a Sun server and get Solaris for free. No, you don't," Zander said. "The hardware is free as far as I'm concerned; we just charge $200,000 for Solaris."

Zander is retiring from Sun, though he's staying through the end of the year to help the company transition. He said in an interview he still doesn't know what he wants to do next.

"I have no idea. I wouldn't tell you if I did," he quipped. "But I will tell you the truth: I don't" have an idea.

He and his wife have purchased land back on the East Coast, where Zander was born, educated and first employed. "It's our home," he said, while noting he owns property in Carmel, Calif., as well. "When the Red Sox win the World Series, I'll move back to Boston."

Boosting Liberty
Solaris 9 includes a directory server integrated into the heart of Solaris, boosting performance to five times what Solaris 8 could muster, said Anil Gadre, vice president and general manager of Solaris. Directory servers are used to store information such as usernames and passwords.

The directory server integration will help boost use of the forthcoming Liberty Alliance Project's single sign-on specification. The specification will let a computer user log on to a server once, then have other servers recognize that user as authenticated. Microsoft already offers a single sign-on technology called Passport. Sun convinced United Airlines, Sony, Fidelity Investments, AOL Time Warner and others to co-develop its specification.

The Liberty specification will be released in late June, said Jonathan Schwartz, who will take over Sun's software operation from Pat Sueltz on July 1.