Red Hat drops Sparc support with new Linux version

The company drops support for Sun Microsystems' Sparc chips for version 7 of Linux, saying there just isn't enough interest in the product.

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Red Hat has dropped support for Sun Microsystems' Sparc chips for its new version 7 of Linux, saying there just wasn't enough interest in the product.

"Due to insufficient demand, we will not be releasing an official Red Hat Linux for Sparc," spokeswoman Melissa London said in an email interview.

The move whittles down Red Hat's product line to Linux software for Intel and Compaq Computer's Alpha chips, though the company plans support for several IBM servers with different CPUs.

One of the strengths of Linux is the fact that it runs on so many different CPUs, ranging from some of the most muscular server chips to tiny, low-power processors that run gadgets the size of cell phones. But apparently, that versatility doesn't always translate into business success.

Red Hat will continue to provide an unsupported Sparc edition in its "Rawhide" developer version, London said, and the company could restart the Sparc version if demand picks up. The company also will continue to support the earlier Sparc versions of its software, she said.

The move parallels the gradual decline in the number of CPUs that can run Windows NT. Initially, Microsoft's higher-end operating system was intended to run on PowerPC, MIPS, Alpha and Intel CPUs, but minimal interest led Microsoft to cut back just to Intel chips.

The move won't mean much for Sun, said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt. "Sun's been very clear that Solaris is the operating system for that company," she said.

"I think this is more about the Red Hat-IBM relationship," she added. "The close relationship with IBM may drive (Red Hat) to see its fortunes more closely aligned with x86 (Intel-compatible chips) and PowerPC than with Sparc."

Red Hat, though still the leading Linux seller, is no longer the Wall Street darling it was a year ago. Its stock sank to $6.25 Thursday, 75 cents below the split-adjusted initial public offering price of $7 in August 1999.

The Linux community has become increasingly corporate, as companies such as Red hat and VA Linux Systems hire developers, but much of the Linux effort takes place outside corporate boundaries. For example, the Ultralinux group has been working on Linux for Sun's UltraSparc chips. And programmers have gotten Linux running on a 24-processor Sun E10000 server.

Sun's microelectronics division had been helping the Ultralinux effort, but the rest of Sun has been plugging Solaris, Sun's own version of the Unix operating system. Indeed, partly as a response to the arrival of the no-cost or low-cost Linux, Sun made Solaris free for computers with eight or fewer CPUs.

Although a Sparc version of Linux isn't financially justifiable for Red Hat, the ability to run the operating system on a variety of processors is still an advantage, particularly for companies pushing Linux into all manners of non-PC "embedded" computing devices, such as handheld computers or network routers.

For example, embedded Linux company Lineo has versions of Linux that run on more than 20 CPUs, including IDT's RC32334; Arm's Arm 7 and 9 chips; Hitachi's SH3 and SH4 chips; Intel's StrongArm 1100 and 1110 chips; Motorola's Coldfire, Dragonball, Mcore and PowerPC chips; and a variety of Intel-compatible chips, including the 386, the 486SX and DX and Pentium.

Though the range of CNET's Linux CenterCPUs is much narrower in the desktop world, Red Hat's competitors usually offer Linux on at least one other chip besides Intel.

SuSE, which supports Intel, PowerPC, IBM's zSeries (formerly S/390) mainframes and Alpha, announced Sparc support in September. Caldera Systems supports Intel but has created a Sparc version as well. Turbolinux supports Intel and Alpha. MandrakeSoft added support for UltraSparc in February.

Moving Linux to a different type of computer requires adjustments to components such as video systems and the process by which the computer boots up.

Intel-based computers are the most popular for use with Linux, largely due to the large number in circulation. Alpha machines, considerably more expensive, are used in high-performance jobs such as Beowulf supercomputers made of a collection of interconnected Linux computers.

Last week, Red Hat released version 7.0 of its product for Compaq's Alpha chip. In September, the company released version 7.0 for Intel-based computers.