Red Hat, Sun to boost desktop Linux

Red Hat will release a new version of its software for corporate desktops, while Sun will use Linux on its own desktop PCs as part of a plan to cut real estate costs.

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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Red Hat and Sun Microsystems are gearing up to sell Linux for desktop computers, the companies' chief executives said Tuesday.

Red Hat, the top seller of Linux software and services, will release in coming months a new version of its software for corporate desktop computers that follows in the mold of its high-end server version, Chief Executive Matthew Szulik said in an interview.

And Sun will use Linux inside its own company on desktop computers as a part of a plan to cut real estate costs, and plans eventually to offer a Linux desktop product, Sun CEO Scott McNealy said in the opening keynote address of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

McNealy said the company will use Linux desktops in its "iWork" program, under which employees don't get an office of their own but instead sit down in the first available empty cubicle they encounter. Sun hopes to reduce real estate costs with iWork by moving from 0.8 employees per office to 1.8 employees per office, he said.

"We believe Linux is key to going and driving satellite offices. I don't want to have to get a Windows client just to give Net access," McNealy said. After trying it out internally, he said, "we'll have a product to take to the market."

Those details built on earlier remarks about Sun's desktop Linux push by Jonathan Schwartz, head of the company's software organization.

At a news conference, Sun executives declined to say whether the company planned to sell Linux PCs using Intel or Advanced Micro Devices processors, but said the company would announce more details of its desktop Linux strategy at the SunNetwork conference, taking place Sept. 18-20.

Linux, a clone of Unix not known for being easy to use, hasn't had a strong history on mainstream computers. In more optimistic times in the late 1990s, companies such as Ebiz Enterprises and Eazel once hoped to sell Linux in mainstream PCs, but that idea faltered. Dell Computer stopped offering Linux as a standard option on its PCs.

Instead, Linux has been most popular on servers, the higher-end networked systems that handle tasks such as managing e-mail or hosting Web sites. That's the area where Sun and Red Hat have the bulk of their existing customers and where Microsoft is comparatively weak.

But now Red Hat, Sun and a Boston start-up called Ximian are advocating desktop Linux in some corporate environments. The change has been spurred partly by the availability of software packages such as the OpenOffice office software and Mozilla Web browser and partly by dissatisfaction with Microsoft's Software Assurance subscription plan.

Microsoft booth at Linuxworld Desktop use of Linux grew 30 percent from 2000 to 2001, McNealy said. "It's a wonderful dent to make in the convicted monopolist," he said, referring to Microsoft, Sun's arch enemy and legal sparring partner. "You are doing things the attorney general hasn't been able to accomplish."

Sun has a partnership with Ximian to improve the Gnome Linux and Unix graphical interface software, said Nat Friedman, Ximian co-founder and vice president of product development. Ximian is working with Sun to improve version 2.0 of Gnome, but also has software called Connector that lets Linux desktop computers work with Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers--a useful feature for infiltrating Linux systems into corporate environments where Windows is widely used.

Red Hat's workstation version will be geared for corporate customers such as Boeing engineers and financial analysts, not mainstream customers, Szulik said.

Red Hat's product likely will be called Advanced Workstation and will be in the same mold as Red Hat's Advanced Server edition released in May, Szulik said. As previously reported, Hewlett-Packard convinced Red Hat to advance the schedule of the Advanced Workstation product from March 2003 to 2002.

Red Hat's Advanced Server version, which costs more than its lower-end editions and unlike them can't be downloaded for free, has proved popular with key software partners such Oracle, Veritas and now BEA Systems as well. Advanced Server comes with higher-end features, doesn't change as frequently to make it easier for other companies to support it, and comes with a guarantee from Red Hat that updates won't cause problems with existing software.

Egenera, a server maker that uses Red Hat Linux in its high-end servers for financial customers, announced support Tuesday for the Advanced Server version.

Under the BEA partnership announced Tuesday, BEA will now support Red Hat's Advanced Server in all its WebLogic e-business software products.

Red Hat, in turn, will redistribute BEA's WebLogic JRockit Java Virtual Machine (JVM), which converts programs written in the Java language into instructions computers can read, an essential part of letting Java programs run on different computers without having to be rewritten for each operating system.

BEA executives said the company is fine-tuning its JVM to work on Red Hat Linux on Intel servers. The new JVM will be available by month's end.

"We've supported Red Hat for years, so now we're supporting their new enterprise class operating system," said Bob Griswold, vice president and general manager of BEA's Java runtime products group. "We have watched our enterprise customers closely, and we have seen a massive trend in the last year or so, and it's that Linux is ready for prime time."

Sun and Red Hat, while they may seem to agree that Linux has potential on the desktop, they don't see eye to eye about Linux.

Szulik lashed out in June against Sun's plan to charge for StarOffice, Sun's product version of OpenOffice. And Sun's Schwartz said Tuesday that Red Hat is working against the overall Linux effort.

"I think Red Hat is more a competitor for the Linux community," Schwartz said. "They're trying to create a proprietary version of Linux called Advanced Server," keeping secret the recipe of software packages out of which the product is assembled and not worrying if software running on Red Hat runs on other versions of Linux.

Sun's version of Linux, which the company has said is based on Red Hat's, will conform to the standards developed by the Linux Standard Base and its parent organization, the Free Standards Group, McNealy said.

Sun on Monday introduced its first general-purpose Linux servers, a major departure from its previous backing of only its own Solaris operating system. McNealy demonstrated the servers running its open-source Grid Engine calculation software at the keynote, then issued an appeal to the audience to try the systems out.

"Go buy one, please. Support my kids. They need new shoes," McNealy quipped.

News.com's Wylie Wong contributed to this report.