Sun on 64-bit Intel: Not so fast

The tricky part of the Sun-Intel deal is recruitment of Intel-based hardware and software vendors to the Solaris platform; analysts question how and under what terms this support will come.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
3 min read
The tricky part of the
Sun Microsystems-Intel deal is recruitment of Intel-based hardware and software vendors to the Solaris platform, with analysts questioning how and under what terms this support will come.

The two computer industry giants signed an agreement today to allow Sun's Solaris operating system to run on the Related story: Intel, Sun to team on Merced next-generation Intel "Merced" processor, and agreed on the cross-licensing of technologies.

"There are all kinds of implications," said Jerry Sheridan, server analyst at Dataquest."It's a win for Sun and it's a win for Intel...But the big question is what are Compaq, IBM, and Dell going to do?"

Will large Intel-based OEMs decide that adopting Solaris as an alternative to Windows NT makes sense, or will they decide that using Solaris puts them in direct competition with Sun hardware? Will Sun be able to squeeze margins out of Sparc boxes, or will they eventually shift to Intel processors? And what will Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and others do to retain the loyalty of these same parties in the meantime? All of these questions remain unanswered.

Under the terms of the alliance, Sun and Intel will strive to optimize Solaris to run on Intel's upcoming Merced chip. The Merced-optimized version of Solaris will come out in 1999, the same time as Merced.

In addition, the two companies will engage in a series of cooperative technological and marketing efforts, according to Janpieter Scheerder, president of SunSoft. Solaris "tuning centers" will be created for Sun?s third-party customers and software developers to learn about Solaris on Unix. Recruiting and marketing efforts will begin next year.

While all of those steps make sense, Kimball Brown, a computing analyst at Dataquest, said that Sun will also have to iron out the conflicts in its business model. As licensee of Solaris, and the leading provider of Solaris-based hardware, Sun will generally be perceived as a potential competitor by other hardware vendors.

Unless Sun can figure out a way out of the dilemma, the company may not be able to recruit many major customers, and the goal of the alliance will fall. "Compaq and IBM are the keys here," he said.

Sun itself has apparently not worked the issue out internally. When asked which company--Sun or its hardware licensee--would act as the chief contact for Solaris users, Scheerder painted a scenario in which Sun would act as the chief liaison.

"We will take first-level support," Scheerder said.

That sort of business model will not sit well with large Intel vendors, emphasized Brown, who insist on account control. "The first line of support has to go to the [hardware vendor licensee], not Sun," he said. "Sun is going to have to give up on that point."

If Sun doesn't, Brown theorized that Solaris will occupy only a marginal wing of the Intel market. Solaris, in fact, has been available on the Intel platform since 1993, but does not occupy a huge market niche.

Brian Croll, director or product marketing of Solaris at SunSoft, says that Sun's initial targets are the "alternative OS people" such as other Unix vendors.

Ironically, success on licensing Solaris could, in turn, pinch Sun's hardware revenue. Historically, Sun's servers cost more than Intel-based servers. To justify their higher costs, Sun has repeatedly stressed the unique performance and architectural advantages of its platform, including Solaris.

That could become a more difficult argument to carry or substantiate when Solaris is readily available on Intel machines, theorized Sheridan.

"The crucial question is how does Sun add either complementary technology, or service and support, or software partners, to distinguish its solution on Sparc as opposed to a solution on Merced," said Sheridan.

Although Sun has said it will not abandon Sparc, Sheridan pointed out that the company has not ruled out adopting Merced. Scheerder said that Sun would support Sparc, Sheridan noted, but he did not rule out adopting a complementary technology. "They've changed over the years from 'Absolutely not' to 'We're going forward with Sparc.' They've left themselves that option."

Sun will also face competition from other Unix vendors trying to pull off the same alliances, he added. HP signed recent development deals with Fujitsu and NEC, he pointed out.