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Sun releases Sparc specs to lure Linux

Company releases UltraSparc chip details to help bring Linux and versions of BSD Unix to its systems.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems fulfilled a pledge Tuesday to release UltraSparc chip details in an effort to make it easier to bring Linux and versions of BSD Unix to its systems.

In addition, Sun President Jonathan Schwartz announced that the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company will use the General Public License (GPL) to govern the release of the chip design itself.

"Open source is not just about software. Freedom is not just about software. It's going to come to hardware, and we're going to drive that," Schwartz said in a speech at the Open Source Business Conference here.

The publicly available Sparc technology is significant, said IDC analyst Jean Bozman. "There are people we never thought of who might be in China or India who can take this and run with it," she said.

Sun also announced the availability of the UltraSparc specifications in conjunction with the conference. The specifications are expected to be useful to Sun as well as outsiders because they're intended to stabilize the heretofore changing interface that operation systems use to communicate with Sparc.

As reported last month by CNET, David Yen, executive vice president of the Sparc server group, said that the server and software company would release UltraSparc Architecture 2005 specifications to make it easier for the open-source operating systems to run and in particular to make it possible to run multiple operating systems simultaneously on a Sparc system, a feature that rivals already possess.

The company is trying to attract the other operating systems in an attempt to broaden the appeal of its servers--in particular its new UltraSparc T1 "Niagara"-based servers--and open a new competitive attack against IBM and Hewlett-Packard, which already support Linux on their higher-end servers.

"Having Linux or BSD ports for the UltraSparc T1 processor will greatly expand the Sparc market," Schwartz said in a statement.

However, several analysts say that building an ecosystem of software for Sparc-Linux machines will be very difficult.

Linux already runs on many Sparc systems, though it's a commercial rarity. David Miller, who runs the independent Sparc Linux project, is working to bring the open-source OS to UltraSparc T1, Sun said.

Meanwhile, Red Hat, Miller's employer and the top Linux seller, said earlier in February that it has no plans to extend support to Sparc systems.

Offering technology for free is the way to get technology to catch on widely, Schwartz said. He recounted a meeting with chief information officers in which none said they were interested in Sun's open-source Solaris project, but Schwartz countered that he wasn't trying to get the CIOs' attention with the move.

About half of the CIOs said they run Linux in their data centers, but only half said they picked it. "You're not my target demographic. It's your developers. Your developers are going to increasingly move to free products because they don't have to go through procurement to get it," Schwartz said he told the CIOs.

An open-source chip
Sun is making UltraSparc T1 an open-source processor--one in which anyone can see and modify the logical description of the chip as described by a chip engineering standard called Register Transfer Libarary (RTL).

Governing the chip's RTL with version 2 of the GPL isn't a surprise: Schwartz said on his blog in January that the license was the leading contender for the open-source UltraSparc T1 project.

Schwartz himself criticized the GPL at the same open-source conference in 2005, but Sun uses the license for some other projects and contributes to several other GPL software projects. "The GPL community is one we have a love-hate relationship with," Schwartz said.

Sun's license selection won an endorsement from Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, primary author of the GPL and a man unbending in his principles regarding software freedoms.

"The free world welcomes Sun's decision to use the Free Software Foundation's GPL," Stallman said, and called on other hardware makers to follow Sun's footsteps.

"I've never been to hell, but I think it just froze over," Schwartz said of the improbability of Stallman's support.