Sun works to converge Linux, Solaris

The company is continuing its effort to integrate Linux interfaces into its Solaris OS, a move that would make it easier to bring programs based on Linux to Solaris machines.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Sun Microsystems is working hard to ensure that Linux and Solaris play well together.

The server seller is continuing its effort to integrate Linux interfaces into its Solaris operating system, a move that would make it easier to bring programs based on the Linux operating system to Solaris machines. But Sun has also begun work to bring Solaris features to Linux, said Vivek Mehra, vice president and general manager of Sun's Cobalt group.

The work indicates that Sun's push to embrace Linux is becoming more than just a publicity stunt. For years, Sun dismissed Linux as an inferior relation to Solaris, but the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company this year bowed to market forces and announced full-fledged Linux support.

The change in strategy is momentous. First, it requires Sun to translate software products such as its Sun Open Network Environment suite to a new operating system. Second, because Linux is most popular on Intel processors, it furthers Intel's aims to encroach on Sun's server turf.

Despite these tactical drawbacks, though, Sun has decided to make Linux servers a higher strategic goal. "It allows us to compete more effectively against Microsoft," Mehra said. In fact, on Monday Sun introduced server appliances containing Linux and Pentium III chips and will later this year come out with general-purpose Linux servers with Intel-compatible chips as a way to compete in the base-level server market.

Linux slipped in to Sun when the company acquired Cobalt Networks for $2 billion in 2000. At the time, Sun downplayed the significance of Linux, saying that customers never knew or needed to know what operating system was inside Cobalt's special-purpose servers.

Cobalt programmers have been actively involved in modifying Linux, but now Sun has begun studying how it can use that expertise to steer Linux in the direction of Solaris, Mehra said.

"We want to use that (earlier Cobalt Linux work) as a model for getting Solaris functions and features" into Linux, Mehra said. Mehra declined to offer specifics of what changes Sun hoped to make other than improvements to how Linux handles common computing processes known as threads, changes Sun hopes will make Linux work better on high-end servers with many processors.

Mehra, a Cobalt co-founder, has taken over the Linux advocacy role at Sun formerly occupied by Stephen DeWitt, who left the company in April.

A Linux advocate since Cobalt decided to use it in 1996, Mehra believes Solaris still is superior. "Linux is where Solaris was five or 10 years ago," Mehra said.

Common underpinnings
Linux and Solaris both are essentially versions of the venerable Unix operating system, meaning that much software runs similarly on either OS. But each operating system has special interfaces that programs can call on when they need the system to perform a particular task, and those "application programming interfaces," or APIs, can be different.

Sun's API strategy isn't unique.

IBM, a fervent supporter of Linux, has begun building Linux APIs into its version of Unix, called AIX. Hewlett-Packard is doing the same with its HP-UX version of Unix. And Caldera International, an early Linux company that also sells a version of Unix, has tried the strategy but is struggling.

Making APIs compatible to another operating system is only one stage of making software work on two different systems, however. Solaris is chiefly used on Sun's UltraSparc processors, so Linux software running in Solaris also must be modified to move from Intel processors to UltraSparc processors.

Although Sun supported Solaris on Intel processors for years, Solaris version 9, to be introduced May 22, no longer will be supported on Intel systems, Sun has said.

Sun has long been an advocate of its own Solaris operating system, touting the fact that customers could use a single operating system on servers ranging in price from less than $1,000 to more than several million dollars. In a dramatic departure in February, though, the company embraced Linux as well, with Chief Executive Scott McNealy dressing as Tux, the penguin mascot of the Linux movement.

Sun this summer will introduce its first general-purpose Linux servers, lower-end machines used for tasks such as delivering Web pages or sharing files. Later in 2002 will come "bladed" servers that cram many superslim servers into a single cabinet, like books in a bookshelf.

Cobalt advancements
Sun introduced a new Linux server Monday--though it's still a special-purpose Cobalt machine designed for hosting Web pages or e-mail, not a general-purpose version like those Sun plans to release later this year.

The RaQ 550, with prices between $1,699 and $2,899, is the first Cobalt server designed since Sun acquired the company. It's a rack-mountable model 1.75 inches thick with two 1GHz or 1.26GHz Pentium III processors, said product manager Glenn Jacklyn. It contains up to 2GB of memory and 80GB of hard drive space.

Cobalt servers are managed remotely, and Sun has made the management software more flexible to accommodate business partners such as Miva or Polyserve, Sun said. These partners now can outfit the management software with their own brands and integrate their own management software into the Cobalt management software.

The new 550 also uses a more recent version of Linux, updated with enhancements that make some types of hacking attacks more difficult. It comes with software that checks for software updates, and then downloads and installs the updates.

The system also employs the XFS file-system software that Sun rival SGI released to the open-source community that collectively develops Linux. XFS is a "journaling" file system that lets a server reboot more quickly after a crash; without it, restarting can take 30 or 60 minutes, Jacklyn said.

Dell pressure
But Dell Computer, which has mastered the art of building Intel-based computers, is moving ahead with its own servers. The Round Rock, Texas, company on Monday released its PowerEdge 2650, a 3.5-inch thick dual-processor system that can be used for many of the same tasks as the Cobalt machines such as the XTR and its general-purpose successors.

The Dell system uses one or two Intel Xeon processors running at speeds up to 2.4GHz. It features high-speed PCI-X connection technology to support high-speed networking and storage systems, supports 6GB of memory, and can accommodate 365GB of hard drive space.

The 2650 is available with either Microsoft Windows or Red Hat Linux.

Prices for the 2650 start at $2,399, with a mid-level configuration costing about $5,500, and a top-end 2650 costing about $16,000, Dell spokesman Bruce Anderson said.