Sun's new Solaris takes aim at Microsoft

In a jab at fierce rival Microsoft, Sun Microsystems will release its newest operating system for general use the same month that Windows 2000 makes its debut.

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In a jab at fierce rival Microsoft, Sun Microsystems will release its newest operating system for general use the same month that Windows 2000 makes its debut.

Sun said today that it will unveil the new Solaris 8 OS in February. On February 17, Microsoft introduces its much-anticipated, much-delayed Windows 2000, formerly called Windows NT.

Solaris 8, the new edition of Sun's version of Unix, will become generally available that month, product manager Tom Goguen said in an interview today. But Sun is trying to prime the pump with a new program: Starting November 27, anyone who is so inclined will be able to begin beta testing on Solaris 8 for about $25.

The timing of Sun's Solaris announcement isn't coincidental, said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with Illuminata. "It's a poke in the side [at Microsoft]," he said.

Sun chief operating officer Ed Zander said that Solaris 8 is "years ahead of NT," in a conference call last month. Future Sun server computers using the company's upcoming UltraSparc III "Cheetah" chips will use Solaris 8, he said.

Microsoft's Chris Ray, product manager for Windows 2000, wouldn't say whether he believes Windows 2000 to be better than Solaris 8, but he did say it will offer major improvements in resisting crashes and running mission-critical jobs.

"What we're trying to do with Windows 2000 is increase reliability. We're going to deliver that," he said.

The rivalry between Sun and Microsoft is growing more entrenched. Sun is a wholehearted backer of Unix, an operating system that predates Windows but has grown in popularity with its use in Internet applications. Windows' origins lie with personal computers, but Microsoft came up with Windows NT as a way to attack Unix. Though Windows NT servers sell well, most analysts agree that it hasn't come close to displacing Unix.

The cultural divide between Windows and Unix is deep. Windows, which ships on millions of desktop computers, is easily recognized and relatively familiar to lots of people. Unix, in comparison, has deep roots in the Internet and ties to the hard-core programming community, but it's less well known to the average user.

Still, Unix has fragmented into several versions from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Santa Cruz Operation, SGI, Compaq Computer, Sun, and others. And the Unix landscape has been turned upside-down with the arrival of Linux, a clone of Unix that's available for free or very low cost.

Unix is much better than Windows NT at running big servers and handling heavy computing loads than Windows NT, Eunice said. "The Unixes are all very comfortable with 16-processor and 32-processor environments," he said. "It's gotten to a very high level of scale. NT hasn't gotten to that plateau."

But in time, NT likely will catch up to the size of machine where Unix is today, he said.

And Unix advocates should be familiar with NT's underdog status, Eunice said. NT's status below Unix in the reliability pecking order is similar to the position of Unix compared to more powerful mainframes about 10 years ago, he said.

"Big scale is genuinely hard. That's a reality that Microsoft will overcome in 2003, 2004, or 2005," Eunice said. "NT is a decent operating system. It has its good parts. But implementing at scale is ten times harder than most people realize."

Sun began beta testing the new version in September.

Windows 2000 will be a pretty big improvement for Microsoft, said Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies.

"If we take the beta release code as an indicator, the signs are at least hopeful that Microsoft is going to deliver a fair amount of what it promised. If that happens, it could be a fairly significant improvement over what Windows NT has been," he said.

Curtailed by clustering
Windows had hoped to push its way into extra-large servers through a method called "clustering," in which several servers share the workload. If one server crashes or is very busy, the others can pick up the slack. The current top-end version of Windows can handle clusters of two computers.

"Microsoft has a massive problem with clustering," Eunice said. They billed clustering as "the technology that would let them catch up to big systems. They put all their marbles on that square," he said.

Microsoft got two-node clustering working quickly, but the company "has basically gone nowhere since then. Every announcement on Windows 2000 we've seen has pushed that out further and further," he said.

"A long time ago, they talked very optimistically about how fast they were going to ramp up to two, four, eight, and 16 nodes," Davis said. "Obviously it didn't materialize as early as Microsoft had hoped."

Solaris 8 will provides the underpinnings for clustering as many as eight computers together, though that ability won't actually arrive until Sun ships its next version of its SunCluster software later in 2000, Goguen said. Currently, Solaris works in clusters of four.

Though Sun's clustering is better than Windows NT's, it's not as good as the clustering from Santa Cruz Operation and other Unix companies, Eunice said.

The Data Center version of Windows 2000 is due 90 to 100 days after the other versions that will arrive in February, Ray said. In addition to four-node clustering, it will offer support for 32-processor computers, he said.