Sun's revised Solaris defends against Linux, Windows 2000

With Solaris 8, Sun plans to eliminate licensing fees and make its "source code" available to customers, according to people familiar with the company's plans.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Sun Microsystems will debut its newest version of Solaris Wednesday, part of a reinvigorated effort to fend off Windows, Linux and other competing operating systems.

The Solaris 8 launch initially was planned for February, the month Microsoft will debut Windows 2000, but Sun has moved the date up. Meanwhile, computers with Windows 2000 will be available starting today, even though Microsoft officially is unveiling its business-use software on Feb. 17.

Among the debut's highlights will be Sun's adoption of some Linux principles, according to people familiar with the company's plans. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer maker will eliminate licensing fees and make its "source code," or underlying programming instructions, available to customers, these people said.

Such steps would mark a new stage in Sun's love-hate relationship with Linux. The upstart operating system has helped Sun attack Microsoft at the same time as it has helped rivals encroach on the low end of Sun's turf.

Sun representatives declined to comment, though some within the company said last February Sun would release Solaris under the company's Community Source License.

Linux is a clone of Unix, while Sun is one of several commercial variants of the operating software; Linux and Unix are like cousins. Linux can be obtained for free, and its source code is available to anyone who wants to scrutinize it. Solaris, by contrast, is proprietary and secret. And Sun's Community Source License, which reserves ultimate control of a software's development for Sun, isn't as broad as the General Public License under which Linux is released.

But Sun chief operating officer Ed Zander made it clear in a conference call last week that the company isn't particularly interested in Linux. "Solaris is a better product, period," he said.

"We have no plans to do Linux inside the company as an operating system...We are going to concentrate every ounce of research and development into Solaris," he said.

Zander did note that Sun is working to see that its Java software works on Linux and gives away its Star Office software suite to Linux users. Not coincidentally, those are the two areas where Sun has investments in Linux companies: Caldera Systems, a Linux seller that plans e-commerce software using Java, and Linuxcare, which provides technical support for Star Office.

One reason Sun isn't that fond of Linux is that it's most popular on computers built around Intel chips--rather than Sun's UltraSparc chips--and Sun's core business is selling its own hardware. Although Sun offers Red Hat's version of Linux for sale on the Sun Web site, Zander said he doesn't see that version as very significant. "We just don't see the need for Linux on Sparc right now. It's an Intel play," he said.

Still, Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said Linux has been a net positive for Sun because it has helped dissuade people from the notion that Microsoft Windows was going to become ubiquitous. Sun has had various allies in its long-running fight with Microsoft, but only Linux has been able to withstand the power of Redmond, he said.

"Microsoft has been able to co-opt Java and Javascript and a number of different Internet standards. But given the cultural and technical divide (between Windows and Linux), there is no way they can co-opt Linux," Eunice said. "As long as Linux is in the news and is considered to be a reasonable play, it hurts (Sun's) competition at least as much as it hurts them."

Linux threatens Sun's low-end server and workstation line by pulling people away from Sun systems, Eunice said, particularly in the university environment where the next generation of computer technicians is growing up, and among Internet service providers, which need lots of relatively inexpensive servers.

"Fifteen years ago (in the university), we had Sun boxes everywhere. Every workstation, every server was a Sun box. There was a whole generation of us that brought Sun and Unix into enterprises," Eunice said. "Now if you go into the lab, there are lots of...Linux boxes. Sun not only is in fear of losing more and more Internet service provider accounts in the near future, they are clearly losing in both the workstation world and the computer server world."

Eunice added that the Unix versions offered by Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Compaq may be technically better products than Solaris, though its servers remain a kind of de facto standard among some spheres of the Internet.

In September, Sun began beta testing Solaris 8 with selected customers and in November opened the testing program to anyone willing to spend $25.

At the debut on Wednesday, Sun will argue that Solaris is five years ahead of Windows 2000, and that in order to survive, Windows is picking up methods pioneered by Unix, Zander said last week.

For example, Solaris 8 eventually will provide the ability to tie together as many as eight servers in a technique called "clustering" that enables computers to share the workload or take over from each other in the event that one fails. The eight-machine clustering feature won't be available until later in 2000, Sun executives have said.

Windows NT--the precursor to Windows 2000--currently works with clusters of two machines, and the forthcoming version will expand that number to four.

Windows 2000 will work on computers incorporating a maximum of eight or 16 processors, Zander said, while Solaris runs on 64-processor machines today and will run on new models with more than 100 chips later this year.

Sun also will argue Wednesday that the Sun-sponsored shift to "application service providers" that centrally host software will diminish the leverage Microsoft gains by having so much popular software in its office suite.

Of course, speaking unfavorably of Sun's competition is nothing new for the company and chief executive officer Scott McNealy in particular. "It's a part of their strategy to grandiosely disparage the competition," Eunice said. "It points the attention at them and frames the discussion in a way that's successful for them."