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Perspective: Sun on Linux: What, me worry?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper examines whether Sun can maneuver past the current technology challenges to its business and avoid the same fate that reduced the minicomputer makers to irrelevancy in the 1980s.

When Sun Microsystems got started in 1982, companies such as Wang and Data General dominated the hardware business. In less than a decade, this upstart Unix outfit was a billion-dollar-plus phenom while the once-mighty minicomputer makers had been consigned to irrelevance.

Such is the impact of what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls a disruptive technology. Sun, which won IT converts by offering minicomputer customers less expensive and less proprietary systems, had come up with a technology-price recipe that the incumbents could not match.

How times have changed nearly two decades later, with Sun now the one scrambling to remain relevant. As the Unix server market continues to shrink, sales of Intel-based servers running the Linux operating system nearly doubled in the fourth quarter of 2002 from a year earlier.

For the record, Sun's brass is quick to dismiss this as a minor concern.

Sun is not standing still. The company has ambitious plans to build more speed and functionality into Solaris while committing to using 32-bit Intel processors. In the meantime, the company also is filling out its product portfolio for managing data centers with a single, unified system under its recently announced NI initiative.

"Am I worried about Linux?" says Jonathan Schwartz, the savvy executive who runs Sun's software group. "No. Am I worried about Intel? A little."

Maybe he should take another look
Rivals are selling gobs of Intel-based hardware running the Linux operating system. The pitch is that Linux on Intel is a less expensive and more open alternative to anything in the Sun technology arsenal. Even though Linux does not yet feature any special technological advantage over Sun's Solaris operating system, it is the fruit of open-source collaboration and thus does not belong to any single company.

The Linux-on-Intel combination also allows Sun's rivals to beat it over the head on price.

Sun argues all this is misleading advertising because of the hidden costs of ownership associated with building sophisticated data centers. When pricing Linux systems, customers can't ignore the cost of additional software they must buy to run on top of Linux. Sun also points out that it throws much of that into the package that comes with its Solaris operating system.

Another Sun argument: What's written to Red Hat's Linux won't run on Linux distributions from SuSe, Monte Vista, and the rest of the pack.

Fair enough. Though I contend that it's still easier to port from one Intel Linux to another than it is to port from one Solaris to another. Given the sharp year-to-year growth of Linux sales in the December quarter, more than a few data center administrators apparently agree. Consider the following, for the December quarter:

• IBM raked in $159.9 million in Linux-related sales, up from $75.6 million a year ago.

• Hewlett-Packard's share rose to $80.2 million, up 81 percent, from $44.3 million a year ago.

• Dell Computer's Linux server revenue soared nearly 66 percent, compared with a year ago, to $77.1 million.

• Sun, which started selling Linux servers in 2002, finished with just $1.3 million in Linux revenue.

When measured against total IT expenditures on corporate data centers, those numbers are still relative drops in the bucket. But the Linux-on-Intel combination also allows Sun's rivals to beat it over the head on price.

For IBM, a commodity operating system like Linux is a godsend because it can afford to subsidize its commodity strategy with revenue from its software and services businesses. Similarly, HP can count on its profitable printer business to offset the loss of margin elsewhere. (It also has a hardware line in the works that will run Linux top to bottom, unlike Sun. Linux is on Sparc if you want to do it yourself, but it's not popular.) And there's no company around that has been able to figure how to beat Dell at selling lower-end systems.

Struggling to revive its moribund stock price (still just above $3 a share), the last thing Sun needs or wants right now is an even worse price war.

Sun's retort is that data centers don't throw away existing architectures.

With prices on Linux-Intel systems falling, the pressure is on a "higher value" company like Sun to justify the higher prices it charges for systems comprising proprietary Unix operating systems on RISC processors. Corporate data managers are especially anxious about reducing hardware costs. What's more, they know the migration to Linux from an existing proprietary Unix platform reuses a lot of the existing code and skills.

Sun's retort is that data centers don't throw away existing architectures. That answer is eerily reminiscent of what the minicomputer crowd said back in the early 1980s--just before Sun turned them into also-rans.