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Sun Microsystems, the begrudging Linux vendor

With the success Linux has enjoyed, one would think all hardware vendors would shout their Linux support from every rooftop. But not Sun, the begrudging Linux vendor.

The Sun Microsystems marketing machine has been hard at work promoting its Solaris 10 operating system as of late, with special events for the press and analyst community. But market data suggests that it's Linux -- not Solaris -- that Sun customers want.

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In a May 2006 report, IDC reported that 66.3% of the AMD-based Galaxy servers in Sun's portfolio ship with Linux pre-installed. By September, that number had increased to 71.5%. A Sun representative contacted for this article declined to update those numbers, and said the company does not break out the number of servers shipped for analyst reports.

Sun customers running Linux include the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California, which finished deploying a 400-server Sun Fire x64 Galaxy supercomputer in December on which it runs its research applications.

Then, this past spring, Canonical Ltd. -- the company responsible for funding the Ubuntu project -- said it would support Sun's Niagara SPARC-based server line. Released in October, Ubuntu 6.10 LTS server runs on the Sun Fire T1000 and Sun Fire T2000 servers with CoolThreads technology. All support is provided by Canonical directly and from the Ubuntu Linux user community.

Straddling the line

As a Linux vendor, Sun has walked the line between supporting its flagship operating system, Solaris 10, and appeasing customers who want Sun hardware running Linux.

Sun's official line has always resembled this quote from Chris Ratcliffe, Sun's director of Solaris:

"If you take a look at hardware and AMD-based systems, there are three types of OS's customers are interested in," Ratcliffe said. Those operating systems are Windows, which Sun does not ship pre-installed; pre-configured Linux; and Solaris. "We prefer they would use Solaris, but at the end of the day our job is to give the customer a choice," he said.

Despite this sort of rhetoric, Sun executives are quick to point out that Linux and Windows lack Solaris-only features like DTrace and "predictive self-healing." DTrace is a dynamic tracing framework designed for tuning and troubleshooting applications and the OS. Predictive self-healing is a feature meant to maximize system availability in the event of hardware faults or failures.

If that's the case, why would anyone choose Linux over Solaris in the first place? Ratcliffe lists a couple of reasons. Customers could request Linux if an application they have isn't available on Solaris, or "they could have originally deployed a service on Red Hat [as an interim measure] and are in the process of migrating to Solaris," he said.

The odd couple

Sun unveiled its Galaxy line of servers based on AMD chips in late 2005 – a time when many people had officially written Sun off. At the time, the Opteron/Galaxy line provided the means to keep customers in the Sun fold, even if they didn't deploy Solaris, said Charles King, principal analyst for Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research.

This dynamic has bred an estranged relationship between Sun and Linux.

"Sun's relationship with Linux has always been a bit weird," said King. "[Sun] typically states that it fully supports Linux development and contributes to the open source community, but also points out that Solaris offers fuller functionality and application support than any Linux distribution," he said. IT managers would be wise to understand that point when considering Linux on a Sun box, said King, because the better support from Sun comes with its signature OS.

He added that Linux on Sun's popularity is still limited to its x86 Galaxy/Opteron line. "It's not that popular an option on the mainline UltraSPARC boxes," he said.

Linux everywhere

Even so, Linux has been an incredibly popular alternative for a growing number of business applications. A recent report from Westport, Conn.-based Saugatuck Technology Inc. said that by 2011, nearly 50% of all enterprise environments would rely on Linux for mission critical operations.

Analysts see no indication that that will change, even for Sun and its customers. "I don't see this dynamic changing," said Gordon Haff, senior analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. "I don't see the world rethinking Linux as some passing fad and going back to Solaris. Expect Linux to remain a significant portion of Sun's x64 business for some time."

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