News Stay informed about the latest enterprise technology news and product updates.

IBM to sell Sun Solaris on x86 and mainframes; pigs fly

Last week's announcement that IBM will support and sell subscriptions for Solaris on its System x servers and mainframes has industry analysts aflutter.

For more on Sun and IBM:
Sun angered by IBM X86 rejection

Dow Jones drops Sun for IBM pSeries
Sun market supercomputing services
Jaws hit the floor in collective surprise when rivals IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. announced last week that IBM has agreed to sell Sun Microsystems' Solaris 10 operating system subscriptions for select x86-based IBM System x servers and BladeCenter servers.

During a press conference on Thursday, Aug. 16, Sun President and CEO Jonathan Schwartz and IBM Senior Vice President and Group Executive William Zeitler jointly presented the news.

The companies will jointly invest in system optimization to make Solaris run as efficiently as possible on IBM servers. Sun will provide support for Solaris.

To date, IBM has supported SUSE Linux, Red Hat and various Windows offerings.

[Offering Solaris] adds
to our commitment to interoperatibility in the marketplace.

William Zeitler,
senior VP and group executiveIBM Corp.

Thus far, this is the closest relationship Sun has forged with any vendor, Schwartz said. Sun also partners with Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), but the relationship is at "arm's length," he said. HP does not distribute licenses for Solaris, nor does it optimize systems for Solaris. Schwartz would not comment on Sun's relationship with Dell Inc.

Partnership is surprising, but strategic
The IBM/Sun deal elicited a great deal of commentary from industry pundits.

"This gives Sun's software group access to IBM's channel and will gain revenue based on subscriptions from that business," said Jean Bozman, research vice president for IDC's Enterprise Servers group. "You can download Solaris for free, but Sun would like to sell subscriptions for profit, and working with IBM's sales force allows them to do that."

Charles King, a senior analyst at Pund-IT Inc., a research firm in Hayward, Calif., was surprised by the partnership agreement between IBM and Sun given a history of enmity between the two companies. But King added that the agreement makes sense for the direction in which Sun is headed.

"I could not have imagined this occurring when Scott McNealy was CEO of Sun," said King. "It seems Jonathan Schwartz is taking the company in a more open and software-driven direction."

IBM can only gain from the deal. It has limited its partnership to System x and blade servers, so there is no conflict with IBM's Unix, or System p platform. "I don't see it as a huge income generator for IBM, but it portrays itself as the provider of a wider array of solutions, and this puts IBM way ahead of the curve," King said.

"For a long time now, IBM has held the view that we are better off serving the needs of customers," Zeitler said. "When we started offering Linux, it was a concern. But we are doing better now that we give clients a choice."

IBM servers that will support Solaris include IBM BladeCenter HS21 and LS41 servers and IBM System x3650, System x3755, and System x3850 servers. Zeitler also said that in the future users can expect to see Solaris running on IBM System z mainframes as well.

In light of the new virtualization market, IBM's decision to add Solaris to its list of offerings is especially wise. Users running virtualization can run more than one operating system on a single server, so a user can run Solaris and Windows on a single physical IBM server, Bozman said.

"In the industry, we've become accustomed to the idea of one OS per server, but now with virtualization, we can have quite a few different OSes running," Bozman said. "Users like this, because certain apps run better on certain OSes."

The Solaris OS is now supported on more than 820 x86-based platforms and more certified with 3000 x86-based applications.

The two companies are also planning on enabling Solaris to run on IBM mainframes. Sine Nomine Associates, an Ashburn, Va.-based consulting firm that helped port Linux on IBM's System 390 and zSeries, is reportedly working on porting OpenSolaris to System z in virtual machines. No timeline for mainframe support for Solaris was given.

There is continuing skepticism about Solaris' place on IBM mainframe systems, but King said Solaris on the mainframe will be attractive, especially to Sparc users looking to consolidate their systems.

"There was a lot of doubt in the industry questioning the value of it, but Linux gave mainframe a whole new life, and IBM pressed forward with specialty processor for Java and Web apps," King said. "There is a ton of business out there from users with huge, aging Sun Sparc rack servers – especially in the financial services and telco space[s] -- where the mainframe has won as a consolidation platform. With Solaris available, I can imagine IBM moving Sparc onto mainframe platforms."

Bozman of IDC said OpenSolaris on mainframe is an intriguing option. "You could have Solaris running on the mainframe with virtualization capabilities, with logical partitions and multiple instances of Solaris running, the way we've seen with Linux."

When asked how IBM will manage conflict between the new partnership and IBM's Unix operating system AIX, Zeitler said, "mature vendors respond to customer requirements, and that is what we are doing. We will continue investing in AIX, but we know lots of customers like Solaris. We don't see that as a compromise. It adds to our commitment to interoperatibility in the marketplace.

"When we decided to put Linux on mainframes, we debated whether that would compromise us or open us to competition we didn't have," Zeitler said. "But it opened us up to more customers and enabled us to compete based on our merits. There will be times when customers look at us and at Sun and decide Sun's hardware is better, but in my experience, you are better off meeting clients in the way they want to be met."

Mutual back scratching
In the new commercial relationship Zeitler calls "co-opetition," IBM will benefit by selling servers; in turn Sun receives payment for support contracts. Further, when IBM delivers a Solaris license, IBM will pay Sun for use of its intellectual property, Zeitler said.

The plan is mutually beneficial, but especially so for IBM, Bozman said. While it will offer the option of Solaris, IBM will likely sell more of its own middleware products that support that operating system, such as Lotus Notes or other DB2 software.

Joe Clabby, head of Clabby Analytics, said that IBM already sells a ton of Solaris services, and IBM Global Technology Services does a lot of business supporting Solaris deployment and management today.

"If IBM's existing base of Solaris customers are looking to consolidate, it makes natural sense for IBM to offer Solaris support on IBM blades," Clabby said. "Many of these customers are already receiving support from IBM."

"For Sun, this move promotes Solaris as the Unix choice on Intel. But I have to wonder if it might also detract from Sun blade sales over time," Clabby said.

Schwartz doesn't appear concerned about losing hardware sales to IBM, however, contending that x86 servers will stand on their own. He said when Sun decoupled its hardware and software business, it began selling more of both, and software revenues grew 13%.

"When you make your products available on more platforms, you are accessible to more customers and will benefit from that," he said.

Sun will sell more Solaris subscriptions because IBM's x86 channel is more extensive throughout the world than Sun's, Bozman said.

IBM holds the No. 1 spot in the worldwide server systems market with 37.9% market share in factory revenue for the fourth quarter of 2006, growing factory revenue by 3.8% year over year, driven by solid performance from its System x, System z and System p servers, according to an IDC report. HP holds the second spot, followed by Sun with 9.7% share for the fourth quarter of 2006.

Customers can run Solaris on the select IBM servers now by going to Sun's download site, but IBM system optimizations and testing is still in progress. Optimized systems will be available by next quarter, Zeitler said.

Following the news, HP sent out a contemptuous email welcoming IBM to the party.

Since 2004, HP has generated more than $1 billion in revenue by moving Sun customers to HP servers. In fact, since 1996, HP has been certifying Solaris on x86 platforms.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

Also, check out our news blog at


Dig Deeper on IBM system z and mainframe systems

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.