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Analyst firm urges caution on Sun's Linux strategy

In a recent report, the Aberdeen Group compares Sun's and Hewlett-Packard's Linux strategies and cautions that Sun's bias toward Solaris and the perception it isn't serious about Linux could hamper its movement into the enterprise Linux space.

A recent assessment of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s enterprise Linux strategy by Boston-based analysis firm Aberdeen Group Inc. cautions IT managers and decision makers about Sun's internal bias toward Solaris and the perception that Sun isn't serious about Linux.

Generally considered a latecomer to the enterprise Linux story, Sun CEO Scott McNealy did little to dispel Aberdeen's conclusions during his company's SunNetwork user conference last week in San Francisco. McNealy and software vice president Jonathan Schwartz said Sun has no Linux strategy and that the server maker offers Linux only because customers ask for it.

Sun's proprietary version of Unix, Solaris, is Sun's flagship operating system, according to report author Bill Claybrook. Furthermore, Sun apparently has no intention of porting its OS offerings from its SPARC processors to Intel's Itanium processor family the way Hewlett-Packard Co. does, Claybrook states, in a comparison of the two vendors.

"Aberdeen does not agree with Sun's assessment of its SPARC business. Recent benchmark tests of Linux and Windows running on Itanium platforms provided results that are very competitive with Solaris and other Unix platforms," Claybrook wrote. "In addition, Aberdeen strongly believes that Linux will begin to replace Unix at an accelerating rate over the next two years, and that Itanium 2 will be a successful 64-bit architecture."

Sun's saving grace with respect to Linux is its standing as the only major server vendor to offer a desktop environment, the report states. Its Mad Hatter open desktop project is less expensive than Windows, and the StarOffice application suite is starting to gain traction in companies as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Aberdeen also notes that Sun's Linux offerings use the same middleware and software stack as Solaris on SPARC and Solaris on Intel x86. Also, Sun supports only two Linux distributions, SuSE and Red Hat.

Claybrook cautions that Sun's internal bias toward Solaris could stem Linux's growth beyond entry level for at least two years. Also, there is nothing coming in the way of a 64-bit industry standard platform commitment from Sun.

"Sun claims that it does not show a preference, and it positions the operating systems based on customer need and demand. Although Sun has been very active in the open-source community for several years, it has gotten into the Linux market much later than Dell, HP and IBM," Claybrook wrote. "As with IBM, Sun is using Linux (and Solaris/x86) to pump new life into its product line. Sun's move to the x86 product line is a major strategic expansion and presents a major volume opportunity for Java, SunONE and N1."

Sun sells three Linux-based platforms that run on one or two processors, the LX-50 and the SunFire V60x and V65x X86 server lines. Though Sun's server offerings are simple, they may not be robust enough for IT decision makers, Claybrook wrote.

"For IT managers who are interested in moving to Linux, Sun provides for no scaling to four- and eight-way Linux platforms and has not announced any intentions to sell 64-bit platforms," Claybrook wrote. "Aberdeen sees Sun's reluctance to provide a road map that includes 64-bit processors as a weakness in its Linux strategy -- one that may limit its revenue growth to the point that potential customers do not look toward Sun when they want Linux."

HP, on the other hand, is gambling its entire product line on industry-standard servers. It plans to move its current Unix RISC customers to Itanium in the next three years, though it has announced support for RISC for substantially beyond that timetable.

HP offers three operating systems: its version of Unix (HP-UX), Windows and Linux. HP's commitment to industry-standard servers simplifies the transition of applications from 32-bit to 64-bit architectures for independent software vendors, Claybrook wrote. Also, HP demonstrated a deepened commitment to Linux by creating a Linux division and aligning it with HP-UX and Windows in its enterprise server and storage division.

HP has already taken steps to help customers port from HP-UX to Linux if they want by developing Linux application programming interfaces and application binary interfaces as part of a Linux Porting Kit for HP-UX 11i.

"Because Linux is one of the operating systems in HP's multi-OS strategy, HP's comprehensive software suite is available on Linux," Claybrook wrote. "Importantly, customers who have HP-UX or Windows on HP hardware can integrate Linux on HP hardware and interoperate in a seamless manner."

"IT managers can take solace in HP's multi-OS strategy, of which HP-UX, Linux and Windows are operatives, because all of these operating systems run on Itanium 2 and support the same set of management tools, development tools, directory services, and so on. An IT manager can buy an Itanium 2 server from HP and run any one of the three operating systems."

FOR MORE INFORMATION: news exclusive: "Sun CEO: Linux is for 'hobbyists,' not enterprise" expert response: "What does a Unix shop need to know about Linux?"

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