Enterprise Unix Roundup: Selling Wall Street on Sun

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Sep 23, 2004


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Sun went to Wall Street this week with an arsenal of new rhetoric, claiming humility yet detailing an ambitious agenda to set the Street right. Looking for a more secure FTP server? Consider vsftpd.

Three years ago, we attended Sun's quarterly network computing day. It was the heart of the Bust, and we were treated to pot shots directed at IBM and Microsoft and were told that Sun was the true "open standards" vendor. The company then introduced its $1.4-million-plus flagship server in a completely refreshed Sun Fire line. At the time, Sun cited server consolidation and the desire for a lower total cost of ownership as the bait to lure enterprises to its wares.

Three years is an eternity in the tech market. Since then, Sun has officially made nice with Microsoft and seen its market share erode as Big Blue's grew. Solaris has taken a beating from Linux, particularly in Sun's sweet spot of financial services institutions.

As for the Sun Fire 15K, we're not sure exactly how many sold, but suffice to say that while talk of wrangling server sprawl abounds, x86 commodity hardware has been the growth driver in the server market for the past several quarters.

On Tuesday, a battle-wizened and bearish Sun returned to "Take Back Wall Street." It brought with it an arsenal of new rhetoric, claiming humility yet detailing an ambitious agenda to set the Street right. The first task on its to-do list was to listen to customers.

Surprise, surprise, when Sun sat down with customers, it learned they wanted four basic things. Sun "discovered" they wanted Solaris to run on platforms other than SPARC, hardware that supported operating systems other than Solaris, increased interoperability for Sun systems within their heterogeneous server rooms, and better price/performance and more innovative pricing models.

The decision to change operating systems is generally not made on a whim. Sun listening to customers and snapping its fingers is unlikely to convince enterprises that left Solaris for Red Hat during the Bust to do an about face and trade in hardware and void licenses to jump on the Solaris 10 bandwagon.

So a new Sun has arisen. One that is on the cusp of bringing change to the IT landscape. One for whom "Linux has become a farming ground," President and COO Jonathan "You Should Read My Blog" Schwartz said. Linux, you see, isn't as free as it used to be, and it doesn't offer the breadth and depth of support available with Solaris.

Linux (mainly Red Hat's distribution) on x86 commodity boxes is the new enemy. To show how committed it is to rebuilding its empire, Sun is chopping 50 percent off the price of a Solaris license for customers moving from Linux to Solaris.

The decision to change operating systems is generally not made on a whim. Sun listening to customers and snapping its fingers is unlikely to convince enterprises that left Solaris for Red Hat Linux (or SUSE or any other operating system) during the Bust to do an about face and trade in hardware and void licenses to jump on the Solaris 10 bandwagon.

However, as Schwartz said repeatedly, Sun's true value proposition isn't its operating system or its hardware, it's about Sun being a systems vendor. A systems vendor that offers everything from the chips to the box to the operating system to the middleware and to the application. This, according to Schwartz, provides a competitive advantage. That may be a logical argument, but it contradicts Sun's simultaneous claim of meeting enterprise demands by being more "open than open."

Sun, according to Schwartz, is the only systems vendor that sells its own operating system. While IBM does offer AIX and HP has HP UX, neither has ported its operating system beyond its own hardware, and neither has brought its operating system to its x86 offerings. Solaris, in contrast, has been licensed to 249 x86 systems with "vastly more Solaris licenses in existence than Sun systems," Schwartz said. On the flip side, Sun also sells several Opteron and Intel x86 systems that run Solaris, Red Hat/SUSE, and even Windows.

We're not sure if this is what the vendor means by "more open than open," but customer choice has certainly become more prevalent. Options, not the least of which is to "opt out," are present throughout the Sun stack. Sun giving full sales credit for Solaris sales on non-Sun hardware sales indicates some recognition that the rules of the game have changed: If Sun wants to play in the server room, it must be prepared to play in one that is heterogeneous down to the system level.

We're not prepared to count Sun out just yet. It wouldn't be the first time a systems vendor arose from the ashes, surveyed the landscape, and proceeded to rule the roost. After two years of negative growth, the previous quarter was a good one for Sun. Presumably, its discussions with customers aren't a one-time summit but rather the beginning of a dialogue that will enable the company to be more proactive than reactive the next time the paradigm shifts.

Other Sun Spots

  • The Utility Computing for Grid (aka the N1 Grid) is being described as the "next logical evolution" of the model for midrange storage and high performance grid computing. Sun plans to sell its computing cycles in hourly increments $1.

  • We heard lots marketing noise that no one was able to concretely elaborate on. Logistical questions, like where will the hardware reside, who will own it, and how and what exactly customers are purchasing weren't really answered, leaving us to wonder how planned out this is. We're also scratching our heads over the "revolutionary" description. We've been to IBM's Deep Computing Capacity On Demand Lab, and the concept of paying based on MIPS is hardly new.

  • Solaris 10 was not, as originally planned, deemed production-ready at this time. Despite glossy commercials and endless testimonials from customers both live and on video, no final release date has been set. Sun is citing 64-bit support for Opteron and other general fine-tuning -- not the least of which is determining which open source (or rather, open development license, as the Sun rep we spoke with preferred to call it) to use -- as the culprit. Sun expects to deem Solaris 10 production ready some time in November.

  • A number of storage options including the Sun StorEdge 6920 and StorEdge 9990 servers, the StorEdge 5210 NAS device, the StorEdge 6920, and Sun StorEdge Traffic Manager were announced.

  • Sun unveiled the Sun Fire V490 and Sun Fire V890, Solaris-based UltraSPARC IV servers powered by Chip Multithreading technology that can double application throughput while maintaining full binary compatibility. The 8-way V890 server is an extension of the V880, and the 4-way V490 is an extension of the V440.

  • Sun issued a glimpse of the Sun Nauticus Switch, a new virtual switch technology that will, according to Schwartz "extend the server into the network." The technology is based on the company's acquisition of Nauticus Networks earlier this year.

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