Enterprise Unix Roundup: Rent-to-Own, Sun Style

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Jun 30, 2005


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Sun withdraws its Linux-based desktop product and introduces a workstation available for purchase on a rent-to-own plan. With apachetop, you get a real-time snapshot of everything the Apache server is doing, in a top-style format.

Michael Hall
Amy Newman

Has it really 21 been months since we said "our take on the prospects of [Sun's Java Desktop System] are less sanguine?"

Why yes, yes it has been. Just this week Sun withdrew its Linux-based desktop product, allowing us to now claim that "less than sanguine" meant "we knew it was doomed all along."

Our objections at the time were based on the difficulties the desktop market poses for upstarts that aren't companies from Redmond whose names start with "M." "We suspect there will be much squawking and tooth-pulling before Linux desktops are widespread in many enterprises beyond the engineer and geek pools," we wrote.

As The Register noted, the move leaves quite a few Sun customers in uncertain territory, with millions of units in China alone becoming either orphans or (and no one is clear on this) having never been deployed at all.

That is not to say JDS is dead. According to published reports, Sun's John Loiacono said it's going to be built around Solaris and aimed primarily at developers. And to that we can only say "Well, why not?"

JDS never really depended on Linux for much of anything besides a strong back on which a collection of applications could ride: StarOffice, Evolution, Mozilla, and the GNOME Desktop are all as capable of running on Solaris as they are any Linux distribution. Sun also didn't get very good press for JDS from Linux enthusiasts, who consistently evaluated the offering on how well it compared to bleeding-edge desktop distributions without any apparent thought for the considerations enterprise managers might apply to a desktop pick.

By pulling back to its home operating system, Sun can spare itself some fiddling, pare down the number of variables using something built around a competitor's product introduces (JDS was SUSE-based), and get on with its new desktop strategy, which is selling rent-to-own workstations to impoverished Java developers.

We kid.

Developers get a relatively inexpensive workstation and some nice software bundled with it, and they get it for very little money per month with a markup of a few hundred dollars that, evidently, won't be called "interest."

Sun did on Monday announce the "Ultra 20," a single-CPU Opteron workstation priced starting from $895 for the most basic configuration. Sun also announced that a three year, $29.95-per-month services subscription will get you the workstation for "free." Calling it a "rent-to-own deal," though, sounds sort of tawdry when it has the potential to put Sun hardware on a lot of desktops using the lure of what amounts to easy credit for a system that looks like a decent performer.

Like JDS, the Ultra 20 is aimed at developers: It will ship with apps like Sun Studio and Java Studio Enterprise, which can cost thousands licensed. The default operating system will be Solaris 10, but the workstation will be able to run Linux and Windows as well.

The deal is pretty simple, without a lot of angles to consider.

Developers get a relatively inexpensive workstation and some nice software bundled with it, and they get it for very little money per month with a markup of a few hundred dollars that, evidently, won't be called "interest." And Sun gets a chance to reach organizations that might not be interested in upgrading their workstations just yet, or that were considering HP or Dell alternatives.

Sun also gets a chance to assert something to low-end hardware buyers that people who have used Sun's higher-end servers have known for a while: Given control of the hardware and software, Sun makes good products that "just work." That alone enabled it to earn the devotion of many admins back in its boom-time heyday and is similar to the loyalty found in the small but dedicated market that has kept Apple afloat all these years. By distributing Solaris on a machine specifically tailored to it, potential Solaris converts are spared the frustration of slapping the new operating system on random hardware with potentially spotty driver support.

No ... that's not the world on fire you're hearing. It's just another step in the process of remaking Sun into a company relevant to someone besides nostalgia-tripping boom-era admins.

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