Enterprise Unix Roundup: Sun, Eclipsed

By Brian Proffitt (Send Email)
Posted Nov 8, 2006

Brian Proffitt
Everyone is talking about how the barrage of news from Oracle, Microsoft and Novell is affecting Red Hat. But does anyone remember Solaris? ... anyone?

Having watched the joint Novell-Microsoft press conference last Thursday and all of the attendant hoopla from the open source community — which is at once stunned, elated, and quite riled — I found one thing noticeably missing from all of the rigmarole.

I can, I think, be forgiven for not picking up on this sooner. After all, right after the press conference, I was immersed in a 72-hour, intra-state move. Awash in a sea of cardboard and paper wrappings, the big world of enterprise IT movers and shakers wasn't really at the top of my priority list.

Now that the dust has settled, more details have been revealed, and I am happily ensconced in the Internet once more, my cynical thought processes are up and running once again. And the first thing that popped out was this query:

Where is Sun Microsystems in all of this? More specifically, how does this affect Solaris?

If you're in a hurry, I'll give you the short version: Sun is well and truly hosed. Maybe.

Too wishy-washy? Let me explain ...

When the new partnership arrangement between Novell and Microsoft was announced, everyone almost immediately started watching the stock price for Red Hat and gloomily predicting its impending demise. This was a perfectly natural response, since a mere six days prior, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison announced his company was planning on supporting and distributing its own enterprise Linux platform, which would be based solely on Red Hat's source code.

That announcement sent Red Hat shares plummeting 28 percent that day; however, the value of the Raleigh, N.C. company's stock did bounce back a bit since then. Part of this was likely due to the $328 million stock buyback Red Hat announced the next business day, but I wonder if it was also because savvy analysts and stockholders realized that in the long-term, Oracle's move might precipitate more business for Red Hat.

Flash-forward to Nov. 2, when CEOs Steve Ballmer and Ron Hovsepian got up on a San Francisco stage and — in press lingo — performed a kumbayah. Many people wondered what this would do to Red Hat. Many of them are still wondering. The patent pledge Ballmer announced — Microsoft would not assert its intellectual property (IP) on any Novell-related open source technology — was all well and good, but you couldn't help but wonder about the converse: What about IP that Microsoft thinks might be in Red Hat's code?

As battered as Red Hat is from these two announcements, there is one player in the enterprise IT space that I think is going to suffer worse from the same two industry moves: the aforementioned Sun and its Solaris operating system.

To be fair, I am not the only one who wondered about Solaris. InfoWorld's Neil McAllister analyzed the situation on October 30, after the Oracle-Red Hat announcement. McAllister noted once upon a time, Solaris was also held up as a valued Oracle partner, and Ellison's announcement actually performed two disservices for Solaris: Not only is Oracle planning its own Linux platform (thus pitting itself directly against Solaris), but also the implication is that Solaris somehow isn't worthy enough to copy (though Solaris' Common Development and Distribution License may have help protect Sun's code from an outright Oracle pilfering).

Jonathan Schwartz, naturally, denies the Oracle announcement means anything bad for his company. In that same article, McAllister quotes Schwartz's OracleWorld keynote:

"'I don't think our partnership has ever been stronger than it is now,' Schwartz said."


And now, here we are in the the aftermath one of the more oddly paired partnerships in IT history, and the question again must be asked, how does this affect Solaris? Well, if you take the roses and sunshine picture that Microsoft and Novell are trying to produce at face value, then a happy world of Microsoft-Linux interoperability can only mean bad things for Solaris. Once again, a major move is made in the enterprise and Sun is left out in the cold. Again. People are bound to take notice.

But, there is a possible out for Solaris, and it comes in the form of the patent protection plan Microsoft outlined for its new partner last week.

"Under the patent cooperation agreement, both companies will make upfront payments in exchange for a release from any potential liability for use of each other's patented intellectual property, with a net balancing payment from Microsoft to Novell reflecting the larger applicable volume of Microsoft's product shipments. Novell will also make running royalty payments based on a percentage of its revenues from open source products," according to the press release.

"Running royalty," in the land of the GPL, may indeed be a bad thing. It's not clear exactly how this arrangement will work, but already many legal analysts are pointing out that it could be a violation of the GPL. If that proves to be the case, Novell may soon find itself embroiled in legal action to prevent its distribution of GPLed software, including Linux.

If I were Sun's management, I would use this opportunity to point out to potential customers that once again, that naughty Linux operating system is enmeshed in a legal battle. I would then point out that Solaris has not had any of those messy legal problems (yet).

It's sneaky, but it could be one way out as Solaris struggles for recognition in an IT world that's increasingly ignoring it.

Brian Proffitt is managing editor of JupiterWeb's Linux/Open Source channel, which includes Linux Today, LinuxPlanet, and AllLinuxDevices.

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