Enterprise Unix Roundup: No More Purple Boxes

By Brian Proffitt (Send Email)
Posted Aug 29, 2007


Brian Proffitt
Sun's recent moves paint a company transitioning from relying on hardware sales to seeing software as its bread and butter. Does this spell the end of the purple boxes and other hardware offerings?

I remember my first exposure to Unix in 1993, when I started working for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers as an editor for a couple of their academic transactions. To keep compliant with incoming manuscripts from academicians (who uniformly shunned Word 4.0) and the printer, the editorial staff used Sun Solaris workstations, with a CDE desktop. Oh, and the monitors were monochrome.

This was really basic stuff. We had an e-mail application, NCSA Mosaic (for all 250 Web sites in existence) and ArborText Publisher — a publishing program that was also my first exposure to Standardized General Markup Language (SGML). What I remember most about working with Solaris were the (then) arcane command line functions and the really nifty purple workstation chassis. Much cooler than the plain white PC running Windows for Workgroups 3.11 that I had running at home.

I have many fond memories of working on that computer because it was the first time I used the Internet, for e-mail and the fledgling World Wide Web. I remember downloading the famous picture of Elvis and President Nixon in the Oval Office. I also remember using live satellite pictures as my X background (and showing my co-workers how to do it) ... until, two days later, when the IT manager came screaming out of the server room begging us to stop hogging disk space.

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Good times, those.

Now, it seems, the days of the nifty purple chassis will be soon forgotten. Sun Microsystems took steps earlier this month toward becoming a pure software company.

In the past, it was always a simple matter to reconcile IBM, HP, and Sun selling Linux alongside their respective Unix flavors (i.e., AIX, HP-UX and Solaris) because, in the end, it was always going to be about the number of boxes these companies sold — not the software the boxes were running.

On August 16, IBM announced it will be selling Solaris subscriptions on select x86-based IBM BladeCenter and System X servers. Normally, that would not be enough for me to bid adieu to the purple boxes, since this kind of arrangement is not particularly new for Sun and IBM. Back in 2005, IBM started selling Solaris x86 on some of its BladeCenter products. So, honestly, this month's deal was really just a renewal and expansion of the 2005 agreement.

There are, however, other signs. Most notably, the change late last week of Sun's NASDAQ symbol from SUNW to JAVA. I'm no Dan Brown, but you don't have to know the "DaVinci Code" to not see the symbolism in that move. Clearly, Sun wants to re-brand itself as less of a hardware company and more of a software one.

The recent hiring of Debian founder Ian Murdock and the intense re-focusing of the Solaris team to make the operating system more accessible can be read as another portent of things to come.

If Sun does drop the purple boxes, the question becomes, which vendor will pick up the support contracts for the existing Sun hardware already out there? Look for more deals with other vendors in the upcoming months — possibly even IBM. Such a partnership would give IBM more server business and perhaps — just perhaps  Sun could get IBM to make Solaris its flagship operating system as part of the bargain, instead of AIX or even Linux. After all, with Solaris becoming more open, easier to install and better supported on commodity servers, it may be an ideal candidate to supplant Linux as IBM's "open" operating system offering.

That would be something to remember.

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

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