Enterprise Unix Roundup: A Deal for the History Books

By Brian Proffitt (Send Email)
Posted Nov 21, 2007

Brian Proffitt
Oil and water? Or your chocolate in my peanut butter? Is the Sun-Dell partnership a sign of good times or Armageddon?

Athens vs. Sparta.

Montague vs. Capulet.

The Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

Dell vs. Sun Microsystems.

Classic feuds all, where no-holds competition continues until one party drops. Defeated and beaten.

Until now.

Last week saw what could be the weirdest IT news of the year: Dell and Sun used the forum of Oracle OpenWorld (a show title that drips with irony in and of itself) to announce that Dell will offer Solaris for sale on its PowerEdge server product line.

It was, for most, a surprise. Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz brought out Dell CEO Michael Dell as his guest during the Sun keynote at OpenWorld to make the announcement that Dell has entered "an OEM agreement to distribute and support Sun's Solaris operating system on Dell PowerEdge servers. Schwartz said Sun reached out to Dell after analysis of Solaris users revealed a third of them were running on Dell servers," reported David Needle over at internetnews.com.

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For the near term, this is huge news for Sun. The announcement comes on the heels of similar news of Solaris support from IBM and Intel. Getting Dell as an outlet for Solaris is a pretty good path for Sun, the hardware-now-software company.

In the announcement, Schwartz indicated Sun reached out to Dell because it noticed a number of customers have been running Solaris on Dell boxes. Dell confirmed that, adding that many customers were requesting Solaris machines, including Oracle customers. Dell must have added that to throw the audience a bone. (Those must be legacy customers, however, because the latest version of Oracle, 11g, runs only on Linux.)

Despite the corporate sincerity, the overall reaction to the news was positive. And why not? It's no skin off Dell's nose to start selling Solaris. Dell is no HP or IBM — it doesn't have its own Unix to offer. But if ever there was proof that Sun is no longer a contender as a hardware company, this deal (and the IBM deal before it) is it.

In the past, Dell and Sun would go after each other like the Jets and the Sharks — circling, stalking, dancing — getting in those jabs here and there whenever they could. Who could forget the classic 2005 Dell Tech Force campaign that featured "the Leviathans of Big Iron" cartoons that put the smackdown on Sun (and IBM and HP)? So what if the cartoons turned out to be hosted on a Solaris server at the time?

And I can't not mention the "Get off the Itanic" campaign Sun launched that same year, which tried to destroy Dell and its cohort of independent hardware vendors (IHVs). Too bad Dell wasn't selling Itanium-based servers — only HP.

This battle of the behemoths is not stale, mind you. Just last year, Judy Chavis, director of business development for Dell's enterprise product group, had this to say in an April 2006 interview with CNET news about the possibility of selling Solaris on Dell machines:

'Is it the next industry standard around operating systems? That's what it would take for us to do that,' she said. So far, the answer is a definitive no. 'Since the year started, I haven't had a Solaris x86 customer come into the briefing center,' Chavis said.

Customer demand must have changed. Of course, much can happen in 19 months. Getting back to the present, given the nasty nature of the Dell-Sun professional brouhaha, I can't imagine Dell thinks Sun would be any sort of threat in the hardware arena anymore. If it did, Sun would be left twisting in the wind.

My only question now is: When will Sun get around to selling its hardware business, and who is going to buy it?

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

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