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Enterprise Unix Roundup: Solaris x86 Resurgent, Sun's Side of the Story

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Oct 16, 2003


Several weeks ago, we cocked a collective eyebrow at Sun. When executive VP Jonathan Schwartz said "we do not believe that Linux plays a role on the server. Period," we didn't have much of a choice.

Michael Hall gets the low-down on Sun's answer to the Linux question; SCO extends the deadline for companies to ante up; it's vulnerability redux for ssh, tcsh, bash, and ksh; and we revisit regexps via ^txt2regex$, an application that explains regular expressions in plain English.

Our read on the statement was that it was more than a little hyperbolic, perhaps fueled by bitterness at Linux making lunch meat of Solaris x86.

As reported last week, Hewlett-Packard pounced on the PR goldmine Schwartz offered, making an admirable but unremarkable offer to pass some incentives along to enterprises that drop their Solaris installations for HP gear running Linux. Hand it to HP: It understands how a lot of IT types are caught up in the emotionally charged questions of "loyalty" Linux engenders in the less coldly rational among us.

So after two straight weeks of puzzling over Sun's incomprehensible dithering about its love/hate relationship with Linux and reporting on HP's attempt at a flanking maneuver, we shouldn't have been surprised to hear from someone at Sun. That someone ended up being John Loiacono, Sun's VP of Operating Platforms.

Our first question was polite enough: What's with the disconnect between Scott McNealy's penguin costume antics and Mr. Schwartz's cold-eyed dismissal of Linux on the server?

Mr. Loiacano was admirably to the point:

"That's about being quotable," he said.

Oh.

The rest of the conversation was more or less about Solaris for x86, which we've derided on the good word of sys admins in the field who don't much like it as a pale shadow of Solaris on SPARC.

Loiacano's on an offensive to undo much of the criticism Solaris x86 has endured, pointing to its growing base of supported hardware types (Pentium 4, Xeon, dual-processor, grid, and blade servers); ongoing efforts to optimize the platform (the Atlas programs, which he says have improved Solaris performance upward of 60 percent in some benchmarks, but generally a respectable 10 percent to 20 percent overall); and an increase in simple personnel resources directed to the operating system, with 150 to 175 employees being pushed into the breach.

We admired Loiacano's candor about Solaris x86's deficiencies. (The software catalog remains a concern despite recent additions, sitting at around 1,000 applications vs. SPARC Solaris' 10,000 to 12,000 title list.) However, he soon got to a point familiar to Sun watchers -- dressing the limitations up as a qualified recognition of Linux's value proposition over Solaris in parts of the commodity server market:

"I'm not going to compete in a white box environment ... I'm not going to go head to head with Dell on a $2,200 server, and that's all I'm going to sell you. My value add is that I sell a system. It's the hardware; it's the operating system; it's the middleware stack; it's support services on a worldwide basis."

Start with the positive. That's what Dale Carnegie always said, and Loiacano managed that. So while explaining the success of Linux in the past few years, even his negatives came off as more of a matter of perspective:

"[IT people] want to get on x86 because it's fast and cheap [...] When people say there's a Linux phenomenon, from an IT perspective I would argue that it's more of an x86 phenomenon. That said, the development community is very much interested in the open source aspect, the ability to control their destiny, controlling their code, etc. IT is not enamored by that, but some of the developers are."

Loiacano went on to argue that much of Sun's apparent dithering on Linux has been the product of a fickle market, as well. The company's ill-fated in-house Linux distribution (Sun Linux), for instance, fell victim to customers too sensitive to Red Hat's brand:

"Even though it was primarily Red Hat 7.2 [and] open source, people said 'yeah, but you know what? It doesn't say Red Hat on it, so I'm not gonna do it.'"

Exit Sun Linux, and enter resulting OEM deals with Linux distributors Red Hat and Suse, which represent the operating systems on which the Java Enterprise (JES) and Desktop systems will run.

According to Loiacano, although Linux support for the JES will lag behind Solaris x86 by a (convenient) 90 days, the operating system remains supported at Sun -- something even Schwartz wasn't denying when he crossed his own Linux PR Rubicon several weeks ago. The price of the software stack in which Linux will reside, though, comes out lower for Solaris customers, reinforcing a lesson Loiacano was clearly out to stress during our interview: "There is no longer a free Linux," because no one among the sort of IT operations that constitute Sun's bread and butter can work up much enthusiasm for downloading a few CD ROM images and calling it an infrastructure.

Our takeaway? Primarily that, Mr. Schwartz's comments notwithstanding (not to mention the lurid tales of Mr. McNealy's "decapitated penguin head"), Sun is largely rational in how it is addressing the Linux question. It knows where its market lies: Not in one-off Web server installs for corporate intranets, or trusty but under-taxed SMB servers for workgroups, where Linux can't help but dominate if a Unix is to be used at all. Sun has better things in mind for Solaris x86 and its Intel-based offerings in general, and we expect a bitter fight there.

The real change is in the rhetoric.

As we mentioned earlier, much of HP's recent "Linux Lifeline" was as much an emotional appeal as it was a great deal. In the years we've covered Linux, we've come face to face numerous times with a sort of emotional resonance you don't get from "Windows enthusiasts" or the "Solaris community." Perhaps that's the David and Goliath story coming to the top, with the traditional "everyone loves an underdog" narrative finding itself recast in terms of operating systems. Perhaps it's because Linux has created a lot of converts due to its ubiquity and growing ease of use, representing the cherished first love of many a dedicated Unix nerd. Whatever its cause, and no matter how much some observers poo-poo the Mao-like fervor of some Linux enthusiasts at full froth, that emotional resonance is there, and waiting to be either mined for profit or stumbled through like a mine field.

HP figured it out, IBM has certainly figured it out, and some time in the past few weeks, Sun decided to see if there's a middle road, neither picking a fight nor walking away from one, where its own operating systems is concerned.

As long as we're all clear.

In Other News
  • Were you tossing and turning last night because you thought your corporate accountant had forgotten to mail SCO its Linux license money? That's a pity, because the company pushed the deadline for doubling the prices on its licenses back to October 31. Some investment bankers are still fond of SCO, though, taking the time to rate its stock a "buy," while cautioning that SCO shares will be worthless if its case with IBM falls through.
  • Sun unveiled the UltraSPARC IV, setting its release for early 2004. Sun expects the processor will double the throughput of its high-end to midrange systems.
  • JupiterMedia's Enterprise Linux Forum is set to take place in Washington, D.C. next week, on Wednesday and Thursday (the 22nd and 23rd).

    Security Roundup

    Sometimes we run into problems picking noteworthy exploits and bugs to cover because it's impossible to cover all the errata every vendor posts, and because we aim for security issues that concern a healthy number of common Unix variants. This week, one that would be hard to top in terms of ubiquity reappeared two years after being identified: Four of the most common Unix shells are affected, and we're still scrolling down the list of affected vendors.

    The shells in question are sh, tcsh, bash, and ksh. The vulnerability is a behavior in those shells that allows for fairly arbitrary access of files in /tmp by any user using the shells' << redirection operator. Since /tmp is a sort of DMZ in the average Unix system, there's the potential for malicious users to replace temporary but important files with contents of their own choosing, making it possible to give themselves higher privileges or to corrupt files.

    Security Focus has a complete list of affected vendors and an in-depth discussion of the bug.

    As we noted last week, laziness and sloth can be more potent enemies than the most determined cracker. Here's a case of an old exploit (it's been known about for a few years already) still being patched and replaced by vendors.

    Tips of the Trade

    Last month, we provided a series of tips on regular expressions (regexps). Since then, several of our tips have featured programs that use regexps. This week, we'd like to revisit regexps to point out a truly handy application that first explains in plain English how to say something in regular expressions: ^txt2regex$.

    It's written using bash, so there's no need to compile or build anything, and it supports many, many regexp idioms, including, according to the Web site, "awk, ed, emacs, grep, perl, php, procmail, python, sed, and vim."

    The nice thing about this sort of tool is that it offers fast answers for users first stumbling through the process of learning their way around regexps, while also providing an education in one of the trickier aspects of Unix life. Good stuff.

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