Enterprise Unix Roundup: Sun's Razorblade Giveaway

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Dec 4, 2003


"The profit's not in the razors, it's in the blades," goes the well-known men's grooming product truism. The principle extends to other industries, including a companies that sell Unix-based offerings. So how can you tell when such a company has gone down that road? Sun's JES may be the short end of a wedge the company's hoping to drive into the x86 space; cooperation between three Linux competitors unearthed a dangerous bug in the kernel; and when hunting for that disk-eating whale of a file, find is your friend.

We're fairly sure that a sudden emphasis on sensible licensing counts as an indication. It doesn't hurt if the company buys up an office suite, then turns around and starts selling it to China by the millions. You might be momentarily distracted by its high-profile hardware deals though. Ignore that distraction and focus on what it means when the company says it plans to start selling software for something besides its own cherished operating system and the one it found laying around for free.

The company in question is, of course, Sun Microsystems. This week Sun indicated that Linux and Solaris running on its own hardware are too small to contain the company's ambition. Sun heralded the eventual release of its Java Enterprise System, AKA JES, (we wish it had stuck with the punchier "Orion") for Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX, IBM's AIX, and Microsoft's Windows. So much for Sun's self-destructive insularity of the boom years.

Further strengthening Sun's newfound software angle is the vendor's announcement of its own "switchers" campaign: Half off its Java Desktop System (here, too, we wish it had stuck with the punchier "Mad Hatter") for data centers migrating from Windows, which means enterprises looking for a way off the Windows treadmill (and onto Sun's) can manage the switch for $50 a user. That's not a bad deal. StarOffice alone costs more than that, but knocking so much off the top provides an incentive to push through a painful migration.

An impulsive narrator might take this story in the direction of Sun living happily ever after as a Unix-y software company that also writes stuff for Windows. But the allure of a bustling hardware business isn't lost on Sun: The company is giving JES away for free (except service and support) to enterprises with less than 100 employees that buy Sun hardware. That might give a nice boost to Sun in the x86 market, and it definitely throws an elbow at Dell and other premium white box companies.

Taken with the AMD deal of a few weeks ago, its emphasis on beefing up Solaris x86, and reasonable licensing strategies, Sun's agressive moves in the low end seem to bring the year to a sensible conclusion for the company. The JES giveaway and the push to bring it to other flavors of Unix and Windows are less about the software and more about positioning for the next wave, when Sun hopes to have its x86 ducks in a row, ready to sell the software Dell doesn't and the hardware Microsoft doesn't to customers who have had a taste of JES and are ready to try it out on its home turf: Sun Kit.

We'll see how 2004 plays out.

In Other News

  • Sun announced updates to both standard and Trusted Solaris. Amid the updates, we were pleased to note Sun continues to work on making its Network File System (NFS) more secure.
  • Red Hat announced that it is on the verge of reaching Evaluated Assurance Level 2 (EAL 2) under the Common Criteria Scheme. SUSE, Red Hat's biggest Linux competitor, reached EAL 2 in August. Other Unix players like Solaris, AIX, and HP-UX are already a few levels higher, but this marks a turning point for Red Hat, since it opens the door for government sales to the Department of Defense and National Security Agency.
  • Red Hat also announced academic pricing for its workstation and Advanced Server products. Students, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities can now pick up one-year subscriptions to the products for $25 or $50. A Red Hat subscription, by the way, means the license holder can access the Red Hat Network for errata and updates. Educational pricing makes plenty of sense from the "get them in the cradle" perspective, and with Red Hat the move makes an extra bit of sense: Since end-of-lifing Red Hat Linux, criticism of the company has been mounting among Linux enthusiasts who feel left out in the cold by the move to an enterprise focus. At $25 a pop for its workstation product, Red Hat may be hoping to bring some of these folks back in the fold by charging them less than they paid when Red Hat was interested in maintaining a retail presence.
  • Microsoft is giving away Microsoft Windows Services for UNIX version 3.0. The product usually costs $99, but with the pending release of version 3.5, the company appears to be priming the pump for new customers that will want the improved version when it's available.

Security Roundup

  • Last week we noted that the Debian project reported a compromise of several of its servers. Fortunately, the project was able to assert with confidence that its source code hadn't been tampered with. Although the incident was unsettling, out of the decidedly unwelcome news of the break-in came some benefit: working in concert with SUSE and Red Hat, the project discovered a flaw in the Linux kernel that allowed a cracker to use a compromised account, escalate its privileges, and gain root access. As a result, kernel patches have appeared for several Linux distributions.
  • Fetchmail version 6.2.4 and 5.9 are known to be vulnerable to a previously reported denial of service vulnerability.
  • A problem in the way the CUPS printing system handles Internet Printing Protocol requests could lead to a denial of service attack. This problem is about a month old, but several additional vendors have identified its presence in their own distributions of the package since then.
  • A sendmail bug we reported a few months back also has a dramatically expanded list of affected vendors. According to the advisory, the bug could allow remote execution of arbitrary code, making it one to double check closely.

    Tips of the Trade

    Just last week we had to go on a whale hunt on one of our file servers. According to a quick scan of the results of df -h, which tells us how much disk space on each mounted partition is used on a system, we were down to, well, less space than we estimated. We were fairly certain there was probably a large backup archive lurking down in the depths of a user's directory, so we pressed find into service to find it.

    Find, is great for finding things by name, and it's also great for finding them by size (and other characteristics). We found our whale with this simple command:

    find -size +1024k|grep \.tar\..z

    The "-size" switch ought to be self-explanatory. "+1024k" means "any file bigger than a megabyte." The part after the pipe (|) character runs the results of find through grep to make sure only files with the extension "tar.{any character}z" turned up in the results, since we knew we were probably looking for a gzipped or bzipped archive file.

    Reading the find man page is well worth it, too, since it can return results not only on size, but also on modification time, group i.d., permissions, and filesystem type (to name a very few). Press find into service, and you'll have the ideal harpoon for your next whale hunt.

    Unix Bookshelf

    Last week, when covering Neal Stephenson's engaging "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," we mentioned this week's title, Mike Gancarz's "The UNIX Philosophy," as an alternative path for Unix books to follow. If Stephenson's book reads as a kind of "pro-Unix polemic," Gancarz prefers to advocate "the Unix way" by explaining how to observe it.

    Gancarz divides his book into a collection of nine tenets and 10 lesser tenets for successful Unix use. His focus is on software development, but the benefits expand beyond the developer community: In the process of explaining how to develop good Unix software, Gancarz also explains the reason why much of what we think of as Unix, from dependence on piping output from one program to the next to the strange, vowel-free shell commands, happens to be the way it is.

    Some of the tenets Gancarz identifies include an emphasis on code portability (over speed), the ability to use any program as a filter to provide input to another program, and the value of shell scripts as a valuable programming tool. Unix admins who have labored under second-class citizen status in the eyes of their developer friends will enjoy that section, in particular: Gancarz demonstrates how a relatively simple pipe involving six traditional Unix commands can bring thousands of lines of C source code to bear on a task in the form of a simple one-liner that the enterprising scripter might not even bother to save.

    "The Unix Philosophy" doesn't concern itself with programming examples or sample shell scripts, though. It's about how to approach Unix programming and use. So although we recommend it, it should be considered, along with last week's title, a foundation piece for a Unix bookshelf, as it provides some sense of why Unix as a computing culture has evolved the way it has to better use the resources it offers. Subsequent recommendations, however, will focus on books that provide concrete how-to information.

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