Enterprise Unix Roundup: Selling Wall Street on Sun

Enterprise Unix Roundup: Selling Wall Street on Sun


September 23, 2004

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Three years ago, we attended Sun's quarterly network computing day. It was the heart of the Bust, and we were treated to pot shots directed at IBM and Microsoft and were told that Sun was the true "open standards" vendor. The company then introduced its $1.4-million-plus flagship server in a completely refreshed Sun Fire line. At the time, Sun cited server consolidation and the desire for a lower total cost of ownership as the bait to lure enterprises to its wares.

Three years is an eternity in the tech market. Since then, Sun has officially made nice with Microsoft and seen its market share erode as Big Blue's grew. Solaris has taken a beating from Linux, particularly in Sun's sweet spot of financial services institutions.

As for the Sun Fire 15K, we're not sure exactly how many sold, but suffice to say that while talk of wrangling server sprawl abounds, x86 commodity hardware has been the growth driver in the server market for the past several quarters.

On Tuesday, a battle-wizened and bearish Sun returned to "Take Back Wall Street." It brought with it an arsenal of new rhetoric, claiming humility yet detailing an ambitious agenda to set the Street right. The first task on its to-do list was to listen to customers.

Surprise, surprise, when Sun sat down with customers, it learned they wanted four basic things. Sun "discovered" they wanted Solaris to run on platforms other than SPARC, hardware that supported operating systems other than Solaris, increased interoperability for Sun systems within their heterogeneous server rooms, and better price/performance and more innovative pricing models.

The decision to change operating systems is generally not made on a whim. Sun listening to customers and snapping its fingers is unlikely to convince enterprises that left Solaris for Red Hat during the Bust to do an about face and trade in hardware and void licenses to jump on the Solaris 10 bandwagon.

So a new Sun has arisen. One that is on the cusp of bringing change to the IT landscape. One for whom "Linux has become a farming ground," President and COO Jonathan "You Should Read My Blog" Schwartz said. Linux, you see, isn't as free as it used to be, and it doesn't offer the breadth and depth of support available with Solaris.

Linux (mainly Red Hat's distribution) on x86 commodity boxes is the new enemy. To show how committed it is to rebuilding its empire, Sun is chopping 50 percent off the price of a Solaris license for customers moving from Linux to Solaris.

The decision to change operating systems is generally not made on a whim. Sun listening to customers and snapping its fingers is unlikely to convince enterprises that left Solaris for Red Hat Linux (or SUSE or any other operating system) during the Bust to do an about face and trade in hardware and void licenses to jump on the Solaris 10 bandwagon.

However, as Schwartz said repeatedly, Sun's true value proposition isn't its operating system or its hardware, it's about Sun being a systems vendor. A systems vendor that offers everything from the chips to the box to the operating system to the middleware and to the application. This, according to Schwartz, provides a competitive advantage. That may be a logical argument, but it contradicts Sun's simultaneous claim of meeting enterprise demands by being more "open than open."

Sun, according to Schwartz, is the only systems vendor that sells its own operating system. While IBM does offer AIX and HP has HP UX, neither has ported its operating system beyond its own hardware, and neither has brought its operating system to its x86 offerings. Solaris, in contrast, has been licensed to 249 x86 systems with "vastly more Solaris licenses in existence than Sun systems," Schwartz said. On the flip side, Sun also sells several Opteron and Intel x86 systems that run Solaris, Red Hat/SUSE, and even Windows.

We're not sure if this is what the vendor means by "more open than open," but customer choice has certainly become more prevalent. Options, not the least of which is to "opt out," are present throughout the Sun stack. Sun giving full sales credit for Solaris sales on non-Sun hardware sales indicates some recognition that the rules of the game have changed: If Sun wants to play in the server room, it must be prepared to play in one that is heterogeneous down to the system level.

We're not prepared to count Sun out just yet. It wouldn't be the first time a systems vendor arose from the ashes, surveyed the landscape, and proceeded to rule the roost. After two years of negative growth, the previous quarter was a good one for Sun. Presumably, its discussions with customers aren't a one-time summit but rather the beginning of a dialogue that will enable the company to be more proactive than reactive the next time the paradigm shifts.

Other Sun Spots

  • The Utility Computing for Grid (aka the N1 Grid) is being described as the "next logical evolution" of the model for midrange storage and high performance grid computing. Sun plans to sell its computing cycles in hourly increments $1.

  • We heard lots marketing noise that no one was able to concretely elaborate on. Logistical questions, like where will the hardware reside, who will own it, and how and what exactly customers are purchasing weren't really answered, leaving us to wonder how planned out this is. We're also scratching our heads over the "revolutionary" description. We've been to IBM's Deep Computing Capacity On Demand Lab, and the concept of paying based on MIPS is hardly new.

  • Solaris 10 was not, as originally planned, deemed production-ready at this time. Despite glossy commercials and endless testimonials from customers both live and on video, no final release date has been set. Sun is citing 64-bit support for Opteron and other general fine-tuning -- not the least of which is determining which open source (or rather, open development license, as the Sun rep we spoke with preferred to call it) to use -- as the culprit. Sun expects to deem Solaris 10 production ready some time in November.

  • A number of storage options including the Sun StorEdge 6920 and StorEdge 9990 servers, the StorEdge 5210 NAS device, the StorEdge 6920, and Sun StorEdge Traffic Manager were announced.

  • Sun unveiled the Sun Fire V490 and Sun Fire V890, Solaris-based UltraSPARC IV servers powered by Chip Multithreading technology that can double application throughput while maintaining full binary compatibility. The 8-way V890 server is an extension of the V880, and the 4-way V490 is an extension of the V440.

  • Sun issued a glimpse of the Sun Nauticus Switch, a new virtual switch technology that will, according to Schwartz "extend the server into the network." The technology is based on the company's acquisition of Nauticus Networks earlier this year.

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In Other News

» The Evolution project released Evolution 2.0, the Linux/Unix Outlook-like mail and calendaring program built around GNOME desktop components. The new release features enhanced junk filtering, support for NNTP (the Usenet protocol), and a new approach to calendar and addressbook information that makes it available systemwide instead of requiring the Evolution client.

» Upcoming features in the next version of the Mono project, slated for arrival next March, will include support for Visual Basic .NET and WinForms. Mono is meant to provide Linux and Unix developers with a .NET-compatible set of libraries against which they can create platform-neutral applications. The new features will change the game a little, allowing Visual Basic developers to run applications from a Linux or Unix server.

» Red Hat reported strong earnings on Tuesday but took a hit in the stock market when it missed revenue estimates: The company claimed $46.3 million in earnings, but analysts had predicted revenue of $47.5 million. Retail sales dropped from $4 million to $561,000 in the wake of Red Hat's much-discussed departure from the shrink-wrap business and its decision to back the Fedora project for users disinterested in its higher-end enterprise offerings. The drop in retail revenue was more than offset by enterprise software subscription revenue growing from $14 million to $34 million.

The company's still a little wobbly in the wake of its CFO's resignation and SEC run-in earlier this year: It isn't giving out earning projections, citing its new CFO's inexperience with the company. Red Hat's analyst day will be held in New York on September 30.

» We'll admit our pulse quickened a little earlier in the week when we read that Sun was interested in acquiring a Linux company. "Maybe," we thought, "this is the hammer strike against IBM that Jonathan Schwartz had been intimating weeks back." Nope: The company in question was MontaVista, an embedded Linux company with strengths in the carrier-grade space. And as far as the potential deal, that gets a "nope," too: It sounds like MontaVista may have held out.

» Too late to make it into last week's edition, Mandrake announced the release of Mandrake Linux 10.1. The company has also announced the end-of-life for Mandrake Linux 9.1 will be September 25.

Security Roundup

  • Several distributions have fixes out for CUPS, the Common Unix Printing System, including: Gentoo, Mandrake, Debian, and SUSE.
  • Another print-subsystem-based vulnerability has manifested in the foomatic package, with patches in from Fedora and Gentoo.
  • Webmin, the Web-based system administration/configuration tool, has a vulnerability based on bad permissions that could allow a malicious user to place arbitrary files in a tmp directory. Fixes are in from Mandrake, Debian, and Gentoo.

Tips of the Trade

FTP, by its nature, is not secure. It's a holdover from the early, innocent beginnings of the Internet, when it was a smaller and friendlier place to be. Running an FTP server presents two challenges: keeping unwanted visitors out of system files, and securely transmitting logins and data. Most FTP servers are insecure at the system and the transport levels — they are easy to compromise, and they send all traffic in cleartext. vsftpd, the "very secure file transfer protocol daemon," cures both of these deficiencies.

If you're running a public, anonymous FTP server, you don't care about securing data transport. But you do care about protecting your server from being compromised. The last thing you want is to become an unwitting host for gigabytes of mp3s and pr0n, or have intruders roaming freely around your server. vsftpd prevents this by running in a chroot jail under a non-privileged user. If it is somehow compromised, system files are protected and damage is limited to the chroot jail.

For users who desire encrypted user authentication and data transport, vsftpd integrates with OpenSSL. vsftpd is also fast, easy to configure, robust, and stable. Visit vsftpd.org to learn more.

Carla Schroder writes the Tips of the Trade section of Enterprise Unix Roundup. She also appears on Crossnodes every Wednesday, and is the author of the site's popular Scripting Clinic, which deals with Unix/Linux scripting issues.

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