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Sun's Kick in the Shins

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Sep 15, 2009


There's nothing like kicking a rival when he's down. And just like a pair of hardened soccer hooligans, IBM and HP certainly haven't been slow to stick the boot into Sun as it lies in the mud waiting for Larry Ellison's Oracle to rescue it.

OS Roundup: While the world waits for Oracle's acquisition of Sun, IBM and HP aren't wasting any time going after Sun's customer base. Will there be a place for Sun hardware or Solaris when the sale completes, and does Oracle care?

Sun's in the dirt because of uncertainty surrounding its acquisition by Oracle: There's a big question mark hanging above Sun's hardware business and, to an extent, its Solaris operating system. Assuming the Oracle-Sun deal does eventually go down, after those pesky officials at the European Commission complete their investigation, no one knows for sure exactly what Oracle will end up doing with them. A future in which the acquisition doesn't actually take place is unlikely, but for Sun's customers it's too ghastly to think about.

So it's not surprising IBM and HP have been doing their best to entice Sun's user base to embrace certainty by switching to IBM or HP servers — especially given the difficult trading conditions in the server market. IBM is currently running a "SUN-SET Special" (very droll) as part of its Power Rewards server and storage migration program to get Sun punters to make a switch. HP — with somewhat less drollery but with the same malevolent intent toward Sun — has the rather cryptic message "We've Got Your Back" with its Sun Complete Care transitioning program.

The programs appear to be having the desired effects (though some claim otherwise), especially IBM's Power Rewards: Gartner reckons IBM increased its server market share by almost 2 percent last quarter, and Sun defections account for at least some of that. At Gartner's last count, Sun's market share was down to a shade below 11 percent.

The longer the uncertainty about Sun's future remains, the greater the number of Sun customers that will defect. What's an enterprise software maker like Oracle to do?

Ellison's response has been to get straight to the point. His full page ad is a straight talking message to Sun customers, designed to persuade them to stick with Sun by telling them Oracle plans to:

  • Spend more money developing SPARC than Sun does now
  • Spend more money developing Solaris than Sun does now
  • Have more than twice as many hardware specialists selling and servicing SPARC/Solaris systems than Sun does now
  • Dramatically improve Sun's hardware performance by tightly integrating Oracle software with Sun hardware

Ellison signed off with the defiant message "We're in it to win it. IBM, we're looking forward to competing with you in the hardware business." Take that, Big Blue.

Will this be enough to stop the customer base decline until the acquisition is completed, and Oracle's plans for Sun are translated into products? Probably not. One problem is Ellison's weaselly wording. What the heck does "plans to" mean? Does "plans to spend more money" equate to "will if the acquisition go through" or "will barring unforeseen circumstances"? Or does is Oracle just saying what it thinks Sun customers want to hear, but that it reserves the right to do something completely different?

Then we can get really pedantic and ask how much more money Oracle plans to spend. Twice as much. 10 cents more? Will that money be spend more productively? If the people that count at Sun jump ship — like many already have — then Oracle might well have to spend more just to stand still.

What we do know is that Oracle "plans" to compete with IBM in the hardware business. It will be interesting to see if that competition is simply about supertuned Sun hardware running Oracle on Solaris faster than IBM boxes can run Oracle (or any other database, for that matter), or what else this competition entails.

And I wonder if HP will be cross that Ellison chose to ignore it and the threat it poses to Sun's customer base. After all, when it comes to rivals' advertisements, there's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about ...

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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