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Novell lays into Sun Solaris

Sun's approach to software is purely driven by hardware sales, says Novell exec

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We featured Red Hat in a recent article, where we argued that Red Hat's business model was under attack.

The attack, which is coming from two flanks, started with Oracle which last October decided to resell Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) alongside its eponymous database. And an initiative by Sun, announced in January, aims to undercut Red Hat with a support package that makes open source Solaris half as expensive to run as Red Hat's Linux. Jim Craig, Sun's UK software marketing manager, pitched open sourced Solaris as a contender for Red Hat's crown.

But Novell has coming riding to the rescue, in the shape of Adrian Keward, Linux and open source architect at Novell's consulting division. Keward doesn't just represent Novell. He worked in Sun's Solaris division for years and knows where the bodies are buried -- and he's been showing us around the graveyard.

Sun's Craig specifically trashed not just Red Hat but mainly Linux, saying that his customers believe Linux doesn't do what they expected in terms of reliability, security, cheap deployment and management. The result, argued Craig, was that instead, enterprises were moving towards Solaris x86 now that it's open source.

But is this true? Not if you believe Keward.

Keward, once Sun UK's Solaris pre-sales manager, said he moved to Novell because he wanted to be more involved with the future of Linux. He argued that Sun is a company whose primary focus is selling proprietary hardware in a rapidly commoditising world. As a result, for Sun the software's job is to support hardware sales, not stand alone -- and as a result, the software division and its products suffered.

He said that Sun's move to open source Solaris, first mooted publicly back in 2004, was an act of desperation. The development of the x86 version, where Solaris had previously been available only for Sun's hardware, was poorly managed, he said, and was an example of how the hardware division drives Sun.

"We tried selling Solaris x86 but couldn't get Sun ISVs to come forward help us sell it. They didn't believe in it and it took a lot of resource," he said. "It wasn't an easy migration -- in fact it's easier to go from Solaris Sparc to Linux because of the availability of tools and utilities, than it is to go to Solaris x86. Applications are scarce and recompiling isn't simple."

For Keward, the software division's second-class citizen status within Sun was confirmed when x86 was axed in 2001.

"When Rich Green [Sun's software VP] pulled the plug on Solaris x86 in 2000, we couldn't believe it. What it meant was that Sun didn't believe in the future of x86 -- they thought that, in future the Sparc architecture would become commoditised," said Keward.

"The timing was financially driven. It was the end of dotcom boom, there was no relationship with AMD and the relationship with Intel was going sour. We couldn't have two platforms, and x86 was the unloved child as far as Sun was concerned."

Yet for Keward, Sun continues to try to buck reality. "The company sells proprietary hardware in a commodity world," he said, predicting a grim future for the company. "Sun had war-chest in 2002 of eight billion dollars, now it's down to two or three, and they only have patent money from Microsoft to prop them up."

Keward buttressed his case for Sun's hardware focus by describing what he called the reality of Sun's software support operation. "They call it follow the sun but in reality it's daylight hours only. They're good at fixing hardware -- they have the partners. But with Solaris or Web server software problems of any complexity you have to talk to someone in the US because there's only two people in the Europe. They're simply not staffed to allow specialisms in the non-US time zones."

He predicted a gloomy future for the company's software operation, adding that performance is another key issue. He said that benchmarks showed speeds of up to four to ten times faster using Linux on x86 hardware that Solaris on Sun hardware. "One customer -- a large retail bank performed a soak test using the latest four-socket chips with eight cores. The Intel chip showed performance up to 30 times faster and 15-20 times cheaper when running SuSE Linux." But then he would say that...

On more solid ground, he opined that: "Schwartz 'gets' open source but the approach is opportunistic. They're being dragged towards it. And Sun's afraid of IBM, which has more Java programmers than everyone else, and that IBM will do to Sun over Java what Microsoft did to IBM over NT."

Keward was less harsh in his hopes for where the company's future. "I hope it's not too late for Sun and that it can turn the corner and do the right thing. But are customers are ready to allow that? I think the market's moved on."


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