Will Solaris make Sun rise?

Sun's Jonathan Schwartz now sees Linux vendor Red Hat as his company's primary competition, not Microsoft.

Rick Steele

Experts say new OS should attract government users

Sun Microsystems Inc. has made sweeping claims about its new Solaris 10 operating system. Chief among them are that it will run on almost all existing servers and natively support Lin- ux applications. Ex- perts say such claims aren't just hot air and Solaris stands to have a significant impact on government users.

Other claims to fame: Solaris 10's 'predictive self-healing' feature can automatically take bad CPUs, memory or input/output devices offline to prevent a crash. And the OS can partition thousands of disparate applications into their own independent, rebootable containers'also called security zones'under a single instance of the operating system.

That last feature alone is 'among the most significant OS innovations in the past decade,' said Richard Fichera, vice president of Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

And the company is staying busy. Sun is preparing to introduce an open-source, commercial-grade version of Solaris by the end of this month. It will be offered as Open Solaris under a subscription-style fee structure, based on support level, similar to wireless calling plans. Company officials have said an Open Solaris subscription will cost less than Red Hat Linux from Red Hat Inc. of Raleigh, N.C.

All these developments come at a time when Sun is working hard to raise its profile in government. But is it a case of too little, too late?

Declining fortunes

The bitter Linux-Microsoft Windows rivalry of the last several years has obscured the decline of once-powerful Unix brands such as Compaq Tru64 Unix, IBM AIX, Hewlett-Packard HP-UX, SCO UnixWare and SGI Irix.

Solaris has suffered, too, although Sun's Java development platforms and hardware ventures helped keep the company relevant to IT shops. Sun recently posted a modest quarterly profit. But it lost $388 million in fiscal 2004, $3.43 billion in 2003 and $587 million in 2002, according to tracking service Hoover's Inc. of Austin, Texas.

Although things are starting to look up at Sun, market researcher Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., has predicted the company will not experience a turnaround from Solaris 10 until possibly late this year. In a Nov. 19 analysis paper, released just after the OS' release, Gartner said Sun needs to reduce defections by its users, renew software vendors' enthusiasm for Sparc and x86 platforms, and 'slow IBM's and HP's incursions into the high-end market.'

Prospects for Solaris 10 in the federal marketplace are good because of its support for unmodified Linux applications, said Steve Ferry, Sun technology team director at GTSI Corp. of Chantilly, Va.

'If agencies are going down that [Linux] path but not getting enough performance, Solaris 10 can improve it,' Ferry said. Plus, he added, 'eighty percent of Trusted Solaris' security features are standard in Solaris 10.'

In his 19-year association with Sun, Ferry said, 'I've watched its Unix OS mature and harden while other vendors abandoned theirs. There are no security alerts for Solaris.'

Sun president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwarz has said he considers Sun's chief current rival to be Linux vendor Red Hat'not the other Unix vendors or Microsoft Corp., with which Sun reached an accord earlier this year.

Forrester's Fichera estimated that Sun ranks No. 1 or No. 2 in the federal government's installed hardware base, and he considers the company's long-term prospects good.

'Sun does not represent any significant strategic risks as a supplier over the planning horizons of any projects' agencies are considering, Fichera said.

And nowadays, agencies can extend that low-risk platform further into the enterprise. Solaris 10 runs on Sparc and x86 processors, including Advanced Micro Devices' 64-bit Opteron processor. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory recently installed a cluster of Opteron-based Sun Fire servers, laying the groundwork for an upgrade to Solaris 10.

Sun is also making its presence felt in federal research and development projects. Sun scientists are working on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-funded, next-generation 'unwired proximity' architecture for supercomputing. The scheme would boost interprocessor communications bandwidth by omitting soldered wires in favor of capacitive transfer. For details, visit research.sun.com.

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