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Open-Source Debate: Today Linux, Tomorrow Solaris?

Linux's popularity is inspiring some radical ideas at the company that's perhaps most vested in Unix.

Sun Microsystems plans this year to expand its line of Linux appliance servers for data hosting, caching, and Web serving with a line of general-purpose, Intel-based servers to compete with machines running Microsoft Windows and Novell NetWare. The move is in part a response to a business-computing market in which IT managers add low-cost Intel servers for everyday jobs rather than buy expensive machines that run Sun's Solaris brand of Unix.

Rob Gingell, Sun's chief technologist for software systems, wants the vendor to take an even bolder step into the world of open-source software, in which users can freely access programs and change their basic instructions. "I keep saying, personally, that I want to go open source on Solaris," Gingell says. "I eventually will prevail."

Gingell, who left the professorial world of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to join Sun in 1985, three years after its inception, concedes his plan would take "a leap of faith for an industry that has traditionally been bits-oriented." But the result would be less money spent on engineering projects that maintain and update Solaris--a trove of intellectual property dating back to 1982--and more on solving customers' problems, such as designing computers that handle more programming and management tasks automatically. "Linux is an implementation of Unix on a volume microprocessor, in an environment where the operating system has become commoditized," Gingell says. "As things become commoditized, you either adapt or follow them into commoditization."

Sun needs to do something: For the quarter ended March 31, it posted a $37 million loss and a 24% decline in net revenue from a year ago, partly because its customer base is shrinking.

But Gingell's ideas--which include possibly merging Solaris and Linux development efforts--clearly aren't widely accepted within the company. Andy Ingram, Sun's VP of Solaris marketing and a veteran of supercomputer company Cray Inc., says IT shops buy Linux "for the applications that run on it"--including Samba firewall software and the popular Apache Web server. Sun wasn't successful with an earlier attempt to sell its customers a version of Linux that ran on its Sparc RISC chips, which power Solaris servers, because those applications also run on Solaris. Says Ingram, "If I can run Apache on Solaris, why run it on Linux, if I've made the decision to do Sparc? Solaris inarguably has a better kernel."

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