Sun Tries To Beat Linux At Its Own Game

To compete, Sun says it will let the developer community guide OpenSolaris' direction
Most Sun Microsystems customers aren't going to start tinkering with the code in Solaris, even though the company last week published the operating system as an open-source project. But the move still might help Sun keep its flagship operating system relevant if it can speed its development beyond what Sun can provide, or even just give it some much-needed cachet.

Open source could give Solaris momentum, Rubinow says.

Open source could give Solaris momentum, Rubinow says.

Photo by Chris Lake
Sun last week launched its OpenSolaris project, publishing the operating-system kernel, system libraries, and commands for its Solaris 10 operating system. It also launched a Web site, at, where users and developers can download code, discuss the project, and access a bug database.

A crucial piece of Sun's OpenSolaris strategy is luring developers who can guide the operating system's development to match user needs better. To that end, Sun promises to let developers contribute right away by letting them test code, fix bugs, and document processes. The company also is offering to let its nascent open-source community use the OpenSolaris site to follow technical conversations among Solaris engineers and other community members. In many ways, the community is as important to Sun as the code itself.

The move will be good news for customers if it brings growing developer support for Solaris and an expanding number of applications that run on the operating system. "This allows us to get into new markets or back into markets where we've lost traction over the past few years," Glenn Weinberg, Sun's VP of software engineering, said last week at the OpenSolaris launch press conference.

This aggressive attitude appears to be just what Sun needs. In critical markets such as financial services where Sun once ruled, it has lost share to hardware competitors such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM and operating-system competitors such as Red Hat and SuSE Linux. "If the world is more receptive to OpenSolaris, maybe that swings the pendulum in favor of Solaris," says Steven Rubinow, chief technology officer for Archipelago Holdings Inc., an electronic stock-exchange company that's in the midst of a merger with the New York Stock Exchange. Since 2002, Archipelago has run Solaris on about 100 production, testing, and quality-assurance servers.

But the question lingers as to whether Sun is too late to stay in the race with the open-source Linux operating system. Large companies have for years run Linux on x86-based servers to get the look and feel of Unix while using cheaper hardware. Solaris 10, introduced in November, is tuned to run on x86 microprocessors, a capability that Sun was late to develop, causing the company to lose ground to Linux. Archipelago, for one, implemented a number of Linux servers before the availability of Solaris 10. "We could run Solaris 10 on the same servers we run Linux on today," Rubinow says. "Solaris 10 was not generally available at the time, so we went with a product that was already known in the marketplace." Archipelago runs Solaris 10 on a number of servers in its testing environment and plans to roll them out to the production environment once the company's IT staff has enough experience with the operating system.

Sun is counting on the quality of its technology and its core customer base to create buzz around OpenSolaris, which is licensed under the Common Development and Distribution License. The company says it has distributed 1.7 million licenses for Solaris 10 since it became available and that more than 1 million of those were to run on x86 based systems. The rest were for platforms running the company's RISC-based Sparc processors.

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