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Solaris on Intel: Here We Go Again


Back when we built computers with stone knives and bear skins—OK, 1993—I reviewed the first version of Solaris for Intel for PC Magazine. I liked it. I also noticed at the time that Solaris on Intel wasnt the equal of Solaris on SPARC. It never did catch up.

It didnt because Sun didnt want it to catch up. And why was that? It was because Sun was making a lot more money from its SPARC hardware than from its software.

And so it was that Solaris on Intel, also known as Solaris x86, was a loss leader to give business customers a taste of what Solaris could do. Then, when they needed to do more, theyd come to Sun to buy a SPARC box. It was an arrangement that was profitable for both Sun and its resellers.

But by the early 2000s, it wasnt working anymore. Linux was eating up what little market Solaris on Intel had. By 2002, Solaris on Intels market had shrunk so low that it was no longer working as a way to get people to move to Solaris SPARC.

Mind you, it wasnt that it wasnt popular. Solaris on Intel was, and is, popular. Suns Graham Lovell, director of Solaris product marketing, told me in 2002 that more than 1.2 million copies of Solaris under the Free Solaris program have been downloaded, and that “the vast majority—approximately a million—has been Solaris 8 on Intel.”

But Linux downloads were in the tens of millions and, popularity doesnt pay the bills.

Almost all of the downloaders were playing with Solaris, not deploying it in the enterprise. Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs vice president of system software research and grandmaster of all statistical things operating system, told me at the time that almost no one was actually using it in business.

So it was that early in 2002, Sun announced that there would be no Solaris 9 for Intel. That should have been the end of the matter. Instead, a vocal group of Solaris on Intel fans called, refused to let Solaris on Intel die.

Now, I was sure that Solaris on Intel was as dead as a Norwegian Blue Parrot, but Sun brought Solaris 9 on Intel back from the dead.

Lovell told me at the time that Sun, then and now in financial trouble, was looking for additional sources of revenue. And it “found a lot of customers who told us that there was a value to Solaris 9 on Intel platform and they were prepared to pay for it.”

Fast forward to 2004, and Solaris x86 is still popular. I still like it, for that matter. But youll have to look long and hard to find it deployed in many businesses.

Despite the fact that it hasnt gone much of anywhere in the enterprise, Sun has found 15 more systems and embedded-device device vendors, albeit small ones, to ship Solaris on Intel.

I dont get it. I mean, yes, I like it. But then, I also like BeOS, OS/2 and CP/M-80. What can I say? Some people collect baseball cards, I collect operating systems.

As far as I and the operating-system market analysts I know can tell, there simply is no significant business market for this operating system.

The funny thing is that Solaris x86, though, could be a serious enterprise operating-system contender. It has most of the Solaris family virtues. The only thing its really lacking is real support from Sun.

For example, where do you think Solaris x86 is in the line of updates of StarOffice, Suns own office suite? If you guessed dead last, youd be right.

It was only in February of this year that StarOffice for Solaris x86 appeared, long after versions for Windows, Linux and Solaris on SPARC had been out for ages.

So, whats really going on here? I dont think you have to look far to see what the real story is. Sun, while officially on the Linux bandwagon, is continuing to rail against the leading commercial Linux company—and ironically enough its own best Linux partner—Red Hat Inc.

Once more, Sun is using Solaris on Intel not for its own virtues, but as a pawn for other business purposes. First, it was a way to try to get people off the Intel platform to SPARC. Now, its being used to try to stem the tide of people moving away from SPARC to Linux on Intel. It didnt work that well the first time; I dont think it will work that well this time.

So, Sun, would you please either really embrace Linux or just dump it from your inventory, start really pushing Solaris on Intel and declare it the one, true, Sun x86 way? This going back and forth hurts you more than it does the cause of commercial Linux.

A version of this story first appeared in eWEEK.

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