Sun set to bring Linux to UltraSparc

Or, how to subvert your enemy into protecting your own butt

Sun is set this week to embrace Linux as an operating system for low-end servers, if reports in the US edition of Computer Reseller News are to be believed.

According to a report in this week's edition of the paper, Sun has spent most of the year porting Linux over to its UltraSparc CPU, and will this week announce widespread support for the free OS on its hardware. An odd move, you might think, given Sun already has a Unix knock-off of its own, Solaris. But therein lies the rub.

As Linux continues to make headlines in the more mainstream IT press, and it garners more interest from the wider IT community -- we won't say supporters until there are some hard userbase stats to back the assertion up -- it is proving more of a threat to Unix operators like Sun. True, Linux is traditionally perceived as a threat to Windows NT, and that will continue to be the case, but it doesn't rule out the danger to the commercial Unix market, particularly at the low end, that the free OS also poses. And no one more clearly controls the low, volume end of the commercial Unix market than Sun, which has done very nicely, thank you out of flogging cheapish servers to smallish business, such as small ISPs, Web-hosting/design outfits and repro bureaux, who need a tough server environment to which they can connect a handful of clients of various platforms. Companies like these, however, are looking at Linux with keen interest. It may not be up to handling high-bandwidth server applications like multi-site hosting and centralised databases, but its more than capable of running DNS servers, firewalls and low-traffic Web site hosts on cheap Intel and Mac hardware. That worries Sun, for all its talk in the CRN article of considering Linux users "in the open standards camp" and therefore "making good things happen", and bullish talk from Robert Novak, Sun's power workstations group manager, of the free OS offering "a real strong alternative to NT and Windows". Hang on a mo' -- wasn't Solaris supposed to do that? Actually, it is, and we suspect Sun doesn't believe a word of it either. The Linux-on-Sun project's codename says it all: UltraPenguin. Sure, it combines the name of Sun's processor with Linux's Antarctic mascot, but it's hardly inspiring is it? Sun is, after all, the company of Java, of Jini -- in short, the company of the groovy codename that makes the bigtime. No, it's a banal codename for a project that's more about business than open systems evangelism. Linux on UltraSparc is there to shore up Sun's low-end against Linux on Intel. And, for that matter, NT on Intel, since the Microsoft OS too lies largely below the massive multi-processor applications that Unix is better suited to. And then there's the Netscape connection. Sun will, of course, soon be taking over the browser Satan's back-end software business in exchange for its support for the AOL takeover. Netscape dipped its toe in open source waters earlier this year, and its recent backing of Linux distributor Red Hat suggests it didn't find that water too cold. Maybe it now has a large selection of its server-based software running on Linux. Sun is obviously going to have to do something with it. Had the UltraPenguin project never been initiated, Sun would probably have killed Netscape's Linux apps. It may still do so, but it makes sense, if you're going to promote Linux on UltraSparc, to have some solid application software other than Apache to back it up. One quick port later and you have a software suite you can bundle with your own Linux distribution but force Intel Linux users to pay for (don't forget we're talking here about mainstream users who are used to paying for application software, provided it works out of the box). ®

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