Did Sun help itself by being last to Linux?

Go on, show me your front-end

Analysis It's all well and good to call Linux mature, but one of the most painful phrases in the IT industry proves it's not. That phrase is "end-to-end," and among the major hardware players out there, it's a surprisingly taboo concept. That is, surprisingly enough, except for one vendor - Solaris worshipper Sun Microsystems.

About this time last year, Sun announced it would shelve its own Linux distribution in favor of a Red Hat/SuSE combination. This revelation drew little interest as Sun could barely manage to ship a few hundred of its new Intel-based servers, and the Sun Linux OS was Red Hat with a few, minor tweaks. The move, however, did point to serious confusion on Sun's part about where it would take its Linux experiment.

But here we are in 2004, and Sun, on paper, has the most well-rounded Linux attack of any major vendor. Sun has settled on SuSE as a partner for its Java Desktop System operating system, but has done a lot of its own work to fine tune the OS for customers. Sun also puts its weight and some resources behind OpenOffice/StarOffice, which is key to Linux's mainstream corporate success on the PC.

In addition, Sun has started selling a broad range of x86 hardware with Linux as an option. Xeon servers and Athlon blades are there. And Sun announced this week that it would support Linux on its upcoming line of Opteron servers. All of these servers will be available in tandem with Sun's Java Enterprise System package, which includes almost every piece of software the company makes for $100 per employee.

Sun also this week announced that it will add a Linux community section to the java.net developer site. Sun is looking to push Linux on the thin client as well, saying it can now supply the fabled "end-to-end" model for Linux with its Sun Ray products and back-end servers.

Adjusting the smoke and mirrors, you could say the Linux push is all a ruse. Almost every effort described above applies to Solaris x86 as well. Solaris defines Sun's success as a company to a large degree, and you have to believe the company would rather sell that OS on x86 hardware as opposed to Linux.

But maybe not.

Buy something, please

Given Sun's financial struggles over the past couple of years, you get the feeling it's prepared to sell customers anything without even making the Solaris pitch. Just this week, a report from IDG News Service said that Sun plans to certify its hardware for Windows. Is McNealy still running this company or did a networked computer take over his body and mind?

Sun certainly will not be hawking Windows with gusto, but, if customers need a bit of Windows kit in their shop, this certification would allow them to tap Microsoft for support. This major political concession to Redmond points to Sun's clear desire to sell - anything.

Reeling the hype machine back in for a minute, it's obvious that Sun is not yet a player in the Linux market. On the desktop, yes, Sun has a strong position with wins in China and Europe, but it's the Linux server that makes money. And in that realm HP, IBM and Dell are pounding their Unix-leaning rival.

But again, on paper, Sun may have the long-term edge.

We all love Linux - kind of

Travel back to 2001, when word came out that Dell had abandoned its Linux desktop play. Dell was the first major hardware vendor to back Linux from the laptop to its highest-end server - granted highest-end doesn't mean all that much at Dell. But six months after Michael Dell professed his undying love for the OS, he shelved Linux on the PC, undermining investments in Eazel, Linuxcare and to some degree Red Hat.

Some suspect Redmond placed a nasty call to Round Rock and demanded that the Linux desktop plan meet an early death. There are a couple memos and some strange layoffs that back this theory up. Others suggest Dell was toying with Microsoft and wanted to hand out a not too subtle threat.

Either way, Dell played Linux for a sucker. The short-lived commitment did not inspire much faith for open source fans. Let's not forget that Dell makes a handy profit on every PC by marking up Windows.

Take a look at IBM as well. Big Blue places its billion dollar bet on Linux years ago pumping ads across TVs and marking up city streets to convince Microsoft skeptics everywhere that Linux can rule.

To its credit, IBM has done massive amounts of work to make Linux strong on the server be it Xeon-based systems or IBM's own Power gear. Not to mention the extensive software ports to bring serious middleware onto the OS.

But IBM is still fluffing about on this Linux desktop issue. It sends its professional services teams in to back up SuSE desktop wins but refuses to make a strong, verbal commitment to the Linux desktop. In fact, after word leaked out that IBM planned to be a non-Microsoft shop by 2005, marketeers started denying this theory and said IBM has no plans to shift a majority of its workforce onto Linux.

But you're the billion dollar backer? Linux is good enough for some rebels in South America but not the hallowed halls of Armonk? Is there anyone at Big Blue that does not use the phrase "end-to-end"?

Suppose for a minute that IBM does think desktop Linux is not yet mature for a major rollout. Well, that kind of thinking has never stopped the company from being vocal before. On Demand, anyone?

That leaves us with HP, which is humming along quite well without too much controversy. HP says its making billions on the back of Linux servers. In addition, the company tends to be a fairly vocal backer of the OS, even if it is .Net's best friend.

But, on the desktop and thin client, all is pretty quiet in Fiorinaville.

Who let the yippie in here?

It's this kind of silence that lets Sun's get away with this.

Sun's ponytailed prince of software Jonathan Schwartz has offered to outfit IBM with Linux for $50 per employee. Sun will also sell IBM the Java Enterprise System stack for Linux at the $100 per employee cost. Not that IBM would ever buy in to this set up.

Still, Sun was slaughtered in the press for lagging behind on this Linux idea. Unix is dying, man! Can't you see it?

But at this very moment, Sun is prepared to go "end-to-end" for $150 per employee.

Too bad for Sun a number of analysts have started pulling back their Unix migration rate numbers. The shift from proprietary Unix to Linux will happen. It will just take a hell of a long time.

Poor Sun can never seem to get its timing right. Er, or can it? ®

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