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Sun to sell unbundled Solaris 9 for x86 systems

Sun Microsystems will ship a version of its Solaris 9 operating system from the end of this year for computers based on Intel's x86 processor architecture. The product will have a price tag of around $99 (£63).

The company announced in August that it would ship the software bundled with its LX50 dual Pentium III server, but said at that stage it would support Solaris 9 only on that server and on systems based on its Sparc processors.

The previous version of the operating system, Solaris 8, was supported on a variety of x86 systems, and was available for free download, but in January, less than five months before the launch of Solaris 9, Sun announced that to cut costs it would end the free download scheme for the Intel platform and would not release Solaris 9 for Intel processors.

Now, Solaris 9 is back. "We will come out with Solaris 9 for other platforms [than the LX50] around the turn of the year," said Jonathan Mills, software product marketing manager for Sun in the UK.

Mills said he has heard talk of a $99 price tag for a licence for single-processor systems, which was in response to users' demands. "They have asked us to put together a viable business plan for the x86 version, rather than giving it away," he said.

Users who can't wait for the final version to be released will be able to download pre-release versions with a limited-term licence for a lower fee, perhaps $20 to $30, he said.

Support contracts for hardware included on the hardware compatibility list will be available when the final version is released.

"Essentially, after that, it will look just like the Sparc version," Mills said. "Things like the Sun ONE directory server will also be available, just like for Sparc."

Sun will expand the range of hardware on the compatibility list to include newer devices, Mills said, and the company will look for users' help with this.

"We are looking for ways to empower the community to involve them in the testing, so we can enhance the amount of hardware we can support more rapidly," he said.

One analyst said that Sun has woken up to the needs of its users after underestimating how popular Solaris was to a part of the developer community.

"Sun made a mistake in a way by deciding that the developer community has moved to Linux, therefore why bother with Solaris," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata. "The thought was that at least they were sticking with a form of Unix rather than going over to Microsoft."

However, user feedback made clear that Solaris on Intel actually has plenty of support. Developers and computer enthusiasts have tinkered with Solaris on laptops and low-priced servers for years.

"The vast majority of the community could load up the operating system on hardware they had laying around to learn Solaris," Haff said. In addition, some customers do rely on the platform to run their businesses.

While users should benefit from the move, Sun could potentially harm its hardware sales by brining Solaris on Intel back. Making Solaris available on cheap, low-end systems could eat into sales of Sun's LX50 server, Haff said.

"Certainly this will cannibalise some sales," he said. "People who do use Solaris on Intel in production environments will now have a choice to buy the software for Dell or HP systems," he said. Haff added that the volume of such sales would probably be light, however.

On a positive note, Sun will now generate some revenue from its Intel version of Solaris. If it can match the one million-plus downloads of Solaris 8 for Intel with the latest version of the OS, Sun would bring in a fair chunk of cash that it could put towards further developing the OS, Haff said.

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