Sun plans to counter the growing popularity of Linux by releasing Solaris under an open-source licence and adopting a software updating system similar to those used by Linux suppliers Red Hat and Novell.
Company executives at Monday's launch of the most significant update of the Solaris operating system for years said that while Sun had yet to choose a software licence for the open-source version of Solaris, it would do so within the next 45 to 60 days.
As well as releasing the Solaris source code, which must be compiled into machine-readable binary code before it can be used, Sun also plans to release a binary version of Solaris, free of charge, by the end of January.
For systems with four processors or fewer, subscription pricing will cost between $120 (£65) and $360 per processor per year, depending on the level of support. Pricing for Solaris 10 on systems with more than four processors has yet to be set.
Also expected in January is an automatic software updating system for Solaris subscribers. A version of the system to let users create and distribute their own Solaris updates via a proxy server is planned for later in 2005.
Sun's efforts to promote itself as an open-source provider have been greeted with scepticism by many developers, in part because of Sun's historical antagonism toward Linux. This week, Sun executives continued to give with one hand while taking away with the other by dismissing Linux at the same time as promising to interoperate with it.
With the first release of Solaris 10, expected in January, Sun will add support for the Solaris version of the standard Linux compiler, called the GNU C Compiler. Follow-up releases in 2005 will include a Solaris version of the Linux boot loader, called GNU Grub, which will speed up the Solaris booting process on x86 machines. The company is also preparing a technology to let Linux applications run unchanged on Solaris.
To help applications migrate from Linux to Solaris, Sun expects to announce shortly that Solaris is compliant with the Linux Standard Base, a specification designed to encourage interoperability between software written for different Linux distributions. "If you write to Red Hat, you'll be very easily able to move that application into our environment," said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president and chief operating officer.
Despite the talk of Linux interoperability, Schwartz said hardware makers had been frustrated at their inability to get the approval necessary to have their code submissions accepted as part of the Linux kernel.
In choosing the model for open-source Solaris, Sun will build on its experience of developing the Java Community Process, which standardises and advances development of Sun's Java platform. "The Linux community model currently is much freer, but there is a single conduit," said Schwartz, referring to Linus Torvalds, the founder of the Linux kernel project who has ultimate say in what software gets added to the kernel. "The challenge is trying to build the best of both worlds together."
Schwartz was also critical of Red Hat's legal protection for customers in the event of intellectual property disputes over the Linux source code. "Red Hat ships its product and then says, 'We can't vouch for the intellectual property.'" Schwartz said Sun would be able to use its massive software patent portfolio and cross-licensing deal to protect open-source Solaris users.
"We plan on making open source safe," he said. "Do we think that will be a competitive advantage against Red Hat? Yes."
Sun has good reason to focus on open source. According to research company IDC, Linux server shipments grew by 38.2% during the second quarter of 2004. But although Sun has lost ground to Linux over the past three years, the volume of Sun's Solaris-based servers rose by 33.8% during the second quarter of 2004.
Sun's announcement reflected a renewed embrace of x86 processors from Intel and AMD. Sun is shipping a range of x86 systems itself, and has signed up 35 equipment manufacturers to distribute Solaris x86 on their systems, including blade supplier Egenera and Founder Group, China's second largest PC manufacturer. "They used to not want to push Solaris for x86, but we've really seen a departure from that," said IDC analyst Jean Bozman.
A number of software suppliers, including Oracle, BEA Systems and Computer Associates have thrown their support behind Solaris x86 and Sun even expressed optimism that Dell or Hewlett-Packard may some day support Solaris in the same way they've embraced Linux. "We'll get them, it's just a matter of time," said Schwartz.
Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service