Opinion

Sun has accepted the inevitable and thrown its weight behind Linux

One of the most fascinating spectator sports of the last decade has been watching how businesses have coped with the irruption of the Internet into their world. Not surprisingly, one sector affected more than most is that of computing, and it is striking how diversely the top companies have fared.

For example, some, such as Novell, have had their core businesses gutted by the new open standards, and have struggled to find a role in this world. Others, such as Microsoft, were close to being left behind, but have ultimately emerged stronger as a result of the corporate near-death experience. And some, such as IBM, have managed to re-invent themselves entirely in the image of the open, connected network.

Of all the major companies struggling to deal with this important transition, none has ended up in such an ambiguous position as Sun. On the one hand, its hardware business thrived as dotcom start-ups and established companies stocked up on heavyweight Web servers. On the other, few companies have so much to lose from the rise of the Internet's corollary, open source software.

Sun's ambivalence to the world of free software was apparent in its acquisition of Cobalt Networks in September 2000. Although little-known outside its enthusiastic user base, Cobalt is one of the open source world's success stories, a start-up that employed some of the leading luminaries of the Linux scene.

Despite the fact that Cobalt's products owe their success as low-cost plug in, switch-on-and-forget server appliances to the robust GNU/Linux operating system that runs them, the word Linux was nowhere to be found in the Sun press release announcing its purchase of the company. And even today it is pretty hard to find it on the Qube Web pages (there is a mention in the technical specifications).

This manifest antipathy to the upstart GNU/Linux on Sun's part led many to fear that Solaris would soon be swapped in to replace it on the Qube. But a strange thing has happened. The rising uptake of GNU/Linux, particularly in areas such as server appliances, has finally convinced even Sun to accept the inevitable, and to jump on the accelerating bandwagon.

The result, announced on 7 February, is one of the most surprising turnarounds in recent computer history. From barely tolerating the presence of GNU/Linux in the Unix market, Sun has now thrown its considerable weight behind it.

As the press release explains, Sun will not only be shipping "a full implementation of the Linux operating system", but will be extending its Cobalt range with a new series of Intel x86-based servers. It will port the entire Sun One infrastructure software suite to GNU/Linux - a massive fillip in terms of enterprise-level applications, since this includes elements such as the LDap-based iDirectory and top-end Web servers.

Perhaps just as significant for the future is the further boost to GNU/Linux compatibility on Solaris, including a new Linux compatibility assurance tool called LCat. The true importance of this apparently minor move becomes clear in the broader context of the overall Unix market. IBM, the main cheerleader for GNU/Linux in the corporate sector - and doubtless one of the reasons why Sun finally overcame its repugnance for the open source operating system - is already providing extensive GNU/Linux compatibility for its own brand of Unix.

Sun's move will accelerate GNU/Linux's rise as the de facto Unix standard at all levels - including the top end, with all that this implies for Solaris. Taken to its logical conclusion, support for Linux may well mean that Sun eventually becomes IBM's rival for the title of the leading open source hardware and software company.

Next week: Web services

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This was first published in February 2002

 

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