Sun and Intel signed a strategic agreement last month to build Intel Xeon servers that run the open source Sun Solaris operating system. The resulting machines will give users a cost-effective alternative to mainstream Windows or Linux-based servers, and they could eventually make Solaris the most widely used version of Unix.
As part of the agreement, chief executives Jonathan Schwartz from Sun and Paul Otellini from Intel said that dual-core, quad-core and multicore Xeon servers would be launched in the first half of 2007, with Sun also selling Xeon-based workstations.
Phil Dawson, research vice-president for infrastructure and operations at analyst firm Gartner, said that the pact between Sun and Intel was good news for users.
"However, it is important for Sun to indicate that it will further develop its Galaxy x86 servers, which sell in similar numbers to HP's Proliant boxes. Sun also has to broaden its heterogeneous support on Galaxy. You want Solaris, Windows and Linux to be managed consistently," he said.
Sun has a complex server roadmap with its T1000 Niagara servers, latest Rock chip, Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron-based servers.
"Sun is putting a lot of eggs in a lot of baskets. It needs to tell us when to use which server for what. I am hoping Sun will put some meat on the bones at the industry and analyst conference this month," said Dawson.
Unix's market share has been eroded as users switch from proprietary hardware to low-cost commodity servers running Linux. Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at Ovum, said that Sun was working hard to make Solaris more attractive to users, having lost users to Linux.
Later this year, Sun will introduce the open source Xen hypervisor with the Solaris 10 operating system. Xen will allow users to run different operating systems and applications simultaneously on Sun hardware in virtual machines - termed Solaris Containers - making the servers more manageable and cost efficient.
Sun has been talking about virtualising its AMD Opteron and Sparc servers using Xen since late 2005. Some analysts have said that Sun would need considerable processing power to do this because of the performance drain that virtualisation causes, but Intel's dual-core and quad-core Xeon chips may provide the answer.
Opensolaris, the bleeding-edge free and open source version of the commercial Sun operating system, already ships with Xen as part of its distribution.
Both Solaris 10 and Opensolaris are free to download and deploy, with users having to pay for maintenance for Solaris 10. This makes Solaris 10 relatively cheap compared to other enterprise operating systems.
Sun recently halved incident-based support costs for Solaris 10 from £50 to £25 per incident. It has also reduced its annual service costs by 20% for large installations, so the standard service plan now costs £120 a year.
YouTube and Google are examples of large sites that run Solaris. The new subscriptions include full indemnity to ensure users are protected against any intellectual property claims, and they offer binary and source code compatibility between earlier versions of the operating system.
In addition, Solaris 10 is licensed under the Common Development and Distribution Licence, which is part of the Mozilla public licence. This means users can re-use code without handing it back to the open source community, as is the case with the General Public Licence.
According to Sun, Solaris is 50% cheaper to support than Red Hat and Novell SuSE Linux, and it has more than 3,300 applications optimised for x86 processors. In addition, Lachal said some large companies had deployed Opensolaris because it let them dig into the open source code to gain competitive benefits from the new technologies.
All in all, the business case looks compelling.
Sun's processor legacy
At the end of 2005, analyst firm IDC estimated that Sun had an installed base of about 1.5 million active servers, ranging from small boxes to high-end enterprise servers.
The Sun Solaris operating system has run on 64-bit Sun processors since 1998. In 2005, Sun branched out with powerful mainstream Galaxy x86 servers based on AMD's 64-bit Opteron chip.
Users are now set to benefit from Intel's new generation of dual-core and quad-core Xeon chips, making Sun machines more competitive with HP, Dell and IBM servers.