September 18, 2002

Cyber cynic: Solaris on Intel -- forget about it already

Author: JT Smith

- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -
of Practical Technology -
Way, way back in 1993 when I ran a Unix feature for PC Magazine, I helped review the first version of Solaris for Intel. I noticed at the time that Solaris on Intel wasn't the equal of Solaris on SPARC.

Some things never changed. Solaris on Intel was never the equal of Solaris on SPARC. Why? Well, after hanging out with the Solaris guys who were a bit tipsy at trade shows, they told me that Sun has never, ever wanted Solaris on Intel to be a real competitor to Solaris on SPARC.

And why was that? It's because Sun has always made money from its hardware not its software. In short, Solaris on Intel was always meant to be a teaser to give you a taste of Solaris so customers would buy a SPARC box that would be much more profitable for both Sun and its resellers.

By the early 2000s, though Linux was eating Solaris on Intel's lunch and its market had shrunk to the point where Solaris on Intel was no longer a profitable way to get people to move to SPARC.

Mind you, it was popular. Sun's Graham Lovell, director of Solaris product marketing, has told me that more than 1.2 million copies of Solaris under the Free Solaris program have been downloaded, and that "the vast majority -- approximately a million -- has been Solaris 8 on Intel." Of course, Linux downloads are in the tens of millions and, in any case, popularity alone doesn't pay the bills.

So it was that early this year, Sun announced that there would be no Solaris 9 for Intel, in effect, killing Solaris on Intel's future. That should have been that. Instead, it turned out that there was a vocal group of Solaris on Intel fans. This group, Save-Solaris-x86 and Sun's been seemingly waffling ever since on whether they'll ever release a new Solaris on Intel.

Let's get real. Sun's not going to do it. There's no financial reward for them even if it gets if it makes a tiny, albeit very loud, group of Solaris on Intel fans happy.

The group's very arguments underline that they're not thinking about technology. They repeat the never publicly acknowledged strategy of Solaris on Intel. I quote from their San Jose Mercury News ad: "We believe that the 32-bit x86 architecture can never be a true competitor to Sun's 64 bit SPARC. In fact, Solaris on the x86 platform complements Sun's SPARC solutions. It is many of our experiences that Solaris x86 is installed on existing systems running the competitions' operating systems and closed applications. Once we transition these systems to Solaris and open solutions, Sun quickly proves to have the superior technology. Our customers are subsequently much more receptive to Sun hardware solutions as they outgrow their x86 systems."

Guys, it's the 21st century. Linux is more open still and every bit as good as Solaris on Intel. Don't like Linux's SVR4x style? Then use the more Solaris-like Berkeley operating systems instead. That's what the administrators who love Solaris but can't afford it I know are doing.

Another thing I find annoying about their arguments is that they want to keep Solaris on Intel second-rate by locking it down to the 32-bit architectures. There's already shipping commercial Linux from Red Hat and SuSE for such 64-bit architectures as Intel's Itanium and POWER. And, for that matter, alpha Solaris code was running on Itanium according to Sun back in October of 1999!

If Solaris-on-x86 was really serious about Solaris on Intel as an operating system instead of just a way to bait and switch way to get people to buy SPARC systems, they'd be arguing-as MacOS users have for years-that Sun could profit it from their operating system alone if they simply made it available on cheaper, commercial hardware.

All Solaris-on-x86 is really doing is trying to make a public debate of an internal Sun business decision; one, which, given that Sun continues to look at Java and SPARC for profits, makes perfect sense for Sun.

IBM never gave in to the pressure of its vocal OS/2 fans because there was no profit in it-OS/2 bottom line: because ISVs could develop for both OS/2 and 16-bit Windows using 16-bit Windows, they never had a reason to code just for OS/2 -- and Sun won't, in the long run, give in to the Solaris on Intel fans. Will Solaris go Open Source? No, that won't happen either. Again, where's Sun's pay-off? There isn't one.

Unix on Intel belongs to Linux, SCO's Unix offerings and the BSDs. Solaris on Intel's day is done and rehashing internal Sun business decisions in public won't change that.

For more on why Sun did what they did at the time see: Solaris on Intel Out? Does that mean Linux is In?

For more on why Sun did what they did at the time see: Solaris on Intel out? Does that mean Linux is in?

This article was originally published at
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is editor there.


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