Sun versus Linux: The Real Story

Posted by dave on Nov 22, 2004 9:57 AM EDT
LXer; By Tom Adelstein
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Does getting rid of UNIX favor Linux? Or Does it play right into Microsoft's hands?

by Tom Adelstein
November 22, 2004

Tom Adelstein

On December 01, 1999, published an article in which I chronicled the emergence of Windows NT from a small five percent share of the server market to approximately 50 percent. During the period, Novell fell from around an 80 percent share of the PC nodes to around ten percent. With Novell flattened, Microsoft started to go after UNIX until interrupted by Federal Anti-Trust actions over the Netscape Browser.

The article called "Did Microsoft Try to Kill UNIX?" no longer exists and neither do the many links that documented Microsoft's famous ascent in the server space. Evidence of the article's existence still remains at this link. You will notice this remnant:

"Microsoft claims that the United States Justice Department has interfered with innovation in the computer industry. One can't help but wonder what people would call the collective effort of the developers who created Linux."

In December 1999, Microsoft Windows held a 41 percent share of the server OS market globally up from 38 percent in 1998. Surprisingly, Linux had showed a 27 percent share of new server shipments that year while NetWare held 17 and UNIX 14 percent as reported by market researcher IDC.

But go back to 1995 and you'll discover that Novell had a 65.6 percent market share while Microsoft had approximately 6 percent and OS/2 held steady at around 15 percent according to periodicals from the time. During that period, Sun Microsystems held a 40 percent share of the RISC UNIX workstation market. Go back a little further and Novell NetWare and UNIX owned the entire server market give or a take a few percent.

What happened to Novell? In almost missing the Internet, Microsoft scrambled. In fact, Bill Gates saw what Sun Microsystems had done and jumped through hoops to get into the game. Novell missed the Internet entirely until hiring Sun's Internet architect Eric Schmidt in 1997. It was just a little too late and still took Novell time to gear up and once it had, Schmidt went to work at Google. Many people who worked in the industry ten years ago remember how the Internet saved Sun Microsystems and caused her to hold the most prominent place in the server operating system market.

Along Comes GNU/Linux

During the Federal prosecution of Microsoft, which began in October 1997 and ended in November 2001, Linux rose to prominence. Microsoft needed a competitor. But the young upstart Linux didn't even have an officially supported graphical Internet browser at the time. As Microsoft came to realize the serious intent of the Department of Justice and Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, Redmond began to act a little more convinced of the prowess of Linux. A few nudges in the press and a few attacks on Linux and soon others began to look into the seriousness of Linux.

Once, Microsoft escaped the threat of a corporate breakup, Linux had gone from a user base of two to approximately twenty million. In addition, Linux became a favorite of IBM, HP and thousands of value added resellers.

As Microsoft shook off its anti-trust haze and looked around, it began to focus its attention on growing its server business once again. NetWare posed no threat and IBM had agreed to stop marketing OS/2. But, IBM embraced Linux and began taking market share from wherever it could. Microsoft had a formidable adversary in the server space in IBM.

Through Linux, IBM made refugees of the Santa Cruz Project, HP's UNIX and to a certain extent Microsoft's NT. IBM also trained its eyes on long time nemesis Sun Microsystems and actively undercut Sun's hardware and software prices. Then something happened that makes little sense: IBM turned from its attack on Microsoft and focused entirely on Sun Microsystems. IBM sent its entire Linux team to Siberia, dropped its plans for a Linux desktop and became obsessed with Sun. This served Microsoft well. IBM would continue to compete with Microsoft but not to the extent that it wanted to endanger Sun and perhaps turn them into the Data General of the early twenty first century.

Enter SCO

Through SCO, Microsoft succeeded in transferring the angst of the open-source community from itself to other entities primarily the SCO Group and Sun Microsystems.

The SCO phenomenon doesn't make sense when you attempt to connect the dots. Microsoft could not have asked for a better situation in which to display its agility at manipulating perception.

C/NET reported on the Sun transaction in June 2003. Explaining the situation, C/NET wrote:

SCO's Unix licensing plan got a major boost of publicity in May when Microsoft announced its decision to license Unix from SCO, but Sun actually was the first company to sign on. SCO and Sun confirmed the licensing deal on Wednesday.

The pact, signed earlier this year, expanded the rights Sun acquired in 1994 to use Unix in its Solaris operating system...Sun's expanded license permits Sun to use some software from Unix System V Release 4 for software components called drivers, which let computers use hard drives, network cards and other devices. Sun needed the software for its version of Solaris that runs on Intel servers, Sun spokesman Brett Smith said. A source familiar with the deal said the new contract was signed in February, but neither Sun nor SCO would comment.

Microsoft could not have asked for better timing. Seizing the opportunity to seed SCO in its efforts to disrupt Linux, they bundled another enemy into the fray: Sun Microsystems. Then, to shift the attention away from themselves further, Microsoft cleverly paid Sun money for the damages owed in court losses by hosting a "love-in" between the Sun and Microsoft CEO's. Microsoft then announced a licensing deal where Sun would receive intellectual property it could use to connect to Microsoft servers.

Suddenly, Sun became the target of open-source angst. Microsoft used a clever psychological trick to transfer the hatred of technologists from themselves to others. In the eyes of the media and others, Microsoft and Sun became sudden partners against Linux.

And just to show how good a partner they really have become, the same Microsoft has made a major effort to undermine the Linux wins Sun made in China. How? By trying to scare the Chinese with threats of patent infringement.

Sun Plays Checkers, Microsoft Plays Chess

I don't wish to disparage Sun, but their press relations need as much of an overhaul as their product line. Known internally as fascists, they could have served as campaign advisers to any flip-flopping politician one might choose. Here's Sun management opening themselves to the community with a blogsphere and yet no one inside the company can talk to the press, write an article or issue a press release without the guiding hand of the Sun media relations. What's the difference between that and saying I don't own a SUV but my family does? Or, saying I voted for the Bill before I voted against it?

Sun began work on its Linux Desktop in September 2002. It opened sourced its Cobalt software, provides the major support for Gnome, purchased StarOffice and gave the code to the community, supports Mozilla and pays a ridiculous sum for open-source projects at Now, people see them as the enemy. Let's just say that Sun's media relations team has done a wonderful job of confusing the public, making the company seem like an enemy of open-source, stressing proprietary software and embarrassing management. Way to go.

Is Sun against Linux?

In September, O'Reilly and Associates published a book written by Sam Hiser and me called "Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop". In actually, it could have taken the name "Exploring the Linux Desktop" or "Exploring Linux with JDS". We settled on the Sun distribution of the Linux desktop because it provided the best migration and management tools for Microsoft users. Also, Sun provided us with support, which we couldn't get from other distributions of Linux. Let's say Sun cooperated with us.

All parties involved in the book needed convincing that Sun had a long-term and proper commitment to Linux. We did extensive due diligence and came away feeling we made the right choice. Writing and publishing the book required a major commitment on our part and O'Reilly's. The technical book market requires more precision today than ever. You cannot just throw a book out there and expect it to sell. So, we felt comfortable with the Sun Linux team.

Note: The "A" players in the Linux business all had a chance to have their own distribution in the name of the book. Some even had an inside advantage. At decision time, JDS prevailed. As someone who put eight months into the project and helped form a community support web site, Sun's floundering around on the PR front has disappointed me, personally and professionally.

Recently, I saw a glimmer of light with regard to Sun regaining its deserved community standing. In Jonathan's Blog, he explained the company's commitment to Linux:

Our desktop efforts, and linux product strategy, are well ahead of the cynics in the industry - and are helping us make progress on the globe's ambitions for a truly cheap PC. We've tried working with a few of the larger PC OEMs, but they, unlike WalMart, aren't all that interested in lowering prices in the PC industry. They're trying to maintain margins, not make PCs more affordable. Bridge the digital divide? I doubt that's on Dell's list of strategic priorities. Hear this: it is certainly on ours. It's even good for our business.

And before more of the conspiracy theories show up, let me quash (or start) a few of them.

In addition to JDS/linux, yes, we are committed to JDS/Solaris. An open source Solaris, with its security and virtualization infrastructure, is a perfect match for JDS. And as Red Hat's rhetoric continues to alienate customers and the open source community, we're finding a welcome audience for bringing an open source Solaris 10 to new markets. Competition is a good thing for the open source movement. Those who truly believe in open source welcome competition - those hiding behind marketing veneer and vendor lock-in hate it.

Should UNIX Go?

Left with the choice between only Microsoft and Linux, I cannot get comfortable. Microsoft looks like they may have gross revenues of $36 billion. Novell projects around $1 billion and Red Hat around $125 million. With Sun in the mix, you have an $11 Billion player.

I don't see much complaining from the open-source community about IBM selling a mix of operating systems including OS400, which you need to run Linux on their iSeries (AS400) platform. They continue to sell AIX and no one complains.

HP and SGI, other major Linux OEM's, sell UNIX and Microsoft and you don't see any flames against them. Contrary to Jonathan's claims, HP denies they have discontinued their version of UNIX. Given the chance to sell HP-UX or IRIX, neither company will say no.

Another argument that favors keeping UNIX involves the installed base. UNIX has a massive base of users in health care, government, the military, education, manufacturing, telecommunications, and financial services. Linux cannot replace UNIX entirely. As the director of distributed computing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Joseph Panfil related in this issue of ComputerWorld:

A key issue with the Merc's use of Linux is support. With Sun, Panfil says, the Merc deals with a mature and responsive support organization that will immediately fly out a kernel expert if needed. But he says he thinks the Merc's Linux vendor, Red Hat Inc., needs to improve its support. Currently, he says, Red Hat emphasizes purchasing more products as a way to fix problems. "When there are issues, they need to step up better," Panfil says.

Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's vice president of open-source affairs, says he understands Panfil's concerns; he acknowledges that his company is still learning and says it is making changes.

Tiemann says that Red Hat's goal is to sell products upfront and that the important thing is that when the Merc had problems, they were solved. "Ultimately, Red Hat was able to dig into its technical knowledge and expertise ... and help that customer get to the place that they wanted," he says.

Ultimately, Red Hat may become a larger player in the market. Today, it just doesn't have the bandwidth to compete with extant companies. If you start looking around at the existing players they all have signficant ties to Microsoft with the exception of Sun. And while Microsoft has helped create the perception that Sun is a partner, the guys in the bullpen haven't bought it. In fact, of the major players only Sun is a UNIX company first and foremost. They don't depend on Microsoft for their air supply like IBM, HP, Dell and others.

Final Thoughts

Some people may find it difficult to understand that in baseball, I'm a Yankees fan. Living in Dallas that may not make much sense. I learned some time ago that George Steinbrenner doesn't hit, catch or throw. He even has made many enemies along his career path as the Yankee's skipper. He does find and pay for the talent. I don't have to like him to like his players.

Using the analogy of the Yankees, I tend to look at the team and not the executives. I personally like the Sun Linux team and the people working on OpenSolaris. I like it that they're making Grub the bootloader for Solaris 10 and enabling Linux apps for their main stream customers. Those items work for me. Spelling Linux with a small "l" doesn't. In fact, I would consider it a personal favor if the blogger that does that starting acknowledging the community that disrupted Microsoft's technological dominance. Scare 'em all, I say!

» Read more about: Story Type: LXer Features; Groups: Community, Sun

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