September 12, 2005 11:30 AM PDT

Sun extends olive branch to Red Hat

Sun Microsystems initiated a warmer stage in its relationship with Red Hat on Monday, making conspicuous room onstage for the rival at a major server product launch.

Sun prefers customers to use its Solaris operating system, which chiefly runs on Sun servers using UltraSparc processors. And as Sun launches its "Galaxy" line of x86 servers, the company is aggressively trying to build support for the Unix variant on computers with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices processors as well.

But Sun is being more accommodating toward Linux again--specifically, to Red Hat, whose Enterprise Linux product dominates the Linux market. Sun extended its Red Hat support contract to the new Galaxy servers and invited Red Hat to share some of its spotlight, along with partners Oracle, MySQL and Advanced Micro Devices.

"Stay tuned on the Red Hat-Sun relationship," Sun President Jonathan Schwartz said at the Galaxy launch event in New York. "We think there's ample opportunity to work together out there."

Sun has changed its course several times, while grappling with competition from Linux, an open-source operating system that's closely modeled after Unix. At times, Linux has been an ally in Sun's competition with Microsoft Windows, but at other times, it has been a competitor to Solaris. Most recently, it served as an example, as Sun followed Linux's open-source ways with its OpenSolaris.

But right now, cooperation is in the air. Sun has been trying to make peace with other rivals as well--among them storage specialist EMC.

Red Hat is happy with Sun's current mood. "It shows a recognition that Red Hat has become an OS of choice in the enterprise," Scott Crenshaw, Red Hat's general manager for enterprise Linux, said in an interview.

Not surprisingly, though, Sun still would prefer to sell Solaris. It's included for free in all Sun x86 servers, though customers must buy contracts if they want support.

When a customer chooses Solaris, Sun gains in two ways, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "First, money is flowing to Sun rather than flowing to Red Hat. Second, it increases switching costs," meaning that it's harder to move to Linux later, once Solaris is established. But while Sun executives "are pretty lukewarm about Linux," he said that overall, "they're very happy to sell Red Hat or Suse Linux."

Hot and cold
Sun started out cool on Linux but warmed dramatically in February 2002, when Chief Executive Scott McNealy donned a penguin suit, dressing up as the Linux mascot to demonstrate his company's new embrace. And in 2003, Sun signed a sales and support pact with Red Hat.

Then Sun reversed a decision that had brought the x86 version of Solaris to the brink of death. As Solaris x86's star ascended, Linux's descended at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company. "We are absolutely targeting Red Hat specifically" as a competitor, Schwartz said a year ago, arguing that Sun would turn the tables when it came to customers who had dropped Solaris for Red Hat Linux.

And as recently as May, McNealy was happy to dismiss Linux. "There are two clear survivors in the operating-system marketplace. Those are Solaris and Windows," he said.

But in a June interview, Schwartz indicated that Sun was again updating its thinking. "We're kind of done with the competitive rhetoric for a while," he said.

Sun doesn't always see eye to eye with its competitors, but Monday's Linux move shows that it's in tune at least with Hewlett-Packard. Asked what he would do if he were in Sun's x86 server shoes, Mark Hudson, vice president of marketing for HP's Enterprise Storage and Server group, said last week, "I would get the penguin suit back out of the trash can very quickly."

 

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