March 31, 2004 4:17 PM PST

Sun plans Solaris subscription pricing

MENLO PARK, Calif.--In an effort to make its version of Unix compare more favorably to Red Hat's Linux, Sun Microsystems plans in coming weeks to begin selling its Solaris operating system through a subscription model.

Under the plan, a company will pay for Solaris based on a per-employee subscription rate, Jonathan Schwartz, head of Sun's software group, said in an interview here Tuesday. The pricing likely should be available by the end of April, Schwartz said.

"I think we need to come up with a subscription price for Solaris that allows it to become a lot more transparently competitive with Red Hat," Schwartz said. The subscription plan will make it clear that Solaris costs less than Linux and will dovetail with Sun's argument that its version of Unix performs better as well. And Red Hat can't throw in a free server as part of a software promotion the way Sun can.

But Sun faces challenges. "From Sun's perspective, Solaris x86 is a better solution for the server than Linux is," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said, adding that Sun faces a very difficult challenge when it comes to rounding up hardware, software and customer support for what is essentially a new version of Unix.


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He said it is hard to imagine that Solaris could attain Linux's level of support in the overall computing industry.

Solaris is widely used on computers that use Sun's UltraSparc processor, machines that have faced strong competition not only with the rise of IBM's Unix servers but also with the arrival of Linux, a Unix cousin that runs handily on inexpensive Intel-chip-based servers. In a major about-face, Sun revived a nearly exterminated version of Solaris for these "x86" chips, such as Intel's Xeon and, more particularly, Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.

Top Linux seller Red Hat sells its operating system in the form of an annual subscription; 12-hour-a-day support for a two-processor server costs $799 per year, but Red Hat's overall average selling price was $455 per year for its most recent quarter.

Red Hat--one of Sun's two Linux partners, along with Novell--is undaunted. "Last quarter, we had 87,000 new subscriptions and 4,000 new customers," spokeswoman Leigh Day said, and the company has strong partnerships with IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

Schwartz discussed the Solaris plans at a meeting with reporters Tuesday. Asked in an interview whether Sun plans a per-employee pricing plan for Solaris, Schwartz said, "I think we have to." But details of the subscription plan haven't been released yet.

Particulars could range from its Java Enterprise System server software--which costs $100 per year for each employee a company has, no matter how much it's used--to its Java Studio Enterprise developer software, whose three-year, five-employee subscription costs $1,499 a year and includes a dual-processor Opteron server.

Currently, Sun sells Solaris with a one-time license fee and services subscription for software updates.

The jump to Solaris 10
Sun hopes to remain a step ahead of Linux, in particular with new features coming with Solaris 10, due to be released by the end of the year, said John Loiacono, senior vice president of Sun's Operating Platforms Group. Among the new features, all of which apply to Solaris for UltraSparc as well as for x86 chips:

• N1 Grid Containers, a technology formerly called Kevlar, zones or hardened containers that lets a single server be divided up so that it appears to be several independent machines. Several containers share the same version of Solaris, but from an administrator point of view, they appear separate, and as many as 4,000 containers will fit on one instance of Solaris.

• Rewritten software to speed up networking using TCP/IP, which underlies Ethernet and the Internet. The new TCP/IP software "stack" can process networking data at the full speed of 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet cards, Loiacono said.

• The "NextGen" file system, called ZFS, which uses a 128-bit addressing scheme to accommodate the growth into the exabyte size range that data sets will experience in the next 10 to 15 years, Loiacono said. (An exabyte is a billion gigabytes.) ZFS also makes it easier to administer multiple storage volumes and automatically checks data for errors as it is written or read, he said.

• Policy-based security will restrict access to computing resources, depending on computer user roles. The technology comes from the Trusted Solaris product created for military and intelligence agency customers. About 70 percent to 80 percent of that product's features will move to the standard operating system with version Solaris 10, Loiacono said.

• "Predictive self-healing" will mean that a server can detect recurring problems with a memory bank and automatically switch to another without halting operations or losing data.

• "Dynamic tracing" software, or DTrace, diagnostic software that lets programmers pinpoint bottlenecks but that only degrades performance by less than 1 percent, Loiacono said.

• This summer, Sun will begin selling programming tools called compilers to write software that runs on Solaris for x86 chips, with a Linux version coming later, said Rich Green, vice president of Sun's Developer Platforms Group. Compilers translate a programmer's source code into instructions a computer can understand, and Sun boasts that its compilers are up to 40 percent faster than the GCC compiler widely used with Linux.

The new technology is creditable, Haff said, but with the exception of containers isn't likely to directly compete with Linux, which is used mostly on lower-end servers. "The real value is on the really large systems," he said.

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