February 8, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Sun's next goal: A Linux ecosystem
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But Schwartz said he's not worried about the investment required to build two new software ecosystems in addition to the current Solaris-x86 work. Sun's Niagara chip will do much of the proselytization work for the company, he argued.
"That's 'old think,' " he said when asked if Sun had enough energy and resources to build Linux and BSD ecosystems for Sparc. "Open-source communities are a much bigger player today than vendors in creating ecosystems. So whether Sun is the lead or a supporter is less relevant than answering the question, 'Is there customer interest?' Given the 5-to-1 price/performance benefit of running Web loads on Niagara versus Xeon, interest exists from a broad variety of customers to migrate existing Linux-Xeon deployments over to Linux or BSD on Niagara."
Potential partners cool
The gateway to commercial Linux today is through Red Hat and Novell, which will both need to be convinced of Sparc's merits.
Novell's statement was equally cool on the idea: "We have no current plans for a Suse Linux port to Sparc. We stopped building it on SPARC after version 7.3, due to decreasing customer demand."
Schwartz is realistic about the partnerships. "Novell and Red Hat are businesses--the onus is on Sun to make a port to Niagara a compelling value proposition," he said. However, other Linux distributors are showing more interest: Discussions are "going far better with Debian and the CentOS community," he said.
Oracle, arguably Sun's most important software partner, didn't rule out support, but it said in a statement that customer demand is a prerequisite.
"Oracle continues to deliver its products on a variety of operating systems, including Linux, Windows and various flavors of Unix. Our decision to support existing and/or new operating environments will always be based on demand from customers," the business software maker said.
Seeding the market
Although Sun doesn't plan to work on the operating systems itself, it is trying to seed the market. The company is giving hardware to David Miller, leader of the Linux on Sparc effort and a Red Hat employee, and a handful of others, said Mike Splain, chief technology officer of Sun's Sparc server group.
"With the Linux community, we are farther along. With BSD, we're still more feeling it out," Splain said.
Niagara should be a powerful draw, he said. The chip has eight processing engines, called cores, and each one can execute four simultaneous instruction sequences, called threads. That 32-thread total contrasts with a maximum of four in other processors today, but other chip designers are moving toward designs with more threads.
"We believe the Linux community has lots to gain by getting on the Niagara-style computing bandwagon," Splain said. "There is no doubt all the other processor road maps on the planet are all going to adopt multicore, multithread architectures. If they can support Niagara, it's good for their business in the long run."
There should be no doubt about which operating system Sun prefers, though. One objective of the Linux on Sparc effort is to let customers "realize the benefits of Niagara and slowly make the transition from Linux to Solaris," Splain said.
But Linux also is a good fit for the UltraSparc T1, he said. It's widely used on lower-end servers that handle routine Internet and Web chores, the same area where Sun aims its new T1000 and T2000 systems. That difference separates Sun's effort from IBM's Linux on Power effort, he said.
"I think the T1 is much more a high-volume processor than the Power processor," Splain said. "My expectation is we'll see higher penetration of Linux and a quicker adoption rate."
Splain said skeptics should look at Sun's track record. "Solaris x64 demonstrates it can happen," he said. "The thing you have to have is realistic time estimates. You can't just throw the switch and say, 'Yeah, everyone is going to come over."
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