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Developer's 'micro-server' makes the case for Solaris on Power

But some corporate users remain skeptical of the idea

January 25, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Some IT users may question the need for running Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris operating system on IBM's Power processor -- something the chip wasn't designed for. But for Solaris developer Dennis Clarke, running the operating system on Power makes perfect sense.

Clarke runs Blastwave.org, a Cobourg, Ontario-based company that develops open-source software for Solaris. He has designed a computer that can be used as a desktop or what he calls a "micro-server" using a Power chip made by Austin, Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor Inc.

The particular Power chip he uses was designed for embedded systems, said Clarke, giving him options not available on UltraSparc chips used for business machines. The chip, for instance, can handle extreme temperature conditions, is relatively low-cost and -- even when a disk dive is added -- the system uses less than 10 watts without a monitor. It also doesn't need a fan.

"It's super low-power and requires no cooling," said Clarke, who is selling it for $499 for use as a development platform or networking device. The system uses a motherboard by Genesi USA Inc. in San Antonio, a company that's been heavily involved in the Solaris to Power development effort.

Clarke said his system now runs Linux but is also used by Solaris developers working on Solaris for Power. Open-source developers assembled a Solaris kernel for PowerPC last year, but it will be months before a functional version of the operating system is ready. While Clarke can make a case for running Solaris on Power, some corporate users are skeptical of its value.

Martin Timmerman, director of computer system services at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, runs both Solaris UltraSparc systems and IBM AIX Power-based systems, and he can see little reason for wanting a Solaris port for his Power-based machines.

"Enterprise computing is fairly complex, and we try to make things less complex," said Timmerman, who is also president of the IBM user group Share. "If you are Solaris shop, you already have Solaris on Sparc. Why would you want to introduce another complication to that?"

One reason for such a move might be a price advantage, said Timmerman. But even with a cost advantage, the per-server cost savings may not be worth it for most corporations. Moreover, the two vendors, IBM and Sun, leapfrog each other in price and performance, he said. And as far as open-source software goes, the university has been moving more toward Linux.

"Someone might want it [Solaris on Power] if they have a large Sun infrastructure and want to take advantage of the Power architecture," said Robert Rosen, a CIO at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. "However, if someone is a Power user, I don't see any advantage to go from AIX to Solaris. More likely, one would go from AIX to Linux."

IBM officials were unavailable for comment. Sun chairman Scott McNealy said this week that Sun would love to work with IBM and develop an agreement regarding the Power chip similar to what it has announced with Intel for optimizing the x86 chips for the Solaris operating system. 

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