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Users, analysts cite potential benefits and pitfalls of IBM buying Sun

Reported acquisition talks between server rivals raise questions about future of Sun technologies

March 18, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A possible IBM acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc. might have its good points. But users and analysts also have concerns that can be summed up in two words: uncertainty and fear.

Sun may be a diminished company these days, but it remains an influential one. Through its open-source products and the massive development communities that have been built up around them, Java and MySQL in particular, Sun has a pull that rivals those of companies with far larger and healthier balance sheets.

But with the reported acquisition talks between IBM and Sun, there are questions about what IBM might do with Sun's technologies, especially its open-source ones. For instance, the potential deal is getting mixed reviews from Java users.

In Philadelphia alone, the local Java user group has more than 1,200 members. David Fecak, founder and president of the decade-old user group, said one thing that the Java community likes about Sun's shepherding of the technology is the democratic process that is used to guide the direction of Java.

Fecak's immediate concern is whether IBM would continue to let the Java community operate, and thrive, as it does now. Or, he asked, will IBM move the decision-making process "underground" and take "the community process away from the community"?

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., sees an inherent conflict between Sun's open-source culture and what he thinks is IBM's continuing proprietary direction. Although IBM has been a supporter of Linux, its embrace of the open-source operating system "is in the context of what serves IBM," Haff said.

That tack is even more obvious in the database market, according to Haff. Buying Sun would give IBM the MySQL open-source database, which Sun acquired last year. But, Haff said, "IBM doesn't push open-source databases, they push DB2."

There are a range of possible motives for why IBM might want to acquire Sun. Such a deal could be a defensive maneuver against Cisco Systems Inc.'s decision to enter the server business and try to play a more prominent role in data centers, long the domain of companies like IBM, Sun and Hewlett-Packard Co. IBM also could be looking to bolster its ability to compete against Microsoft Corp. via technologies such as Linux and Java, and some observers think that MySQL would be an attraction for IBM.

And of course, Sun is still a major hardware vendor with a considerable installed base, even though the struggling company has bet its future on the success of its open-source strategy and its emerging cloud computing services. Sun's overall revenue dropped 11% in the quarter that ended in December, but the company still reported server sales of about $1.2 billion during that period.

Sun's line of servers based on its own Sparc processors and Solaris operating system could face an uncertain path under IBM, which sells systems built around its Power processors and AIX software that compete directly with the Sun machines.



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