Regaining Relevancy

One week from today, Sun Microsystems will launch Solaris 10 amid pomp, glitz and circumstance at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. As the music pounds and the lights flash, the Sun PR machine will likely hail the launch as a turning point in the evolution of operating systems. Sun users and business partners will likely see it for what it really is: A desperate attempt on Sun's part to retain its relevancy.

Or to regain its relevancy, some would argue. The inexplicable paralysis that for so long kept Sun from offering a sensible response to the clamor for low-priced commodity systems has forced it into a game of catch-up that may well be unwinnable. Large enterprises like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange have already developed strategies to wean themselves off of Solaris on Sparc in favor of Linux on Intel . When the Merc embarked on that course more than a year ago, it really had no choice. "We didn't have a good answer for them," admitted Glenn Weinberg, vice president of Sun's operating platforms group.

Sun has since rushed to deliver systems based on AMD's Opteron processor and Intel's Xeon. And Solaris 10 advances the cause, since it will run on the Opteron in full 64-bit mode. But the odds against Solaris 10 becoming the savior that Sun so intensely wants and needs are high.

The Sun executives on stage next week will almost certainly boast about the near universality of ISV support for Solaris 10. But what you won't hear are some of the stories behind that "support."

The fact is, many ISVs are worried. Sure, they'll release software that supports Solaris 10, but their confidence in Sun is clearly shaken.

TeamQuest, a vendor of IT performance management and capacity planning software, has 60% of its installed base running Solaris, and Sun is a reseller of its products. But Mike Ellis, TeamQuest's executive vice president of worldwide sales and marketing, appears almost distraught when the subject of Sun arises. "Sun is in a bit of a mess internally," Ellis said during a discussion I had with him last month. He said TeamQuest is doing its best to shift resources to partner with IBM and to make its software a complement to Tivoli across all IBM product lines.

And Ellis hasn't seen his customers plan moves to Solaris 10, because it's too complicated. "Trying to reinvent z/OS doesn't make sense to me," he said. But that's what he thinks Sun's upgrade attempts to do. "I don't think anyone is looking for more complexity."

SAS Institute is another Sun ISV that will support Solaris 10. The companies are longstanding partners, and Solaris has historically been the top Unix platform for SAS software. But again, when you listen to what the senior executives are really saying, a different picture emerges. Last month, I spoke with SAS CEO James Goodnight, who left me with the impression that he no longer considers Sun to be the strategic partner it once was.

"I haven't even kept track of the Sparc chip lately," Goodnight said. "The Sun has sort of faded out." He cited high-level infighting at Sun over the issue of Solaris on Intel and suggested that the damage may be irreversible despite Sun's change of heart. "I sort of think it might be too late," he said.

For the sake of user choice, we can all hope Goodnight is wrong. Hey, more miraculous comebacks have happened. And Sun isn't even cursed.

Don Tennant

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact him at

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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