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Exclusive Interview: Where Is Sun Going with Linux?

Bill Claybrook cross-examines John Loiacono, executive vice president, Sun Microsystem's Software Group's senior contributing analyst, Bill Claybrook, spoke with John Loiacono, executive vice president of Sun Microsystem's Software Group about his new job, and what he has in store for Sun's Linux strategy.

You replaced Jonathan Schwartz several months ago as Sun's software leader. Jonathan was very visible. Is this the way you are going to do it?
In my previous job as VP of Sun's operating platforms group, I was more visible than over the past few months simply because we were making some changes internally regarding implementation strategy. Not the strategy itself, but how we were going to get things done, and how we were going to deploy some of the things that we had been talking about.

Jonathan is a great visionary and paints a good picture, and he hired me to make sure that things happen. Now we are making some course corrections, not changes. Course corrections are how we are going to get things done, and when I've solidified what that is I'll be back to communicate it. I'm doing a bit of navel staring right now because I'm actually focused on the operation itself: the partners, the sales force that we are revamping, and the infrastructure that we are putting in place to roll out the things we've been working on. You'll see a change when I get out on the road; I'll be more visible.

Sun is going through the process of adapting itself to disruptive technology such as Linux. In terms of Linux, how is Sun going about this?
There are two different questions that you have asked, maybe three. What is Sun's viewpoint on open source? What is Sun's viewpoint on Linux? What is Sun's viewpoint on Red Hat? Sun was founded on the principle of open source. We have contributed more lines of open source code than any other entity on the planet except for Cal Berkeley. By the way, Bill Joy was one of the founders of Sun and was instrumental in the BSD work that took place at Cal Berkeley. NetBeans, Sun Grid Engine, OpenOffice, and Solaris are all technologies that use the open source process, and we will continue to do so. We'll remain a heavy contributor on the open source front, and it will remain a key component of how we develop software.

People don't realize today that a huge portion of Solaris is open source. For example, today we use GNOME as our desktop environment. We use Mozilla. We have integrated Apache. We have SAMBA. All of these pieces of software are a part of Solaris today. Some people think that open source is new to Sun and that we don't get it. We are a pioneer.

What's your viewpoint on Linux?
We firmly believe that Linux (server and desktop) is an x86/AMD phenomenon. We believe that this will continue. Understanding that it does run on other architectures, that 99% of the volume generated in the Linux space is on x86. We think that Linux will continue to be a big player, including on the desktop where people are concerned about cost and want an alternative to Windows. Linux is something that we'll have to interoperate with because it may exist far beyond whatever Solaris turns out to be. We are in favor of Linux. We think that the Linux movement is great and that the open source process is great. We are leveraging open source in our software stack where it makes sense. However, we also believe that there are certain vendors in the Linux camp that are running away with Linux.

When it all started there was a level playing field. The level playing field has tilted and the numbers manifest it. We are a Red Hat licensee. We will continue to offer Red Hat on our price list. But Red Hat has the vast majority of the market share. In fact, if you listen to the quotes that came out recently from ISVs, they're saying that it's just Red Hat. This is certainly true in the U.S. and in markets such as financial services. In markets outside the U.S., Novell/SUSE is a player primarily in Europe. But beyond Red Hat and Novell/SUSE, it's challenging to find another Linux distributor who is a serious player. There is Debian, Mandrake, Red Flag, and Yellow Dog, but these distributors hold very small market shares in the free world compared to Red Hat. The original fascination with Linux was that it was free, it runs everywhere, and I can switch from one Linux distro to another.

Red Hat has become more and more proprietary and more and more expensive. We are hearing customers say that they are interested in hearing about something other than Red Hat, that they would like to know our systems story and our Solaris story because, guess what - Red Hat is more expensive than anticipated, and Linux is becoming more and more customized to Red Hat. Red Hat is now also going to be offering an application server. They are going up the stack. Is their best friend, IBM, going to like that? Interesting.

Oft-times there are conflicting messages about Sun's Linux strategy from Sun executives. Is this changing?
If Sun were not sincere about Linux, we wouldn't be putting our entire JES (Java Enterprise System) and entire middleware portfolio on Linux. Our entire desktop system (JDS) runs on Linux. Every one of my major software applications runs on Linux, and, by the way, I ship JES on Red Hat on the same day that I ship it on Solaris. Some customers have mandated it. In the future, you'll hear more and more from Sun. My intent is that we need to bring Linux and Solaris together more rather than bash or trash one or the other.

There are many valuable attributes with Linux and Solaris. I tell customers that I am going to offer them both operating systems. The reason that people talk about operating systems so much is that the operating system is a means to a lower-cost deployment, meaning that it runs on low-cost x86 hardware. When Sun didn't have low-cost x86 hardware, it was hard to have that conversation with customers. We now have that. We were behind in getting to Xeon. We caught up and now we are leaders offering Opteron 1-, 2-, and 4-way. In fact, Sun has committed to going beyond 4-way on Opteron. We're trying to say to customers that the things that they believe are valuable - open source, price, etc. we are going to address.

There is a technology available in Solaris, Janus, coming out in Solaris 10 that allows customers to run Linux applications, unmodified, no recompiling. Janus allows customers to run their Linux applications at no additional charge. If you want to take advantage of container technology, the dynamic tracing capability, the new networking stack, the security features, and you have some Linux applications that you want to run, then you can run them on Solaris/x86 at near native performance.

IBM appears to be doing a good job positioning AIX and Linux. What is your view of this?
Ask the question: What is their AIX strategy on x86? They have none so now you have to choose between AIX and Linux. Sun will give you Linux or Solaris on x86. Now that Red Hat is moving up the stack to do things like application servers, they now compete with WebSphere overtime. Will IBM suddenly change to more of a SUSE focus? Is it Red Hat or SUSE? It's not just Linux; it's different versions of Linux.

I thought 18 months ago that Sun should have been pushing Solaris on x86 much more than it was. Sun seemed to be very slow in attracting ISVs to Solaris/x86. Why?
My job prior to taking over all of software at Sun was to run the operating platform area. My first decision two to three years ago was to reinvigorate Solaris on x86. In doing so, we carried out a big development effort to make sure that it was tested, tuned, and optimized. We worked with the ISV group to attract ISVs, worked with the hardware group for peripherals, and then we cleaned up the code so that we could open source it. In fairness, we thought that everything was going to move to 64-bits overnight. When this did not materialize, we had to catch up. We got on Xeon, and then cut a deal with AMD in November 2003 and by late March 2004 we were shipping 1-, 2-, and 4-way Opteron systems. We were laggards. Now we believe that we are leaders.

Today, Solaris is far less expensive than Red Hat or SUSE. The list price on a two-way Red Hat is about $799 per year. My first year price for Solaris with service and support and the right-to-use license is about the same as Red Hat. But after year one, my right-to use-license is perpetual so my price drops to about $500. This is quantity one pricing. I have volume pricing that lowers my price to $300-$400 per copy using a subscription-based model. Stay tuned. You'll see me get more aggressive in my pricing when I come out with Solaris 10. By the way, Solaris 10 runs with the same exact features on SPARC, on Opteron, and on Xeon. Same day release, same feature set.

Let's talk about Sun's Linux desktop strategy (Java Desktop System). Are you finding that large numbers of users are considering a move to Linux?
I am now in the process of putting bids together for tens of thousands of seats. What's happening is that we have gone from kicking the tire, put two in the lab to now where people are saying that our desktop system at $50 per seat blows away the cost structure they have been using to purchase Microsoft Windows. This makes it much more interesting for us than just dabbling with a few seats per customer. I just announced Allied Irish Bank with 10,000 seats, the China deal with more than a million seats over time, and New South Wales with a 1,500 seat deal. We are getting near 40 million downloads of OpenOffice. We have a dedicated sales force, and we are getting people coming to us.

Sun's Linux desktop strategy is that we are in it for the long haul. I have been using JDS for a year now. I don't have a Windows environment. It is not perfect by any means. It is a solution, however, that is working in the enterprise environment. For people who are in call centers, rental car agencies, etc., it's an ideal environment.

About John Loiacono
As executive vice president of Sun Microsystem's software group, John Loiacono leads the company's unified software business and focus. Loiacono previously served as senior vice president of Sun's operating platforms group. Before that, Loiacono held the position of chief marketing officer at Sun where he managed Sun's overall brand, marketing, and marketing communications strategy.

More Stories By Bill Claybrook

Bill Claybrook is President of New River Marketing Research, a marketing research firm that focuses on Linux, open source software, and commercial grid computing. He performs primary research and helps marketing organizations plan for new product offerings and develop go-to-market strategies, as well as develop marketing analysis content. Prior to entering commercial computing and marketing research, he was Associate Professor of Computer Science at Virginia Tech and the University of Connecticut, as well as Professor of Software Engineering at the Wang Institute of Software Engineering.

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