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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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Most Recent Comments
Lonnie Mullenix 11/22/04 03:58:55 PM EST

Just a SMALL complaint. I'm still waiting for my installable version of JDS that I was supposed to get, oh, about six to eight months ago, after I recieved the Live Eval version.

I really liked what I saw, and would most likely be investing more time and money in Sun and Java technologies, but as they don't bother to keep their word on a small item like an installable version of Sun JDS, can I trust them to meet my needs in the future?



R 11/13/04 09:35:09 AM EST

Did you notice? He referred to as OpenOffice.

Old Sun Linux guy 11/13/04 04:49:16 AM EST

When I started with Sun in 1984 it was clear what Sun was about. Now 20 years later, with competition the company is faling apart.

Understand me right, I have loved Sun, SunOS, Solaris, etc - and if it wasn't for Sun I would not have the Unix experience I have today.

I love Sun's OS - but don't like the hardware. I think the hardware is crap (big, slow, heavy, expensive and break down to easy).

But, ever since I started with Linux in 1993 it was have been a totally different experience. A community with drive and a focus - to make the best OS - to share experience and ideas and move forward.

I don't beleive that Sun is moving forward anymore.
I hope they will though...

Sun7 11/13/04 03:30:16 AM EST

If Sun is successful expanding the reach of Solaris and marginalizing other Unix variants, it could reduce the non-proprietary server operating system market to three main players: Solaris, Linux, and Windows

nelson wong 11/13/04 12:21:02 AM EST


"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. "

Interesting strategy I thought!

But what happens to the home customers. Do they really have to learn 2 different systems (1 for work and 1 for the home if Windows is what is preferred). For goodness sakes! - its just a day job mate - we just want to do our day job and enjoy live when we go home. Its really up to you big guys to sort our the interoperability of different systems and lets us have fun with our computers wherever we work and play.


Theodore Charles III 11/12/04 06:40:57 PM EST

It seems that, like it or not, Sun has done a net good with it's offerings, albeit not all open-sourced. The fact that they're now dealing with x86 more aggressively than before is an indicator that they're committed to producing viable products. That, by no means, doesn't say they're not going to try to profit off of them (because they will), but moreso that we'll have high-quality products at the end user level. A good example would be Java. There are quite a few open-source projects that rely on Java. The first that comes to mind is Azureus, a bit-torrent client. I'm sure the developers of the project could have chosen another language, but they chose Java, probably because they have an affinity for it. The JDS may come to be loved by corporations and end users alike. With Sun, you never know. Love for Sun comes in all shades of gray, and will continue to do so for a very long time.

Donavan Pantke 11/12/04 06:34:06 PM EST

You know, I have an interesting question to Sun: Why is it only Red Hat? Whenever you here Sun guys talking about Linux, they always mean Red hat. You hear in this article an aside about Novell/SUSE, but that's about it. They also mention IBM possibly abonding Red Hat in favor of SUSE. They battle on Red Hat cost, etc, and claim that Linux is being turned into Red Hat. I have news for them: it's not that way at all. The company I work for has been using SUSE for 3 years now, and did so because Red Hat didn't work properly for the applications that we run (BTW the apps are nearly 100% Java). We are US-based, so it's not just in Europe. Now that Novell has acquired SUSE, I can all of a sudden receive discounted pricing from my normal VAR. The list price of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 for 2 CPU's is around $500/yr. Around the same as Red Hat, but that's initial buy-in as well, which is what Sun is bashing about with Red Hat right now. With volume pricing (20 servers), I got that cost to $275/yr. I can do everything with SUSE that I can with Red Hat, so the idea of a Red Hat world is just plain untrue. IBM paid for and helped SUSE gain EAL 3+ certification, months before Red hat did (which I think was funded by Oracle). IBM has clear SUSE support, as does HP. IBM at one point (not sure if they still are) was selling SUSE on Point-of-Sale stations.
So when you hear Sun talk about competition with Linux, you have to ask yourself: when are they going to stop seeing Red and notice that they are competing with several vendors which are in a situation to usurp market share at any moment?

geg81 11/12/04 05:14:47 PM EST

Sun took the BSD code developed at Berkeley and built a proprietary system out of it. I think that counts as "being founded on open source", just not in a good way: their source code went from fairly open to quite proprietary.

Wesley Felter 11/12/04 04:59:21 PM EST

I wouldn't be surprised if Solaris becomes LSB-compliant; then they can claim that it's "better Linux than Linux" and cheaper than RHEL at the same time.

Rosco P. Coltrane 11/12/04 04:56:25 PM EST

"Linux is something that we'll have to interoperate with because it may exist far beyond whatever Solaris turns out to be"

meaning, SunOS/Solaris has no future, Linux does, so we'll morph the former into the latter.

4of12 11/12/04 04:54:58 PM EST

Sun seems to view Linux somewhat grudgingly,

Somehow I'm reminded of the imperious Ken Olsen of DEC dismissing UNIX in the late 1970's despite the popularity of his company's computers being used in all kinds of UNIX niches. A very different alternate reality might have developed if (a) Ken Olsen had jumped onto UNIX and (b) successfully put it onto desktop PCs early on.

I owe a debt to Sun; my Linux experience isn't where it would be if Sun hadn't contributed so much to UNIX standards.

They could do it again, or sit back while Novell does it instead of them.

SunOS 11/12/04 04:26:35 PM EST

Red Hat has become more and more proprietary...

Yeah, thats why every single bit shipped with Red Hat comes with source code, and yet Solaris is closed source. Idiot.

HiThere 11/12/04 04:23:26 PM EST

Sun has been quite schizophrenic about Linux for years. They have done good things and bad in roughly equal amount. They've said good things and bad in roughly equal amount.

The result of this is that while I don't really consider them an enemy of FOSS, I sure don't feel they can be trusted. I'd rather trust MicroSoft. At least with MicroSoft you KNOW that they are intending to 0wn your soul, your pants, and everything in between. So you can understand what they mean. With Sun you haven't got a clue, and the best evidence is that they don't have a clue either.

I expect another press release from Sun either tomorrow or next week lambasting Linux as the source of all evil. (Or possibly this press release is in response to that blog?)

Anoon 11/12/04 04:15:46 PM EST

Sun seems to be very schizophrenic right now. I would guess that there is some kind of power struggle in the company going on between the old hard-line commercial software folks and the people who want to enter the new open source fueled business model.

It's not clear which way it will go. I am steering clear of anything using any Sun IP (e.g. Java) until I am convinced that they are not going to go on some kind of insane "monetizing" spree.

Side note: the SCO FUD has had a powerful effect on me... just not the one they intended. It's made me *very* wary of anything with a restrictive license and of any IP controlled by a single entity. The moral of the SCO story seems to be "don't base your projects or your business on proprietary IP or you might get sued in the future when the company controlling it needs some quick cash."

BrianWCarver 11/12/04 04:14:05 PM EST

All of Sun's executives saw the headline, "Where Is Sun Going With Linux?" and dropped everything to quickly find out themselves.

Then they realize this is just an interview with another Sun executive, and they go, "Ahhh. Crap. I thought I was going to actually learn something!"

Honestly, when someone figures out where Sun is going with Linux, Open Source, Java, Microsoft, etc. please tell Sun!

Baki 11/12/04 04:12:58 PM EST

Sun has given away more (important) source code than any other company. They contributed to BSD Unix, defined many of the later UNIX sysv standards and gave them away. They created RPC's, NIS, NFS, xview. All of it was given away under a very liberal licence. UNIX and thus Linux would have been dead without Sun. Many Linux users are scandalously ungrateful and have no sense for UNIX tradition and history.

Also, Solaris is a pure and clean UNIX. I can imagine that it must hurt the engineers of such a beauty that they are surpassed by a "bastard" UNIX. However that is a reality they shall have to live with. But I can understand their hesitance.

JDSokay 11/11/04 02:13:21 AM EST

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

Hardly a glowing endorsement, given that this is THE man in charge of the destiny of the Java Desktop System at Sun.