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A Dimming Bulb

Back in 1985, in my last year of graduate school, I was lucky enough to get a "real" office, including a door, a lock and key, a telephone, and a shiny, new Sun 3/110 workstation. After timesharing with the general population on VAX 11s for three years, the Sun machine was a godsend: a bitmapped screen, shell windows, and all the processing power of a 16 MHz 68020. (Man, those were the days!)

Back in 1985, in my last year of graduate school, I was lucky enough to get a “real” office, including a door, a lock and key, a telephone, and a shiny, new Sun 3/110 workstation. After timesharing with the general population on VAX 11s for three years, the Sun machine was a godsend: a bitmapped screen, shell windows, and all the processing power of a 16 MHz 68020. (Man, those were the days!)

I continued to use Sun machines up through the early ’90s (in 1992, I switched from scientific computing and supercomputers to shrinkwrap software and personal computers). I had many of the Sun 3 computers and an early SPARCstation, and was always impressed with Sun’s hardware and software. Sun’s UNIX was a reference platform for MIT’s X11 and for much of the open source software of the day (largely found on Usenet newsgroups), and Sun’s machines were widely targeted by independent software vendors. Sun’s sprawl in Silicon Valley was a reflection of its success.

But Sun’s rise (sorry, bad pun) slowed as the PC usurped the desktop. So, some ten years or so after being founded, Sun seemed to be at a standstill.

However, in a strange twist of fate, the lowly machines that nearly killed Sun also resurrected the company: with a PC in (almost) every home and office, and an Internet start-up on (almost) every corner, Sun climbed to the stratosphere, powered by Sun’s servers. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Alas, four years after the boom and more than twenty years since being founded, Sun seems to be in a quagmire yet again. Dell, IBM, and many other vendors command the low-end with capable Intel- or AMD-powered commodity servers and Linux. IBM also seems to command the high-end, with mainframes capable of running Linux and other operating systems simultaneously. Indeed, those IBM machines also run an impressive suite of cross-platform enterprise software, including WebSphere and DB2. Sun’s hardware business seems trapped in something akin to a Death Star trash compactor.

Worse, Sun remains a largely proprietary software company in an industry that’s rapidly becoming open and focused on providing solutions and services. In the past, while we cheered whenever Scott McNealy railed on Microsoft (for good cause), I suspect Sun’s customers and stockholders cringed. Moreover, Sun remains at arms-length from the Eclipse Consortium; has come under attack for its management of the Java Community Process; and, closer to home, has flip-flopped its position on Linux countless times. I feel totally befuddled, and I consider myself to be well-informed. How do Sun’s customers feel?

And, just to muddy things further, new Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz “announced” that Solaris would be released as open source, although no details were provided. This year’s FUD award (the revered and reviled Golden Cow Chip) might just go to Sun, for “Worst Performance by a Vendor in a Leading Role.”

The sad part about all of this is that Sun seemingly has considerable technical prowess. Customers depend on its hardware and software, and Sun has arguably more expertise in UNIX than any other vendor. Sun seemed ideally suited to market, sell, and service Linux — in tandem with a host of solutions — but now it seems too late.

With no equivalent to the World Wide Web anywhere on the horizon, the sun is setting on Sun.

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Martin Streicher is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux Magazine.

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