Sun Block

The announcement that Sun Microsystems was purchasing Cobalt Networks for $2 billion dollars caught me completely by surprise. I immediately thought, "What a brilliant move for Sun! Why hadn't I thought of this earlier?"

by Adam Goodman

The announcement that Sun Microsystems was purchasing Cobalt Networks for $2 billion dollars caught me completely by surprise. I immediately thought, “What a brilliant move for Sun! Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?”

Sun was the first company to truly understand the power of networking and the Internet, and they have managed to fend off nearly every competitor for the past five to ten years.

However, they are constantly facing threats to the lower-end of their market. In the mid-90s, the threat was Windows NT. While NT did capture an enormous share of the workstation market, it never gained the traction it needed in the server market. Sun responded by selling more high-end servers. You are now much more likely to see Sun pitting its Starfire servers against IBM’s mainframes than worrying about NT workstations.

Today’s threats to Sun’s market come from places outside of Redmond, WA. As Michael Dell put it in our August 2000 interview with him, “[Sun has] an incredible investment in this proprietary software platform and hardware stack, and I think that’s going to become increasingly difficult to maintain…We’re going to pass Sun in the [server business], and we are not going to do it with a proprietary Unix. Linux is playing a big part in the strategy.”

So Sun figured out a way to take advantage of Linux, reclaim a big stake in the lower-end of the Unix server market, and patch a big hole in their non-existent server appliance strategy — they bought Cobalt.

This brings me to why I didn’t see this coming — Sun is full of Solaris bigots. They’ve been pooh-poohing Linux for quite some time now, saying that Linux doesn’t have what it takes to play in the enterprise — which is where they make their real money.

In our November 1999 interview, Bill Joy summarized Sun’s position regarding Linux by saying, “More Unix is better. Anything that isn’t Microsoft is better. Anybody who buys a Linux machine has a lot better chance of buying a Solaris machine as their next machine or buying a Sparc machine running Linux or buying Java. The probabilities are greater for all those cases.”

Sun’s purchase of Cobalt is completely consistent with that philosophical stance. If lower-end customers want to buy appliance servers, Sun can get a foot in the door with those businesses, and then try to move them up to higher-end Solaris-based servers as they grow.

The idea of offering Linux on the low-end and a more powerful system like Solaris on the high-end leads to a topic we discussed with Ransom Love, CEO of Caldera Systems (See our interview, pg 54). Caldera recently purchased SCO Unix and their UnixWare kernel. UnixWare has a lot of enterprise-ready technology that is currently missing from Linux. Caldera plans to make UnixWare completely compatible with Linux, allowing customers to scale up seamlessly while remaining on a “Linux” platform.

Maybe this is part of Sun’s plan as well — to make Solaris completely compatible with Linux, and offer a long-term plan to customers that allows them to scale up seamlessly.

Regardless, it’s looking as though Linux may become a “standard” that the entire fractured Unix market can coalesce around. What more can you ask for? World Domination?

See you next month,

Adam Signature

Adam M. Goodman

Editor & Publisher

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