Sun launches Solaris 9, touts hundreds of features

Sun Microsystems rolled out the latest upgrade to its Solaris operating system Wednesday, announcing a plan to add key middleware and management components that broaden the capabilities of its Unix platform.

Sun executives are scheduled to present Solaris 9 at an event at 9 a.m. Pacific Time, touting more than 300 product features that are intended to boost the performance of applications and improve on the security, partitioning and management features in its flagship OS.

Notable is Sun's plan to bundle its Sun ONE (Open Net Environment) Directory Server with Solaris 9. The company also is bundling its Sun ONE Application Server 7 with the new version of Solaris, as was reported last year by IDG News Service. Bundling will turn Solaris into a more complete platform for deploying Web services applications, Sun said. Bundling the Sun ONE middleware, along with a firewall and other management software, should help customers cut the cost of deploying J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) applications and help them get those applications up and running more quickly, Sun officials said.

The strategy mimics that of IBM Corp., which offers customers who buy its servers steep discounts on IBM software products, analysts said.

"It's an escalation of the stakes," said Paul Krieg, a software analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. based in Reston, Virginia. "IBM has been very successful in taking so much of a customer's total budget for hardware and software that other firms are trying to emulate them."

The move could help Sun boost its position in the enterprise software market, but at the cost of potential conflict with software partners such as BEA Systems Inc. and Veritas Software Corp., analysts said.

"I think Sun is a bit torn with doing what they feel is the right thing for Sun and its customers from a logical perspective, and, on the other hand, not alienating its software partners," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., based in Nashua, New Hampshire.

BEA Systems Inc., for example, makes one of the two most popular application servers on the market and sells most of its products on Sun servers. By offering its application server for free, Sun provides customers with an added incentive to use Sun's own product, potentially affecting sales for BEA, analysts said.

Veritas may be similarly affected as Sun has built its volume manager technology in and worked to speed the performance of its file system with Solaris 9, hoping to compete with comparable Veritas products. Veritas sells a more feature-rich software set than Sun but many of the advanced tools are "obscure" and expensive, said Andy Ingram, Sun's vice president of marketing for Solaris, in a recent interview.

However, shifting to a strategy in which Sun's infrastructure software plays a greater role comes with many challenges, analyst Krieg said.

"Sun will have to face the issue that it is starting from behind and has not been as successful at software as a number of its competitors," Krieg said. "The burden of proof is on Sun; they can't just show up and win."

While the decision to bundle its infrastructure software may have been controversial, long-time users who cherish the operating system will likely have less argument with the new features Solaris 9 provides for them.

Sun worked for two years to improve ways administrators can divvy up resources such as processor power to groups of users, better Solaris' security with support for the latest protocols and speed the software's overall performance.

While Sun customers typically take some time to upgrade their server OS, users going with Solaris 9 will find features that make it easier to install, reboot, run and secure the OS. Solaris users will now be able to upgrade both their root partition and a copy of the partition at the same time, instead of separately as is currently required, which could help save time and avoid potential user errors. Sun also improved its server reboot tools so that skipping lengthy system checks after a crash by enabling logging doesn't compromise the performance of processing transactions, for example, as was the case with Solaris 8, said Bill Moffitt, product line manager for Solaris.

"When you have logging enabled, (the OS) does not have to do a system check, which can take forever if a machine crashes," Moffitt said. "This caused some other actions to take a performance hit in the past, but now people don't have to make a trade-off."

Users will also find a host of management tools that pull together previously separate technologies. Administrators will now find built-in resource management tools that let them set limits on the CPU (central processing unit), memory, bandwidth and storage resources that can be accessed by a particular group of workers or applications. Additionally, Sun will introduce Solaris Containers with the new OS, which divide applications into separate compartments in a bid to ensure that a software crash or virus is isolated. "These are the types of things only a sys admin would love," Moffitt said.

Several beta testers expressed their satisfaction with Solaris 9, calling it one of the easiest to install. Sun has also made it easier to keep track of which version of an application and associated patches are running on a server.

"From my own viewpoint, Sun has been ahead of the competition in most management areas and has probably increased its lead with this product," said Eric Greenwade, a science fellow at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

One user said Sun has made strides toward matching Veritas on some key software functions but still had room to improve.

"The Sun folks took a real big step in the right direction, but there is a way to go," said Thomas Nau, director of the University of Ulm Computer Center in Germany. "They are pushing this and there is conviction at Sun that they need to take more steps."

Another improvement is a central software registry for checking to see what versions of applications and associated patches are running on a server.

"You can tell what software has written into that registry and the revisions and patches," Moffitt said. "You could do it in 8, but you had to look at individual packages."

Sun has also made two major changes to its distribution policy for Solaris. The company has disappointed a collection of users by releasing Solaris 9 for the company's SPARC chips only without support for Intel Corp.'s 32-bit chip architecture. Sun halted the Intel project as a cost-cutting measure, but is discussing possible pricing changes with users that could revitalize the effort, although these negotiations have stalled, according to some of the users in talks with Sun.

Sun also plans to release its own distribution of the Linux operating system later this year, altering its longtime Solaris only stance.

Sun has also reduced the number of processors in a system that are covered under its program for free downloads of Solaris. "What we have been doing was to provide free downloads with a one- to eight-processor license (with Solaris 8)," said Jim Lee, Sun's director for worldwide product sales and marketing. "With Solaris 9 it will be a single-processor license only for the free download. It is primarily because we want it to be a developer license rather than a production license, and so a lot of developers will be working on a single processor machine."

(John Ribeiro in Bangalore, India, contributed to this report.)

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