Interview: Sun VP says Solaris-on-Intel unresolved

With the release of Solaris 9 scheduled for midyear, Anil Gadre, vice president and general manager for Solaris software at Sun Microsystems Inc., has a lot on his plate. For one thing, he has to figure out how to deal with a vociferous user community that rebelled against Sun's decision, announced in January, to pull the plug on a version of Solaris 9 for Intel Corp. processors. Gadre spoke with Computerworld about that issue and about what Sun aims to deliver with the new release.

Q: What's the status of your deliberations on whether to reverse your decision to kill Solaris 9 on Intel?We've had a substantial amount of input and interaction with various members of the community, and I'm really impressed by their passion and commitment to this space (see story). What we're trying to do right now is figure out a creative way to keep engaging them and figure out an answer that works. We made the product free about two years ago; we've had quite a bit of success with the download program -- well over a million licenses. Frankly, it's just the economic times that's caused us to say, 'Look, we've really got to take a look at this -- where are we going with this, and can we afford it?'

Q: Do you have a dollar figure for what this is costing you?We certainly have it, but I can't disclose that. So we have a lot of different things on our plate which we also have customer requests for, and it comes down to which direction to go. The input from the community has been really valuable to us. [We're considering] using community concepts -- a bunch of different models in which we could harness the community's enthusiasm to keep this space going. [We're also considering] greater opening up of the code so that the community can work with us. Historically, we've had the free Solaris source program out there, and the question would be, Can we extend it substantially to make it a vehicle in which we can engage the community even further? All of that stuff is easy to say, but it's hard to do because there's a lot of infrastructure support that you've got to get right.

Q: In light of the user interest level, why not just sell Solaris 9 on Intel as a product and charge a support fee for it?That's one of the things we're also considering; that's certainly an ingredient in the equation.

Q: When do you expect to make a decision?I had thought that I could get to an answer sooner. The issue is not as simple as it sometimes looks. So I want to shy away from making time commitments right now because it's taken me longer than I would have liked to really get to an answer.

Q: Given CEO Scott McNealy's passion about having alternatives to Microsoft Corp.'s products, one might have thought that would be reason enough to keep Solaris on Intel going.We have a Linux offering coming in the low end, which we think is an alternative. The other thing is what we want to do is provide a really great platform for Web services creation. So I don't believe the game is necessarily just about trying to be an alternative. The real aim is to provide the best implementation of open-standards-based technology out there.

Q: Can you elaborate on your Linux strategy and how it meshes with your Solaris plans?We've had a Unix strategy in the company for 20 years, and the Linux product extension is part of that overall Unix strategy. We've always maintained that Linux and Unix are not two different markets, and we've been working very hard with the community to make sure that we don't get fragmentation of things like programming interfaces. We've given a lot of cool things to the community, most notably the globalization/internationalization framework. This was a gift from Sun to the community of a major piece of technology which helps Linux become unified and makes it easier to create localized versions of Linux.

So you want to make sure there is great compatibility, for customers and ISVs, between Solaris and Linux implementations. And separately, you want to take Linux and provide it with the higher-level middleware that people are looking for.

Q: Will Sun deliver its own distribution of Linux?This is an important thing to get right. We're not trying to compete with the Linux distribution companies out there. We are creating a distribution that goes on the system platform that we will market. So you're not going to get the CD separately as a Linux distribution from Sun; you're going to get it on the machine. We have said that our time frame is basically late summer to get a product out there that does this.

There are plenty of people you can buy a Linux distribution from; the world doesn't need one more of those.

Q: What improvements will Solaris 9 have with respect to security?The thing that customers asked us for is fundamentally greater out-of-box security. What that means is today, a customer gets Solaris and often has to do a bunch of customization to configure it to their particular requirement. A lot of customers have asked, "Can you do that for me, because I'm probably doing the same thing that a lot of other customers want anyway." So we're working toward preconfigured versions that allow that.

There's a lot of other stuff, like better smart card support, better support for certificate management and identity management and pluggable authentication modules.

Q: What's the biggest difference between Solaris 9 and previous versions?The ability to reduce total cost of ownership. We're about to see in Solaris 9 an entirely new framework that makes utilization management substantially better.

The other thing people are looking for is, "How do I get to Web services?" Yes, money is tight, but that doesn't mean that the competition has gone away, so every customer is still hard at work on the high-priority projects. So if I were to say what's the big difference between past versions of Solaris vs. 9, the big news is it's going to take you in a seamless way to the ability to create environments which do these Web services kinds of applications, and a heightened focus on getting the total cost of operations lower.

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