Down to the Wire

SAN MATEO (01/31/2000) - Sun Microsystems Inc.'s latest version of Unix, Solaris 8, is now essentially "free" software, as in free beer.

Well, strictly speaking, it isn't quite free. It will cost you $75 to get the Solaris 8 run time and another $75 if you want the source code. (Sun says the cost is for the media, but that's awfully pricey plastic.)You'll have to pay more if you plan on using Solaris on a machine with eight or more processors. You also have to register with Sun and track your usage of Solaris.

So for $150 you get the safety of having the source code plus unlimited client and server licenses as long as you run Solaris on fewer than eight processors per machine.

That's a pretty fine deal. And it's not too difficult to guess the motivation behind this extraordinary move. Sun is pointing a big gun squarely at Microsoft Windows 2000.

In particular, Sun hopes to prevent Windows 2000 from ever getting a foothold in the ISP or ASP (application service provider) markets. That should be a fairly simple task, considering the fact that Solaris is already well entrenched as an Internet operating system.

I'll bet a lot of folks jump to the incorrect conclusion that Sun is making Solaris nearly free in order to derail the ever-growing popularity of Linux in the ISP market. Bzzt. Sun isn't that stupid.

If anything, Scott McNealy should send a bottle of Dom Perignon to everyone in the Linux community.

Linux has revitalized interest in Unix. That has led to increased sales of Sun Sparcstations and Solaris, and spawned a whole new generation of administrators who know and prefer Unix to Windows.

It is also in Sun's best interest to validate Linux rather than Windows 2000 as a midrange operating system. If an ISP decides to add high power to his Linux server farm, it is a very short hop from Linux to a multi-processor Sparc machine running Solaris (or running more Linux, for that matter, because Linux runs on Sparc architecture). It is a much larger hop from Linux to Windows 2000. More important, however, is the fact that it is a very big hop from Windows 2000 to anything running on a Sparc machine. Sun knows that if Windows 2000 gets too entrenched, Sun can kiss its Sparc hardware sales good-bye.

By making Solaris nearly free, Sun also fills a big hole in the Linux strategy to rule the world. Linux may be more robust than Windows, but it still isn't fully mature.

So a large contingent of IT managers are still afraid to trust Linux. These same folks may have avoided Solaris until now because it was perceived as being more expensive than the alternatives such as Windows NT.

Solaris has actually had a lower price tag than Windows NT or Windows 2000 for quite some time. But check out how it compares now. (I've spelled this out before when making the same point regarding Linux, but it is worth repeating.)A single Windows 2000 Advanced Server with 100 client licenses will run about $7,000.

The problem is that if you want to exploit all the most useful features new to Windows 2000, you have to put Windows 2000 on all your clients, as well.

That bumps the price up $31,900 (for 100 clients) to about $41,000, minus any discounts you might get from Microsoft.

This means 1,000 clients running on 10 servers will run you more than $400,000.

Now you can put Solaris on every one of those machines for a total of $75. Or, as would make more sense, you can avoid the client upgrade altogether.

Just leave Windows 9x on all your existing clients and run Solaris on all your servers for the same total of $75.

And thanks to Linux, the price of Unix expertise to manage all those Solaris servers has come way down, as well.

These days you can't throw a tomato out the window without hitting a kid fresh out of college who knows Linux better than an MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) knows Windows -- especially because Microsoft requires all existing MCSE holders to be retested for certification on Windows 2000.

That's why this new pricing is such a very big gun.

Ask yourself if Microsoft can ever discount the total price for more than one thousand copies of Windows 2000 down to $75 and still satisfy its shareholders.

Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com).

Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com.

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