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At LinuxWorld San Francisco: Corporate customers take center stage

After his LinuxWorld keynote address, Larry Ellison, Oracle founder and chief, was asked about the state of the U.S. software industry. Why is it in a slump?

Ellison, who has made more money on IBM's invention of the relational database than IBM itself, is known as the number two American technology billionaire. But unlike Bill Gates, he doesn't just drive fast cars, but pilots jet aircraft and helms racing yachts, including an entry in the next America's Cup. Oracle's six mirrored buildings rise dramatically in the Redwood Shores area south of San Francisco above a lake-size reflecting pool. All of these indulgences come from the development, sales and servicing of software. And so from his vantage point on the LinuxWorld stage, Ellison's audience of open source believers must have looked like an alien culture.

Why is the software industry in a slump? "It's because you people give it away," he said.

Ellison was joking, at least it seemed so this year. But his presence at this gathering of the Linux faithful in San Francisco last August symbolized yet another step on Linux's road to mainstream acceptance. Linux users are stereotypically described as wearing sandals and T-shirts. But these days, the "suits" are much in evidence, with companies considering Linux for mainstream applications, the kind that once ran only on mainframes or on proprietary Unix servers. Oracle itself is becoming one of those companies. According to Ellison, all of Oracle's own mid-tier machines will be running Linux by the end of the year, supporting such applications as sales automation, accounting, and the company Web site.

Oracle came to LinuxWorld to tout its Linux clustering technology, which runs the database management system and related applications over multiple Linux boxes. (The company recommends two-processor machines as delivering the most bang for the buck.) Ellison claimed that $400,000 worth of Linux machines could deliver comparable performance to $4 million worth of IBM workstations or the $14-15 million cost of an IBM mainframe. "If you need more power," he said, "just add another machine." Abundant, inexpensive Linux machines also provide more reliability, he said. If one machine crashes, the database application keeps going with no data loss and minimal delay. It's the Tandem clustering approach applied to cheap hardware running free system software.

Of course, the claim that Linux has entered a new era is nothing new. Back at the first LinuxWorld, Marjorie Richardson wrote that "the attendance by the big-name vendors is a sure sign that Linux has made the big leagues." But the big league back then was a speech by Michael Cowpland, then head of Corel. Cowpland is gone, but this year featured keynotes by much bigger fish-Ellison and Sun's Scott McNealy-with server announcements from Sun, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard. Even Microsoft had a booth-its first ever at a Linux show. Naturally, the company was under deep suspicion. For some attendees, Microsoft-the enemy of open source, the goliath of Redmond, the monopolistic OS predator-seemed more like a gate crasher than an invited guest. But Microsoft has become an important a catalyst for the Linux movement in general, and LinuxWorld, in particular. The company may not be an significant Linux developer, but its revised licensing agreements are driving companies to seek alternatives, and Linux is the obvious first stop. The heat generated by Microsoft pricing is warming the hands of the Linux faithful.

"People are very upset with Microsoft, because during this economic downturn, they doubled the price of their software," said Ellison in his speech. "It's brilliant-half as many people are buying, so they charge those who are still buying twice as much. They can only do that because they are a monopoly, and people are angrier than ever." Indeed, some Microsoft customers attended LinuxWorld with the goal of finding an alternative. Such was the case for Greg Moses, who works for Potlatch, a Idaho-based paper goods company. He told the newspaper USA Today that he had come to the conference in search of alternatives to Microsoft's three-year, $1.5 million license with the company. ''We know it's not possible to get completely away from Windows,'' Moses said . ''But next time around, if we could eliminate Windows 2000 or Office, one or the other, that would be fine."

"We see Linux as competing head to head with Windows, and we plan to gain unsatisfied Microsoft customers," said Neil Knox, Sun vice president, volume systems products, in a Q&A on Sun's website. He called Linux and Solaris "complementary components in our drive to be the number one provider of products and services that make the Net work."

Moving from Windows to Linux on the client remains a radical move for corporations, one that doesn't seem likely any time soon. But that some are actively looking should give Microsoft pause. A study by the research group International Data Corporation concludes that Linux sales actually declined by almost 5 percent last year, compared with 2000. The firm estimates that sales were at a paltry $80 million. Still, IDC notes that Linux did better than other non-Windows operating systems, and that its future growth looks rosier, with sales projected at $280 million in 2006. Fueling this growth are sales in Asia, where Microsoft is less entrenched. IDC credits the region with contributing 34% of new sales in 1991, both on the client and server sides. IDC predicts that spending on Linux environments will go from 80 million in 2001 to $280 million in 2006, and some of this growth will be on the client side, particularly in Asia, where Microsoft has a weaker grip on the market.

Sun's low-cost LX50 server

Of the server vendors attending LinuxWorld, none were more closely watched than Sun Microsystems. Linux represents a dilemma for the company, which has historically succeeded without having to adopt either Intel chips or Windows. (Sun is openly hostile to Microsoft, which it has sued in court over Java, and is quietly hostile to Intel, whose processors it has long competed with.) Last May, Sun claimed a 34 percent market share in Unix servers, and were Linux not in the picture, Solaris would presumably continue to be the unchallenged Unix flavor.

LX50 is Sun's first general purpose Linux server, and by Sun's usual standards, it is cheap: $2,795. The LX50 ships with both Linux 2.4 and Solaris X86. (After hinting that Solaris 8.0 might be the last X86 release, Sun says it will now support Solaris 9.0 on X86 machines.) The machines feature single or dual 1.4GHz x86 processors in a 1 3/ 4-inch high rack server, configurable with up to 6GB of memory and 216 GB of internal storage.

But Sun is really counting on the software stack, the LX50's bundled software, to give it an edge. Sun said it will also deliver its Sun ONE stack to the X86 architecture over the next two quarters. Sun ONE is a suite of Java development tools and compilers for C, C++ and Fortran (formerly sold under the brand name as "Forte"); as well as middleware (formerly sold under the brand name "iPlanet") providing directory, identification, proxy, calendar and other services.

In introducing a low-cost, low-end server, Sun stands to keep customers who might have left the fold for cheaper x86/Linux machines, and perhaps attract new customers who like the company's track record in the server arena. But as Linux boxes grow stronger, Sun also risks the erosion of its higher-end, higher-margin Solaris machines. Its stated aim is to get Solaris to run Linux applications, with the idea that customers can port over when needed. With Sun's strategy, Solaris is not quite shunted aside because, at the very least, it is resident on every LX50 machine Sun ships.

Sun's entrance into the Linux server market has some skeptics. "Such a move, in the view of some users and developers...only takes the Linux wars from the kernel or Linux operating system level up to the platform or environment level," wrote Ed Scannell in InfoWorld magazine. "At this level, Sun will be putting its stack up against those of IBM, Red Hat, and Hewlett-Packard." The worry for some is that Sun, already late to the Linux game, is layering a set of proprietary technologies atop a non-proprietary operating system, and that could cause compatibility problems down the line. Nobody has accused Sun of staging a Microsoft-like coup (as was the case with Microsoft adding proprietary extensions to Java), but in a community built atop volunteer efforts, Sun's move makes people edgy. Another source of edginess were the remarks of Sun co-founder and chief scientist Bill Joy, and the principle architect of BSD. He praised open source for its adaptability, but said that product support left something to be desired.

HP to Sun: Welcome to the party

Meanwhile, Sun competitor Hewlett-Packard, newly merged with Compaq, is not sitting still. "I welcome Sun to the party," said Judy Chavis, director of worldwide Linux, who worked on the Compaq side of the business. "I think they're a little late. Sun says it is running its version of Linux-not a commercial brand like RedHat or SuSE. Are we going to fragment Linux because Sun has its own version?" But the real threat to Sun is that Linux is encroaching on its turf, says Chavis. "The promise is that I can move my Solaris applications to Linux, and get better price and performance, and probably better reliability,"

The combined HP-Compaq has some 31 percent of the Linux IA32 market, according to the research group IDC: represented by a combination of HP Netservers and Compaq ProLiants. It now ships more Linux servers than anyone else, including Dell and IBM. Within the company, Linux represents about 14 percent of HP's IA32 business, with Novell Netware shipping on a comparable number of machines. Windows represents most of the rest. Before the merger, both HP and Compaq shipped IA32 Linux boxes, but while Compaq was strictly focused on 32-bit, HP employed a research group in Fort Collins, Colorado that worked on an IA64 Linux port. (As for closed-source UNIX, the company is merging Compaq's Tru64 into HP-UX. The combined OS will be supported on HP's PA-RISC processor, as well as on the Intel IA64.)

But why buy HP Linux servers over Sun's, or for that matter-why not just install Red Hat on a basic PC? Chavis says that companies recruiting Linux for serious applications will require more. She sites a new HP customer, Media Temple Inc., a privately held Web hosting and software application services company in Los Angeles. When they called their current PC maker for support, Dell couldn't spell the word Linux, and by the way, couldn't offer them any management capability and remote deployment," she said.

"We're winning business from accounts who are used to a certain level of management on the Solaris platform-and were amazed they could get that level on the ProLiant. Linux is starting to run mission critical applications that used to run on Sun. That means the server has to be more than an unadorned Linux box. It must offer some of the management capabilities they were used to on those servers. The combination with HP Insight Manager and HP Openview puts us even with those capabilities found on a Solaris platform."

To keep things in perspective, it should be noted, that the merged HP/Compaq is now the largest purchaser of Windows licenses, and Chavis was careful to characterize the company's relationship with Microsoft as a productive one. HP Linux employees who take a harsher tone may find themselves out of a job. Such was the case for Bruce Perens, HP's Linux evangelist, who was fired shortly after LinuxWorld. The move didn't surprise Perens, whose fighting style might have been too much for a company that that wants to stay in Microsoft's good graces. As Perens put it to the New York Times: "Microsoft is out to crush Linux as a competitor." He is especially wary of a Microsoft-sponsored consortium, the Initiative for Software Choice (, that includes Intel and 18 other companies from South America, Europe, Thailand and Indonesia (though none from Japan). The consortium is seen as a reaction against governments who would buy only open source products. "Procure software on its merits, not through categorical preferences," is how the consortium puts it.

Perens has established his own initiative, called Sincere Choice ( While not explicitly opposed to proprietary software, Perens believes that software companies should use proprietary formats to lock their customers into their brands. That has been the case, for example, with Microsoft Office, whose word processing, spreadsheet and presentation formats are not fully supported elsewhere. "No user should be required to use a particular product simply because other users do," says the Sincere Choice website. "Competing products should interoperate with each other through open standards." Larry Ellison made a similar point at his keynote address. He argued that Microsoft Office is what's really keeping Linux off of client machines. Office doesn't run on Linux, and Linux office productivity products, like StarOffice, don't fully support Microsoft file formats. As long as that's the case, Linux will not make much headway onto the client. As for Perens, he might apply for a job at Sun.

A conversation with Sun's Jack O'Brien, manager of the Sun Microsystems' Linux Business Office. O'Brien is responsible for Sun's Linux marketing strategy.

Where does LX50 the server fit in with the cannon of Sun servers?

It's the entry-level server.

Who do you plan to sell to?

We plan to take it into three key markets. First is the core infrastructure and edge computing marketing. Edge computing is a broad term encompassing content delivery: moving information together with the related Web and transaction services. It includes Web serving, file and print, caching, firewalls, security, and streaming media.

The second big market is compute farms-large clusters of computers that do massive amounts of calculation-like animation, auto crash simulations, finite element analysis, gene synchronization, protein folding, etc.

The third market is custom application development. These are enterprises that write their own applications and deploy them on Linux, using Linux because of the economics of the hardware and software, and because the open source can be customized to their needs.

Where does that leave Solaris?

Solaris reaches up to huge machines, single servers with over 100 processors. They are highly reliable, often in high availability clusters, doing things like databases and decision support. There's still a gigantic markets for those machines.

Is the line between Linux and Solaris blurring?

Absolutely. We have a powerful entry server market. And now we have a big opportunity to compete against Microsoft. And Solaris will run on both SPARC and Intel now.

Is Solaris 9 now officially on the X86?

It's Solaris 8 today and Solaris 9 is coming. We're committed to that.

Are you concerned about cannibalizing your own high end products?

Absolutely not. We think Linux and Solaris are complementary. There's a certain amount of overlap, but that's good because that offers our customers choice. This is all about Sun being able to provide more to a single customer.

The LX50 comes heavily bundled with a software stack. What is the selling proposition versus a generic Linux box?

We're taking the same systems approach with the LX-50 that we take with the rest of our product line: a hardware platform, operating environment, and set of applications based on open standards, but tuned to work really well together. That's the same model we're following in the Linux business.

Our competitors manufacture a generic Intel box, using anybody's flavor of a Linux distribution. Our has been tested and tuned so we know that the hardware matches the software. That's the generic piece of this product offering. Beyond that, we're focusing on all the value-added layers: additional applications, true enterprise applications like the application server, world class development tools like Sun ONE Studio. Over time we're going to roll out the full Sun One software portfolio, including portal, directory, identity, mail and calendaring.

The third piece is management. We have a world-class management solution that we're used to using in the back-end and mission-critical tiers of data center - bringing that to the low end as well. And there's service and support.

Is there a danger here of layering in a set of proprietary technologies on top of Linux?

Our approach is all about open standards. It's a plug-and-play model, the same model we have with the Web services stack on Solaris. So if you don't want to use our app server and you want to use Apache, no problem. The standards are all the same-just turn one off and turn the other on.

What about pricing?

We usually have one version, which is known as either the Platform Edition or Standard Edition, which usually has no license fee. Then if you want to go to a more feature-rich, enterprise class or scalable version, we call that the Enterprise edition, and that's when we start charging for the additional value.

HP and Dell are now shipping a non-Microsoft office product. Do you see that as boding anything for the Linux desktop?

I do. I see more and more customer dissatisfaction with owners licensing practices and costs with Microsoft productivity suites. They are the de facto standard, but despite that, you're seeing governments across the world making bold statements about alternatives to Microsoft Office, and lots of companies adopting alternative suites like StarOffice and OpenOffice and Corel and Lotus. In fact, OpenOffice is the market share leader for the Linux desktop-it has about an 85 percent share. ["OpenOffice" refers to the open source code. StarOffice is Sun's run-time version of OpenOffice. In theory, anyone can take the OpenOffice source code and turn it into a comparable product.]

Any other thoughts about Linux at Sun?

We think it's headed for the next level of maturity and we're putting in place initiatives across the entire company to make sure it's just as much a part of the strategy as the investment in Solaris.