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By | Ashlee Vance 16th August 2007 19:45

IBM embraces - wtf - Sun's Solaris across x86 server line

Unix hatred turns to love

Sun Microsystems has nailed its biggest Solaris x86 win to date by lining up IBM as a firm backer of the operating system.

The two companies today revealed that IBM will offer Solaris x86 as an option on a number of its Xeon- and Opteron-based servers by year end. This arrangement provides Sun with its first real Tier 1 OEM partner on the Solaris x86 front. In addition, the two companies have decided to examine Solaris running on IBM's mainframes and even - gasp - its Power-based systems.

"Just pragmatically, there are a lot of customers that love Solaris and are loyal to it," said IBM's systems chief Bill Zeitler, during a conference call.

IBM's decision to offer Solaris on x86 systems proves surprising given the long-running animosity between the two companies. Sun has been a staunch defender of its Solaris flavor of Unix, while IBM has hawked its own AIX operating system. As a result, both companies have dished out fierce barbs over the years, celebrating the superiority of their respective operating systems.

Now we find Sun and IBM putting away their vitriol in favor of offering customers choice. IBM will sell Solaris with its BladeCenter HS21 and LS41 servers; and IBM System x3650, System x3755, and System x3850 boxen. Sun will provide the software support for the servers.

This arrangement builds on an existing deal IBM had in place to offer Solaris x86 on its blade servers.

HP too supports Solaris x86 across its entire ProLiant server line, although it does not have a support arrangement in place with Sun, which means that HP cannot offer patches and the like in an official capacity.

"Our relationship with HP is at arms length," Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said. "They are neither an OEM for Solaris nor can they sell service subscriptions to customers. The relationship with IBM is really the strongest we have with any partner in the marketplace."

A few years back, Sun abandoned its version of Solaris for x86 chips, only to regret and then reverse the decision. Sun moved to view Solaris x86 as a nice competitor to Linux and Windows and has been trying hard to create an enthusiastic developer community around the OS.

Sun's major rivals, as mentioned, have dabbled with Solaris x86 but never really backed the OS as Schwartz hoped - and often promised. But now IBM is on board and things look rosier for the code.

Zeitler sounded bullish about the prospects of running Solaris on the System Z mainframes.

"It is certainly something we would like to see happen," he said. "We don't have an agreement signed. (But) you should look to see it happen in the future for sure."

In a real shocker, Zeitler also noted that he "would like to see" some Solaris on System P work, which would have Solaris compete head-to-head with AIX.

Additionally, Sun and IBM have launched a co-engineering effort to improve the performance of Solaris on IBM's hardware.

"The short term advantage to Sun is that this widens the market for its operating system," said Gabriel Consulting Group analyst Dan Olds. "In the long-term, the advantage is less clear.

"For IBM, it will now have scalable x86 gear poised to take hardware wins away from Sun. Plus, it will get the ability in the future to host truly massive numbers of Solaris apps on the mainframe."

Solaris x86 enjoys a relatively small but devoted developer community. The Linux crowd seems to have taken notice of this with zealots bashing Solaris x86 at every chance during recent open source trade shows. Such concern is understandable given that Solaris offers a number of high-end features not found with Linux. (Note to self: Start flame war.)

IBM's support for Solaris x86 could give the developer community a real boost, since Big Blue opens up a broader market. In addition, IBM's move appears to confirm that there is strong demand for the OS among corporate customers. It's hard to imagine IBM agreeing to this arrangement without customers applying serious pressure.

"It can't be denied that Solaris x86 has reached some kind of critical mass," Olds said.

While still cynical about the broad adoption of Solaris by x86 OEMs, we can't help but wonder if Schwartz is actually onto something here. We've never taken his quips about AIX and HP-UX being dead very seriously and still don't.

But what happens if HP and Dell fall in line too? Does it make sense for IBM and HP to spend millions on their own versions of Unix in that scenario or does it make more sense to see Sun like a Microsoft or Red Hat as a true market wide OS supplier? ®

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