Here comes the Sun, and AMD and Linux, too

It hasn't been a happy couple of years for Sun Microsystems. Sitting

atop the dot-com world not that long ago, Sun's SPARC-based servers

running the Solaris operating system ruled the roost. Today, they are

being crushed in the marketplace by Intel-powered servers from HP, IBM,

and Dell. Why? Linux. That's why.

Combative as ever, Sun founder and CEO Scott McNealy, has been running

around for years, beating up on Windows and, by extension, servers

founded on Intel processor technology. "Run your spreadsheet on Windows,

but run your business on Solaris," he was fond of saying. And for a

time, he was spot on. Windows NT Server, was never really a good choice

for extreme high-volume, transaction-driven environments. Sun servers

were the darling of Net retailers and financial-services organizations,

including Wall Street traders.

But the economics have changed and the technology has matured. Windows

2000 Server, in its various flavors, was seen as robust enough for many

intensive applications. Intel-based servers grew in power as their

out-of-pocket prices dropped. They were the so-called "WinTel" duopoly.

Storage became laughably inexpensive. And Linux. Yes, Linux. The free

operating system that was never really free became, at first, a

curiosity, and then was wholeheartedly embraced by IT as a legitimate

alternative to Windows - after we all saw that it really worked.

Suddenly, SPARC-based Sun servers running Solaris started losing cachet.

And as we all know, mindshare is at least as important as market share.

Believe a popular solution is no longer an unassailable choice (NetWare,

WordPerfect, OS/2, MicroChannel, et. al.) and the inevitable death

spiral quickly ensues.

So what does Sun do to avoid being eclipsed and rendered superfluous?

At Comdex in Las Vegas last week, Sun's McNealy took to the stage with

Hector Ruiz, CEO of AMD, purveyor of Intel-compatible processors. Here

are two companies that have been taking a lot of lumps lately. I've

wondered over the years how AMD even managed to stay in business. But I

suppose AMD's continued existence keeps Intel from being declared a

total monopoly. That's another column, though.

Sun and AMD announced a partnership that is likely to go after Intel's

Itanium and Microsoft's Windows Server (2000 and 2003) platforms in the

SMB market, reaching to the low end of the enterprise. Sun will

manufacture servers based on AMD's 64-bit Opteron processor platform.

These servers will run Linux or Solaris and are intended to make 64-bit

computing backward compatible with 32-bit applications, something the

two companies say is not possible with Intel's Itanium processor.

You've got to admit, this is a gutsy move. I see AMD as the real

beneficiary in that its processors will be taken more seriously than in

the past. For Sun, this move to Intel processor compatibility was

probably a hard pill to swallow.

In talking to some solution integrators at the McNealy and Ruiz keynote

speech, each acknowledged curiosity and a desire to learn about the

forthcoming products. But none would go so far as to say they'd be

peddling these products. Server platforms, it seems, are no different

than an old pair of slippers: you know them, they're very comfortable,

and there's no reason to switch.

If Sun and AMD are to have any success with this initiative, they had

better be everywhere, investing heavily, educating solution integrators

and customers, creating an alluring, irresistible financial model, and

creating a frenzy of demand. And how will Sun pledge allegiance to this

new hardware lineage without repudiating all that they have done before?

It's not going to be easy.

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