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Sun injects Solaris X86 with new life as it makes its way to 64 bits

Windows NT might have the marketshare, but here's why Solaris X86 could be your better choice for Intel-based workstations

By Rick Cook

February  1997
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Even though Solaris on Intel and PowerPC processors hasn't brought Unix to the desktop as originally planned, it has found a niche in providing cost-effective Solaris functionality to servers and some desktops. If you want the same operating system across the entire enterprise, need to run a lot of X86-class programs with high performance, or need something with more performance and security than Windows NT at a minimum hardware cost, Solaris offers a strong choice. (2,200 words)

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If Sun Microsystems had its way, the high-end desktop operating systems battle would be fought on the basis of performance, reliability, consistency, and server applications. Instead, the battle lines were drawn by Microsoft's marketing machine, leaving many of the performance and reliability issues out of the equation.

Solaris, and in particular Solaris X86, was to be Sun's bid for the corporate desktop. Five years ago -- a full three years before Windows 95 -- it was to be the Unix that would displace Windows by offering more power and Windows-like ease of use. How times change.

When Solaris X86 launched, it looked as if it could be a strong competitor in the desktop arena because it combines the highly regarded features of Unix with the ability to run on Intel processors. That's not what happened, of course, for a variety of reasons, including Microsoft's marketing muscle and the rapid improvement of Windows NT. Windows has not only maintained its hold on the personal computer, but it's encroaching on servers, historically one of the key Unix/Solaris markets.

But this isn't a one-way street. Solaris on Intel has important advantages in the small-to-medium server environment that now is dominated by Microsoft and Novell. In the longer term, Sun has shifted the focus of the Solaris/Intel products to fit with its network-centric strategy. As a result, Sun is continuing to offer and promote Solaris X86, but de-emphasizing it as a separate product. Today, Solaris X86 is just another flavor of Solaris.

"Solaris [on the Intel platform] is essentially the same as Solaris anywhere," says Brian Croll, director of marketing for Solaris servers at Sun Microsystems, reflecting the change in direction. "Solaris is multiplatform and will work well on a lot of different platforms. If [Sun customers] feel comfortable with SPARC (Sun's RISC microprocessor), that's great. If they're comfortable with Intel, that's fine too." Although Croll says Sun doesn't publicly break down its product lines, he says that the company has sold a "significant number" of copies of Solaris for the X86 and PowerPC families.

For companies already using the Solaris environment, one attraction of Solaris X86 is hardware cost. You can install Solaris/Intel for considerably less hardware cost than Solaris on a SPARC platform. The result may not be as powerful as Solaris, but it is powerful enough for many types of jobs.

What this boils down to is that while Solaris X86 hasn't become the Windows killer some hoped it would, it isn't dead -- or even dormant. The extension of Solaris to the Intel world plays an important role in Sun's operating system strategy.


Building the case for Solaris X86
Although the X86 world is overwhelmingly dominated by Microsoft Windows and Windows NT, Solaris X86 still offers a number of advantages that make it worthwhile as both a server and as a desktop OS.

Perhaps most important, Solaris is more powerful and more developed than Windows NT. While Windows NT 4.0 is a significant improvement over its predecessor for both workstations and servers, it still has a long way to go to match the capabilities of the Unix-derived Solaris, especially in areas of security, system administration, and support for multiple users.

"Part of it is that it (Solaris/SunOS) has been out there doing it for 14 years," Croll says. "That's something you just can't fabricate overnight," he adds, referring to the time since the first version of SunOS was released. This long history of debugging the operating system is part of what makes Solaris on Intel a strong contender for servers and similar roles in organizations that aren't locked into the Windows/Microsoft model.

Not only is Windows NT relatively new, but it started from a different place. Windows NT is based on Digital Equipment Corp.'s OpenVMS operating system that has its roots in minicomputers. However, Croll claims, because Microsoft has made NT somewhat backwards compatible with its desktop operating systems, it doesn't scale as well in medium to large environments.

"Contrary to a lot of white papers, NT runs out of gas after a fairly small workgroup," Croll says. "There are a lot of efforts that move beyond the workgroup."

One well-recognized issue Windows NT administrators still have to contend with is a domain-based security system that doesn't scale well across multiple domains. While NT has a strong set of file and print services, it generally isn't as strong on applications services as Solaris.

For example, Solaris now includes Solstice AdminSuite with TCP/IP-based features for managing and configuring Solaris systems remotely and strong support for network management in a heterogeneous environment. In order to get similar network management functionality in Windows NT, one needs to add third-party management tools at extra cost and overhead.

Features aside, the conventional wisdom is that IS managers prefer to have unity across the enterprise. Even in the era of open systems, having two operating systems can double administration headaches.

For companies with networked applications that revolve around custom applications, Solaris' combination of a single, scalable OS with good remote management capabilities and the ability to run occasional Windows applications is a powerful incentive.

Edward D. Jones & Co., a brokerage house based in St. Louis, MO, is switching its organization, including some 3,300 branch offices, to Solaris running on a mixture of SPARC servers at its headquarters and Pentium-based servers in each branch office supporting X-terminals for branch employees.

"Among our many proprietary applications is a custom-designed trading system that maintains a dynamic inventory of all financial products we market to our clients," says Rich Malone Jones, the company's chief information officer. "As transactions are completed for stocks, bonds, or other financial instruments, the system updates the inventory in real time."

Our software environment has to support remote, centralized network diagnostics and management," Jones says. "Because our branches are frequently staffed with just one or two people, we want those people to concentrate on serving their clients, not worry about administering their computer systems."

Application expansion
Applications are the Achilles' heel of variant operating systems, and Sun handles the problem for Solaris X86 in several ways. First, many Solaris applications will run on Solaris X86 with a simple recompilation. There may be a performance penalty in crossing architectures without rewriting to tune the software, but in most cases it is not a major barrier.

Through its Catalyst program, (see SunWorld's January story, "Sun Catalyst Program: co-marketing mechanism benefits ISVs, VARs, and systems integrators" for more information) Sun is actively promoting software written for Solaris X86. So far there are about 60 companies who are part of the "Solaris X86 Solutions Showcase" with products from languages (Microfocus and AcuCobol Cobols) to databases (Informix, Oracle, and Sybase), and a good bit in between. This also includes products like Mainsoft's MainWIN, which eases porting software from Windows to Solaris.

In spite of the diversity of Solaris X86 software, there are regularities on the list. For one thing, it is heavy on applications that often run in client/server environments. Therefore, database companies like Informix (Informix 4GL and Informix Online), Gupta (SQL Windows 5), Oracle (Oracle 7), Progress (Progress 4GL and RDBMS), and Sybase (Open Client) tend to offer X86 versions.

Companies selling languages and programmer tools have also ported products to the Solaris X86 platform. In addition to full languages, such as MicroFocus and AcuCobol versions of Cobol, there are C++ support tools such as Rogue Wave Software's C++ Class Libraries, Sun's Visual Workshop for C++, and McCabe and Associates' McCabe Tool Set. Because of Solaris' object orientation, object-oriented companies such as Cadre (ObjectTeam and Teamwork) and Object Design (Objectstore DBMS), are also well-represented with native X86 software.

There are several additional companies represented that are fundamentally in tune with Sun's network-centric model of the enterprise. The most notable example is Lotus Development Corp., which has released a version of Notes 4 for Solaris X86.

Solaris also has WABI that lets users run many Windows programs on all versions of Solaris. Sun has a list of some 20 major applications (available on its Web site) that are certified to run under WABI -- there are many more that will run but have not been certified.

WABI does have some performance limits, however. Even with a powerful processor, Windows applications under WABI run at roughly the speed of a medium-to-fast i486 -- usually 66 MHz to 100 MHz, according to published reports. Since Solaris X86 doesn't have to translate the Windows functions into its Solaris/SPARC equivalents, it can run Windows programs much faster.

Windows capability is especially important as Solaris reaches down toward the X86 desktop. Even in specialized jobs, the ability to use Windows-standard tools such as word processors and spreadsheets is a big plus in getting companies to use Solaris.

New generation: Solaris X86 2.5.1
The latest release of Solaris, Version 2.5.1, offers some major improvements, including significant performance upgrades for the X86 version. More are coming in the next year or so as Sun changes all versions of Solaris to full 64-bit operating systems.

One of the major bonuses is that WABI 2.2 is standard on Solaris X86. This improves considerably the operating system's ability to run Windows applications. Another enhancement is that Solaris X86 is now optimized for the Pentium and Pentium Pro processors, which benefits overall performance.

A performance boost also comes from the first 64-bit features incorporated into the new version. Solaris 2.5.1 provides 64-bit KAIO (kernel asynchronous input/output) read-write offsets to significantly speed up data transfers over earlier, 32-bit-only versions of the product. Sun says that Solaris 2.5.1 X86 runs the standard set of Oracle benchmarks about 25 percent faster than its 32-bit-only predecessors.

However 2.5.1 is not yet a full 64-bit implementation. Sun is phasing in a full 64-bit version of Solaris over the next year. The next step is version 2.6, featuring larger files and 64-bit printing, commands, and backup coming sometime this year. In the first half of 1998, Sun plans to introduce 64-bit Solaris with 64-bit virtual addressing.

According to Sun, the advantage of stepping up to 64 bits in several increments is that it gives customers time to move to the 64-bit model by upgrading and rewriting software as needed, while letting customers make the transition at their own pace.

The network, not the architecture, is the computer
"What we're doing is promoting Solaris in general and not pointing out a particular architecture," says Croll. "What we're really looking to do is to brand the name `Solaris' and get more people to know about it."

Sun has decided that if the battle for the desktop isn't an irrelevancy, it is at least the wrong approach. What's important is the whole network, and that's where the company is directing its efforts.

This is also playing to Sun's strengths. While most of the people using the 'Net are doing it via Microsoft products, most of the servers they are accessing are running Unix. Solaris has a big chunk of this market.

"For Internet-style operations they think Solaris," Croll says. "The key for us is not necessarily whether it's on Intel or not on Intel." Sun's "network is the computer" strategy ranges from Java as a method of distributing the application workload to Solaris on Intel to help handle those applications.

"It's a whole different vision of what the Internet future will look like," Croll says. "We're evolving toward an open Internet standard and a utility kind of environment. That's a fundamentally different view, and it drives a fundamentally different set of technologies. A single vendor will not control that environment."

It's too early to say how this strategy will play out -- another 12 months should help paint a clearer picture. But Sun has identified the future direction of computing and can be there before Microsoft or anyone else.

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About the author
Rick Cook is a regular columnist in our sister publication, NetscapeWorld. He divides his time between writing about the Web, computers and high technology, and novels. Reach Rick at

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