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What does Sun have to fear from Linux?

Linux may be setting its sights on Windows NT, but commercial Unix vendors could get caught in the cross fire

By Steven Brody

December  1998
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Windows NT bashing is all the rage for commercial Unix vendors and open source communities alike, but don't forget that Linux is still Unix, and many Linux users are lost opportunities for the likes of Solaris and SCO. Is there a market where Solaris is safe from Linux? Sun execs seem to think so, but analysts aren't so sure. (2,300 words)

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Much recent debate over the future of Linux has concentrated on the open source operating system's bid to steal market share from Microsoft. Traditional Unix vendors, meanwhile, have stood by and watched, confident that Linux will never threaten the high-end market for flavors such as Solaris, SCO, HP-UX, and AIX, where multiprocessing is still king. But many experts warn Unix vendors against taking the high ground, saying that if and when Linux gets there, it may already have taken a large bite out of cash cows for vendors like Sun.

"We do not look at Unix as the competition. Unix is our ally in the goal to improve the reliability and performance of the world's computers," says Bob Young, president of Red Hat, a Linux vendor.

Having a common enemy in Windows NT has the commercial and free Unix industries cozying up to each other, but this may be more appearance than reality. According to estimates by Datapro (a Gartner Group member) cited by Red Hat, Linux jumped from the seventh to the fourth most often installed Unix flavor between 1996 and 1997. International Data Corp. (IDC) figures also show Linux in fourth place -- at least in terms of units shipped (see chart). Some of Linux's gains came from converting Windows NT users, to be sure, but it's obvious that Linux is also competing with the more traditional flavors of Unix.

Worldwide new software license shipments,
Unix and server operating environments, 1997
Operating system Market share (%)
Windows NT Server 36
Combined Unix 20.7
NetWare 3.x and 4.x 26.4
Linux 6.8
OS/2 6.3
Other NOS 3.8
Total 100
Source: International Data Corp., 1998

The company with the most to lose to Linux may be SCO (Santa Cruz Operation Inc.), the biggest player in the Unix OS market, according to Martin Marshall, industry analyst at Zona Research Inc. SCO's UnixWare is a Unix OS designed specifically to run on Intel-based machines, just like Linux. Not only is Linux free, observes Marshall, but it makes for an easy transition from other Unix platforms.

"SCO has found something of a white knight in IBM," he said, referring to recent codevelopment agreements between SCO and Big Blue, "but the kind of people flowing toward Linux will be Unix people, who are most familiar and comfortable with that kind of OS."

SCO is also a player in small workgroups operating on cheap Intel-based machines, said Robert Berger, president of Internet Bandwidth Development (IBD), a Saratoga, CA-based consulting firm. In that market, there may be no reason not to go with the cheaper OS.

"Linux has traditionally been in LAN multiuser embedded business systems. SCO is very vulnerable there to Linux. I can't think of a reason to choose SCO over Linux for that kind of application. That's one major area where Linux will impact traditional Unix," said Berger.

Solaris vs. Linux in the ISP market
Unlike SCO, Sun can rely partly on hardware sales to maintain Solaris's position in the market, but it may also be vulnerable in the low end.

"Most populations exist at the low end. That's where Sun's volume is and that's where they have the most seats," said Marshall.

Sun and Solaris are probable victims of the budding Linux following, said Marshall, particularly in Sun's latest penetrated markets, ISPs and low-end workstations. Analysis by Dataquest of the server market for 1997 reveals that Sun, showing a 79 percent increase over 1996, topped the list of Unix vendors in entry-level (systems priced below $100,000) unit shipments, of which ISPs represent key customers. In high-end servers (systems priced at over $1,000,000), by contrast, Sun ranked third. IDC data also shows Sun getting heavier in the low end (see chart).

Worldwide units and revenues for Sun Microsystems in 1997
Server market Units Revenues (USM$)
Entry 90,393 $2,302.7
Midrange 14,283 $1,746.7
High-end 317 $436.7
Total 104,993 $4,486.2
Source: International Data Corp., 1998

"You walk into any ISP shop and you will see SPARC machines everywhere. But this is an ideal market for Linux, too. Intel architecture is cheap, and Linux is strong in the same places that Unix is," said Marshall.

That means Sun and Linux are going head to head in a market where Berger estimates Linux may have as much as a 40 percent share.

"I would still [recommend] Solaris/SPARC for mission-critical applications for ISPs, like database servers or certain fileservers because the total package in terms of scalability and reliability is still better ... But an ISP might have maybe two of these, compared to thousands of low-cost Web appliance devices, where Linux is a better choice."

Linux, said Berger, is ideal for parts of the ISP that aren't mission critical. For DNS servers which are fault-tolerant, and where outages are often the fault of cheap hardware, high-cost reliability from Solaris just isn't necessary, he explained.

Ironically, in some cases ISPs find support for Linux is much better than support for commercial Unix.

"A big issue for an ISP can be the discovery of a security bug in its software," said Berger. "In the open source community, that could be addressed within days or even hours. With Solaris you could wait for months."

With hardware costs diminishing in the low-end server market, the cost of operating systems will become an ever larger fraction of the total purchase price, making Linux still more attractive on entry-level hardware.


On the desktop
Porting and supporting applications on the desktop, however, is a market far from the custom needs of Unix-savvy teams running an ISP. Counting applications ported to Linux is still a favorite pastime for Linux proponents and dismissive analysts alike, but a more important question than the number of applications, says IDC analyst Bill Peterson, is the question of which application, and when it's available. If the right office suite with enough support can get to market fast enough, new enterprises may opt for Linux as a cheap alternative to Unix and a reliable alternative to NT.

"Our research shows that when [Microsoft] Office 2000 ships, organizations will still have to wait six months to begin implementation. That means that companies who have the IT staff with the technical savvy to implement Unix and who might have gone there, will be looking at Linux," said Peterson.

If Linux has an answer to Office 2000 with support at least as good as what's out there for Unix, the cheaper product may well win out. That could mean laying inroads into Sun's newly acquired low-end workstation market, won by the Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 workstations, Sun's most successful product line ever, by its own estimate. The "Darwin" line of Ultra 5s and 10s, described by analysts as a profitable surprise success and cited by Sun as a key reason for its leading position in the overall Unix workstation market, competes in the low-end, single processor workstation and high-end PC arena, a big Linux target.

So where is the Linux answer to Office 2000? Corel has a Linux version of Word Perfect 8 available for download at a cost of roughly $70, but Zona's Marshall is skeptical that Corel can provide the kind of support Linux needs.

"Corel is a once-solid company that has been grasping at the latest, most popular straw. Corel Draw was a good product, but Corel for Java was a bust; then there was Corel's network computer. We'll see what kind of product and support they offer with Word Perfect ... with Corel, you can never believe promises."

Indeed, when an application is ported to Linux, the most important promises are still left to keep. Oracle8 for Linux, perhaps the most high-profile port yet, is something less than spectacular compared to versions for Unix and NT, where, says Oracle, high-end multichip systems allow for parallel querying and other options key to the optimal performance of the software. But that's not the problem. The problem, as Linux advocates must grow tired of hearing, is support.

Three things that matter: support, support, support
"For [Oracle, etc.] it is just a toe in the water right now. It's an experiment to see what level of interest there is," said Dataquest analyst Chris LeTocq. "The real goal for Linux is to round out the product: provide remote management, easy install, and all the other services you traditionally expect from your Unix provider."

Even some members of the ISP market, where open source software in general has seen deep penetration, take the lack of support very seriously.

"We're a very large service provider and we are looking for a proven standard and a single source of information that we can get back to if there is a problem. We weren't guaranteed that with Linux," said Steve Dougherty, director of Internet operations at Earthlink, a Pasadena, CA-based ISP that uses Solaris.

"Unix is sufficiently like Linux that
all the support and service that [Unix
vendors] have acquired are applicable to
supporting Linux users."

Companies such as Red Hat and Linux/Intel-based hardware vendor VA Research are promising more and more support for such customers (See "Getting help with free software," in Resources below), but Red Hat President Bob Young is also hoping for a boost from other third parties, and from Unix support professionals.

"Unix is sufficiently like Linux that all the support and service skills that [Unix vendors] have acquired are applicable to supporting Linux users," said Young. "The enterprise-level support of the Linux OS that people have been asking for will come from the existing Unix support providers."

One such third-party may be established Intel-based box makers, says IBD's Berger.

"Right now Dell will sell you servers with Linux installed if you buy in bulk, and they are reviewing doing more and offering more support. Gateway has also announced that they expect to offer Linux preinstalled, and it's rumored that Compaq is coming out with fully supported Linux systems in the server state."

With the Department of Justice watching Microsoft closely, it's unlikely that Intel or its customers will be worried about getting too close to Linux. That could mean that workstation customers will get the same kind of systemwide support for their Linux/Intel-based systems as customers running Wintel boxes.

Seeking higher ground
If office automation products and well organized software support do come through, analysts are confident that Unix will feel Linux nipping at its heels, but executives from Sun and Hewlett-Packard seem to prefer to discuss a market where even Windows NT has had little success.

Les Wilson, HP's marketing director for HP-UX, told the press recently that he expects Linux to be useful in embedded systems like embedded Web appliances, but not suitable for large-scale multiprocessing server applications. Linux, he predicted, will never see support from software developers like PeopleSoft or Baan.

Sun's John McFarlane seems to agree. In an October interview with InternetWeek, McFarlane said Linux was likely to "slow down NT for the low end and displace Microsoft desktops," as it was best suited to single processor systems.

It's true that Linux has made a poor showing in SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) to date. Linux version 2.0 barely supported multiprocessing at all, and version 2.1 has been described, at best, as "a little better than 2.0" by resellers like VA Research, which is currently shipping dual Xeon processor-based systems, and taking orders for four-way servers.

VA Research President Larry Augustin is nonetheless confident that version 2.3 and higher will make high-performance multiprocessing a reality for Linux, and open the enterprise computing market.

"There are still a lot of improvements to be made to enhance multiprocessing, but many of these improvements have been addressed in version 2.2 and are imminent in 2.3 and 2.4," said Augustin. "In versions 2.3 and 2.4 there will be a lot of enterprise enhancements in general: journaling large file support and 64-bit file support, shared storage, large memory support...we have also just finished off 2-gig memory support."

These improvements, said Augustin, target enterprise computing and will be directed as much at Unix as NT, as will the eight-way systems VA Research plans to offer next year.

Analysts agree that as the number
of chips increases, the threat from
Linux decreases.

"If I were in [the Unix] business," he said, "I'd sound the warning bell."

While analysts agree that multiprocessing can only get better on Linux, they tend to recommend that Unix vendors focus their defenses on the lower end, agreeing that as the number of chips increases, the threat from Linux diminishes substantially.

Linux-based servers running more than eight processors may be unlikely, but, counters Red Hat's Young, there are other ways to tap that market.

"'High-end multiprocessing' is just so much technology and the world seldom buys technology. The world buys solutions, and if the advanced clustering technology that is being developed on Linux serves the customers' needs better, then Sun and HP may be correct even while their customers all switch to Linux."

And Microsoft?
It's clear that the "What's bad for Microsoft is good for Unix" philosophy is lacking in foresight, but what about the possibility that what's bad for Microsoft is also good for Microsoft?

Halloween documents notwithstanding, the Windows NT and Windows 98 giant hardly seems in any immediate danger from Linux, or anything else for that matter. As Zona's Marshall points out, even if Linux were to take the same market share from Microsoft that Apple had during its peak, the damage would come to little more than 10 percent of the market.

"One would have to have a great amount of faith to believe that Linux poses a threat to Microsoft; a competitive force, perhaps, but not a threat," according to Dataquest's LeTocq. "It's certainly to Microsoft's advantage to maximize the impression of their competitors' strengths."

As to rumors that Microsoft may have intentionally leaked documents to make Linux look like more of a threat than it is, Marshall is incredulous, pointing to other operating systems like Solaris or HP-UX as better-installed and more clearly a threat to Windows NT.

Every Linux seat is a lost opportunity for Microsoft, but for the time being, say analysts, Microsoft may be the only OS vendor that can afford to miss a few opportunities.

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About the author
Steven Brody is a freelance editor and writer for SunWorld. Steve was formerly a regular contributor to Wired News and has also contributed to CNET's and a variety of trade publications. Reach Steven at

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