"We love Linux, and I hope there isn't any doubt about it," McNealy told financial analysts at its annual meeting here, dressed as Tux, the seemingly innocuous penguin mascot chosen years ago by Linux founder Linus Torvalds.
"Lou Gerstner didn't have to do this. If I just say we're going to spend a billion dollars on this, can I take this off?" said a sweltering McNealy, referring to IBM's loud move to spend vast sums of money on Linux in 2001.
The stunt drew gales of laughter from analysts sobered by gloomy realities such as a recession, a shrinking market for the high-end networked computers called servers that Sun sells, and several unprofitable quarters at Sun.
Sun has long viewed Linux as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's similar to the Solaris version of Unix that powers most of the company's servers and has drawn programmers' attention away from Microsoft.
On the other hand, Linux has been encroaching on Sun's turf, with even Sun acknowledging in April 2000 that it had cut into low-end server sales. And Sun prefers to own and control its intellectual property, a task impossible with the culture of shared contributions that underlies Linux.
What a difference two years makes in revising corporate thinking, when competitors IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer and Dell Computer all have increased their support for Linux.
In January 2000, Sun Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander ridiculed IBM for its Linux push, saying Big Blue was just latching on to the latest fad.
"It's amazing to watch IBM chase down the Linux path the way they did Windows four years ago," he said. "We have no plans to do Linux inside the company as an operating system."
Not a total about-face
But Sun's thinking hasn't completely changed. Sun still doesn't see Linux used in its "vertical" products, the large, expensive, complicated servers such as the new Sun Fire 15K that's crammed with dozens of processors.
"We are committed to this as a low-end, edge-of-the-network strategy," McNealy said at the analyst conference. Sun will create its own version of Linux rather than use products from Linux sellers such as Red Hat, Caldera International, SuSE, MandrakeSoft or Turbolinux.
Linux raises a difficult issue for Sun's years-old sales pitch that programmers should embrace the company because their software would run unchanged across Sun's entire product line--possible because Sun has a single chip and a single operating system.
Indeed, moments after advocating Linux at Sun, McNealy showed a mock advertisement disparaging IBM and bragging about Sun's single-OS, single-chip strategy.
With Linux in the mix, Sun now has to worry about making sure the numerous components in its Sun One software strategy run on Linux as well as Java, a task Sun said it will accomplish. The company is partway there, with support for Java, the Forte programming tools and some of the iPlanet e-commerce software.
Some Sun competitors with more years of Linux experience took the opportunity to welcome Sun into the fold while taking jabs at Sun's products.
"It's good to see Sun finally recognize Linux as a viable business platform," HP Linux Business Strategist Mike Balma said Thursday, three years after HP embraced Linux. "Though they're a little late to the game, any time is a good time to offer your customers choice and move away from a solely proprietary environment."
The obligatory Microsoft jab
In his speech Thursday, McNealy also drubbed Microsoft for its effort to improve security.
"I didn't have to write a memo to my team saying, 'Hey, team, security is important.' I'd be embarrassed," McNealy said. "That's built into Solaris."
McNealy raised the issue of a private antitrust suit against Microsoft--a move AOL Time Warner has made--but declined to say what the company will do. "We're evaluating and looking at all our options," he said.
McNealy has a warmer relationship with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, a fellow Microsoft-basher who a week ago advocated using lots of little Intel servers instead of big Unix servers such as those Sun sells. Ellison said his company is moving its core operations to Linux on cheap Intel servers.
"Larry will do anything for a quote," quipped McNealy. "He's just trying to make a point" that small servers are a strategy. But Ellison knows that mammoth servers are also necessary and are where Oracle gets most of its money, McNealy said.
"I know vertical scaling is never going to go away in our careers," he said.
McNealy also boasted of Sun's research and development. The company spent $2 billion on it last year, he said. Over the decade, "We're going to spend $20 billion to $30 billion minimum on R&D."
Part of that R&D funding is going to Sun's N1 plan to pool thousands of computers and storage systems into a single, gigantic virtual computer. McNealy said N1 won't require a Sun-only data center.
"You can plug somebody else's...machines into it. It'll be multi-vendor, multi-platform. It'll have different storage, different switches, different servers," he said.