Sun Microsystems plans to sell general-purpose Linux servers based on x86 hardware, a dramatic departure for the company that for years has advocated its own Solaris operating system and Sparc processor.
The servers will be aimed at the "edge", where NT servers currently hold sway, but small Linux vendors have established a substantial presence, said Sun's president and chief operating officer, Ed Zander, on Thursday. He admitted that in this zone, "the operating system is not a differentiator." Users want to avoid paying fees to Microsoft. Instead of the operating system, the application environment -- Java and XML, in Sun's vision, has become the unifying factor, he said.
Sun is the only server vendor able to fully promote Linux, because it is the only one not constrained by the need to support its own NT business, said Zander. "Look at where the (Linux) revenue is coming from," he said. "It is coming from a white box at the low end running small applications. An operating system on a box is just that. Core enabling technologies like Java are where the real value is."
IBM's commitment to low-end NT machines had produced what Zander described as a "complex, convoluted costly strategy," culminating in a Linux-only mainframe. IBM has it wrong, said Zander, because "Linux on the client is growing at a hundred times the clip of Linux on the server."
Zander emphasised that, though the servers are developed from the specialised Linux systems sold by Sun's Cobalt subsidiary, they will not replace those servers: "We will still market Linux on Cobalt as an appliance," he said.
Sun will also ship a full version of the Linux operating system, offer the complete Sun ONE network environment on Linux, contribute to Linux intellectual property, and offer the same user environment (Gnome) for both Linux and Solaris. The company added it will "aggressively participate in the Linux community," offering key components of its Solaris operating system for free.
Analysts at the event took Sun to task for abandoning its insistence on a single platform, but Zander responded that the company had already shipped 100,000 copies of x86 Linux in a year on Cobalt, and this announcement expanded that to general purpose machines. "We need to respond to the economics of the edge," he said.
Concrete announcements about pricing and product releases will have to wait till the second calendar quarter of this year.
"This is great for the development community," Zander said on a conference call on Thursday. "It brings Solaris developers, which are 300,000, together with Linux developers."
Zander was keen to present this as a strategy against Microsoft, and play down any possible conflicts between Linux and Solaris. "This is an alternative to anyone that wants an alternative to the Microsoft or the IBM environment, which is very controlling," Zander said.
"This is a way to bring Linux applications into the Solaris environment," Zander said. Sun said that although it now lets Linux applications run in a Solaris environment, it has no plans to enable Solaris applications to run in a Linux environment.
"When a Linux application runs in Solaris, you get superior scalability that comes with Solaris," Zander said, noting that Sun will soon be 20 years old, and Linux was developed over time, "modelling after Solaris."
CNET News.com's Tiffany Kary contributed to this report.