Why Linux is the stuff of bad dreams for Sun's Schwartz

Sun can't afford to be seen as anti-Linux - so how do they balance that with being a rival to Red Hat?
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

Judging by his latest blog entry, Sun COO and president Jonathan Schwartz has something new to keep him up at night -- the growing perception that Solaris x86 is anti-Linux -- anti-GNU/Linux, to be specific. Using some examples (including a recent News.com story), Schwartz fingers the press for fuelling the alleged misperception.

However, Schwartz can share the blame. Even though the content of an older rant suggests otherwise, it's easy for someone to get the wrong idea from the blog's headline -- "Competing Against a Social Movement." Though he subtly slips it in, Schwartz's choice of renderings (the Richard Stallman/Free Software Foundation-preferred "GNU/Linux" vs. just "Linux") is the lynchpin to his point: a perception of Solaris x86 as enemy to Red Hat is OK, but a perception of it as enemy to the Linux community is not.

Whether certain members of the Linux community realise it or not, GNU/Linux (the core technology and licensing philosophy behind all Linux distributions) has been a driving force behind the collective traction that the various distros now enjoy against Windows and Unix. At a time when Sun must vie for the attention of IT buyers bombarded by Red Hat, SuSE, Microsoft, IBM and HP, the company knows that it must tap that galvanising force rather than offend those who subscribe to it. Therefore, Sun can ill-afford its anti-Red Hat message to be perceived as an anti-Linux posture that, in turn, could be misconstrued as oppositional to open-source or open systems.

It's a diplomatic and marketing tightrope that may prove more difficult to walk than simply figuring out a way to turn Solaris x86 into a distribution of Linux. In my August 2002 interview with him, Sun fellow Rob Gingell predicted that Solaris would one day be open-sourced. Now, two years later, that premonition has come true. But, in the same interview, Gingell also implied an eventual merger of Solaris and Linux when he said "Five years from now, when all the tribes intermarry, who is going to know what's Solaris and what's Linux, and who's going to care?" When I dug deeper several months later, other Sun officials agreed that Solaris was on course to merge with Linux. At this point, knowing that Gingell is batting 100 percent, only two questions remain for Sun. Why go against the grain for the full five years (on Gingell's timeline, there are three to go) and what should the merged product be called?

While we wait for the answers, Schwartz and other Sun officials will have no choice but to wage a war on the third-party positioning and semantics of Solaris, Linux, and open source. Considering the larger challenges that Sun faces, such a war is an unworthy distraction. This is especially so when you consider that, as distasteful to Schwartz as a recent Forbes headline was (see Sun Micro still a Potential Threat to Linux), it ultimately discusses the results he seeks: bringing down Red Hat. In that story, Forbes reported Credit Suisse First Boston: "Red Hat shares sold off Tuesday in an 'overreaction' due at least in part to reports that Sun is changing its plan to encourage sales of its Solaris system on commodity, or non-Sun, hardware." While Sun execs must relish any bad news for Red Hat's stock, they probably had mixed emotions about what CSFB said next: "We find no evidence that Sun's recent initiatives at the low end of the market are changing strategic decisions to migrate to Linux."

It's no wonder that Schwartz is losing sleep.

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