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What does Linux on UltraSPARC mean for Sun?

May 5, 1999
Web posted at: 8:45 a.m. EDT (1245 GMT)

by Rick Cook

(IDG) -- Why does a company whose Unix operating system is one of the few predicted to survive into the next century, want to promote a free OS for its flagship processor?

For Ann Wettersten, senior director of marketing for systems and software at Sun Microsystems, it's a simple proposition. "Linux is a flavor of Unix," she says. "We want to increase the overall Unix market share and by supporting Linux we do that. Sun also supports all the Internet and open industry standards, and we want to support Linux in doing that because they're driving an open-source model."
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Praise for an open source operating system sounds odd coming from a company that has spent a lot of time and money promoting its proprietary OS. But ultimately, championing Linux, and especially Linux on SPARC and UltraSPARC processors makes excellent sense for Sun.

In the first place, of course, it's clear that Sun is much more than a software company. It has its own line of SPARC RISC processors and anything that sells SPARC hardware benefits Sun no matter what operating system it runs. In fact, hardware accounts for roughly 90 percent of Sun's revenue.

"SPARC is the number two platform for Linux, but it's a distant number two," says Kimball Brown, chief analyst with Dataquest, a San Jose, CA market research company. "Sun is doing whatever it can to get some [Linux business] on the SPARC platform, but I think it's pretty much an Intel story."

There is, however, more to Sun's Linux-on-UltraSPARC approach than selling more hardware. Sun sees some distinct advantages on the software side as well.

The competitive factor

While the progress on getting a popular operating system onto UltraSPARC is gratifying, it still leaves the question of why Sun is pushing the notion. That turns out to have a number of answers, ranging all the way from the most immediate competitive issues to the broadest philosophical views.

The immediate competitive issue, of course, is Windows NT. Sun supports Linux in part because it is an alternative to NT. Generally speaking, every Linux box out there means one less NT box, and Microsoft is a much more important -- and dangerous -- competitor for Sun than Linux is ever likely to be.

"[Sun] likes Linux in general because every Linux socket taken up is not an NT socket," says Dataquest's Brown. "Plus, they want to sell hardware, and they do not want to sell Intel."

Since announcing their support for Linux on UltraSPARC last December, Sun executives have made a number of statements to that effect. "We welcome people considering Unix as an alternative for NT," says Barbara Kay, product line manager in Sun's workstation business group. "We would like them to be sure to be running on the SPARC platform."

"It definitely makes sense for Sun to support [Linux]," says David Van Beveren, president and CEO of EIS Computers Inc., a Moorpark, CA company that makes SPARC-based computers and now offers Linux as well as Solaris for them. "I don't think [Sun] feels that it competes in [Sun's] core business."

That's a critical distinction. Increasingly, Sun's core business is upscale -- departmental servers and above. While some overlap between Linux and Solaris exists at the departmental level, Linux doesn't scale across the enterprise and doesn't really claim to. The latest version of Linux, the 2.2 kernel, supports up to four processors, but Linus Torvalds, the man who controls Linux's fate, has said that he doesn't ever expect the operating system to scale to the 64-processor and beyond arena where Solaris already plays.

Sun's enthusiasm for Linux is driven by more than different ecological niches for Solaris and Linux. Sun also sees the opportunity to profit from the vitality of the Linux market. Linux developers are churning out software ranging from Web servers to package managers at a tremendous rate. If Sun makes good on its efforts to make Solaris and Linux compatible, porting this software to Solaris will be easy.

"The Linux community is really advancing the desktop space," says Sun's Wettersten. "Things like GNOME and KDE [desktops and windows managers] are fantastic because that community is producing a competitive desktop environment for Unix."

Another good example is WINE, a program that lets users run Microsoft Windows packages under Linux. WINE is already a good deal broader in reach than Sun's WABI effort, and by this time next year WINE should be able to run most Windows programs. Besides the usual open source community, WINE is being backed by Corel, which plans to use it to make all of its software available on Linux. (See "WINE and the WINEmakers," link below)

Of course Linux isn't going to stay completely out of Solaris territory. Linux developers are already working on larger multiprocessing versions of Linux, more and better management tools, and so forth. But Sun is making improvements to Solaris as well and is confident it can keep Solaris well ahead of Linux in the areas that are important to its vision for Solaris.

"What you're going to have is innovation in both environments," says Wettersten. "I don't think we ever want to look at [the Linux community] as direct competitors."

More than lip service

In fact, Sun has been providing more than the usual level of technical support for Linux on UltraSPARC. In addition to offering insights into the UltraSPARC architecture and access to information, Sun is supporting the porting of Linux by lending hardware as well.

"We have been providing hardware and technical information to the global Linux community to help them complete UltraSPARC support," says Sun's Kay. That help has included providing three UltraSPARC-based Ultra30 workstations to the Debian project, which is developing an UltraSPARC version of Linux. Sun has also provided workstations to the UltraLinux project in the Czech Republic, which is doing the other major port of Linux to UltraSPARC.

The support is in stark contrast to Apple, which has been notoriously uncommunicative about the details of the contents of the Macintosh ROMs with Linux developers other than those working on MKLinux, which Apple is sponsoring. In fact those working on other Apple Linuxes have been getting a lot of their information by studying the MKLinux source code. (See, "Apple's position: No Linux," and "Linux gets its bite of the Macintosh," links below)

The loan of the systems is important because UltraSPARC hardware isn't as common as Intel platforms, making it harder for software developers to obtain UltraSPARC systems for development efforts.

Sun joined Linux International, the Linux consortium, last year and has been working steadily to improve the compatibility of Linux with Sun hardware and software since then. Among other things, the company has announced that it will add Linux compatibility to Solaris. "We've treated them as an important ISV," Kay says.

One major version of Linux for UltraSPARC is being overseen by the aforementioned UltraLinux Team based in the Czech Republic. (Like most Linux projects, the work is being done worldwide.) Currently, UltraLinux is in release 1.1.9, which is often described as a late beta of release 1.2, which will be the next major release. Considering that release 1.0 was made about a year ago, and there was one other release (1.1) late last summer, the team is showing very fast progress.

The other major version of Linux for UltraSPARC is the one being developed by the Debian Project, one of the last major non-commercial developers of a Linux distribution. According to Ward Deng, vice president of engineering at Kachina Technologies Inc., an Albuquerque, NM maker of scientific computers which is working with Debian, the major obstacle right now is getting a 64-bit version of the GNU C compiler.

"The [Debian] system is running fine right now," Deng explains, "but we are kind of blocked by the GNU C compiler. The developers don't seem to have the time, or maybe it's a technical problem, to get a 64-bit GNU C compiler for SPARC. We expected it to be available before Christmas. The kernel part is 64 bit, but in userland it's still 32 bit. Hopefully we'll have the compiler during the summer."

Another possibility, Deng says, is to port a commercial 64-bit Unix C compiler to Linux. This option is technically simple, he says. "You'd probably need two engineer days to recompile the code." He says he's trying to convince a major computer manufacturer to do it.

Increased performance

Another important reason for having Linux on UltraSPARC is performance. Against Intel systems, the UltraSPARC hardware has major advantages: the ability to serve a lot more users at once on a Web server and better performance for a workstation. "We have a system hosting 4,500 Web sites. They're sustaining about 25 megabits a second and peak at about 50 megabits a second. This is on a uniprocessor system. When the same customer had an Intel solution, they were only able to sustain about 8 to 10 megabits per second," says EIS's Van Beveren. (Note: The SPARC server is running Solaris, but he says Linux performance is similar in this application. Because the point is relative hardware performance, the comparison makes sense.)

In fact, Linux supporters claim it will generally outperform other versions of Unix, including Solaris, on high-performance chips such as the UltraSPARC series in single-processor systems.

"There are a lot of things Linux does a lot better on uniprocessor systems," Van Beveren says. "Linux focuses on things like context switches and shared library loading that it does extremely well." Solaris, which is designed to be more scalable, can't do these things as well as an operating system that is designed specifically to run on single processors.

This point makes sense not only because Linux development has focused on single-processor machines, but because the Linux kernel was written from the ground up after Unix had been around for a couple of decades. The Linux designers were able to profit from the experience of other Unix versions to do some things better.

But only some things. "Where Solaris does better is in the area of multiprocessing and feature set," Van Beveren says. "There are also more things you can get with Solaris, such as backup and management utilities."

Linux doesn't come close to the kind of scalability and manageability that Solaris offers. There are some Linux enthusiasts who will strongly dispute that statement, but it's unlikely any of them are trying to manage an enterprise with 20,000 or so desktops and several hundred servers.

The markets

Although Linux for UltraSPARC will primarily be used for servers, Sun's Kay points out that there are some desktop uses where it is likely to be popular. One of those areas is in education. "We've seen some interest in the education market where people see the opportunity to use Linux as a teaching tool," she says. Indeed, Linux has been a major hit in the education market for the same reason it has had such an impact in the relatively impoverished areas like the former Soviet Union. It is cheap, freely redistributable, and not much restricted by licensing agreements. All those things are important to schools.

Linux on SPARC architectures works in two ways in the educational market. The first case involves older SPARC machines, especially ones that are no longer well supported -- or not supported at all -- on Solaris. Putting Linux on them extends their working lives by giving them a modern, well-supported operating system. "The nice thing about Sun workstations is that the quality we build in extends the longevity of their purchase," Kay says. "We want people to get as much value out of our equipment as they can."

The second advantage is the combination of Linux with inexpensive UltraSPARC machines such as Sun's Darwin workstations. Kay points out that the Ultra5 workstation starts at $2,495. Of course, Sun doesn't expect that educational institutions will just train their students on Linux. Eventually says Kay, Sun expects the students to move to a modern enterprise-scale environment, logically Solaris.

In addition to the competitive and strategic reasons, there is another reason why Sun is supporting Linux on UltraSPARC, and that is the matter of Sun's philosophy of computers and computing. "Sun just about coined the term open computing," says Van Beveren. Throughout its history, Sun has supported open standards. Linux is about as open as you can get, and Sun's natural tendency is to cooperate with it rather than try to compete with it.

"We are seeing a customer demand for Linux (on UltraSPARC), and we think putting Linux on UltraSPARC is a good market," Van Beveren says.

Kay sums it up more simply. "We think Linux is great for what it's good for, and Solaris is great for what it's good for, and we want people to be able to do both."

Opinion: Linux doesn't do Windows - and neither should you
April 28, 1999
Apple alters open-source licenses after criticism
April 23, 1999
Upcoming Linux versions aim for Windows' ease of use
April 23, 1999
Windows convergence coming
April 21, 1999
Linux hits the desktop
April 20, 1999

WINE and the WINEmakers
Apple's position: No Linux
Linux gets its bite of the Macintosh
What does Sun have to fear from Linux?
SPARCing up Linux
SPARCing up Linux, part 2
Linux versus NT
(SunWorld)'s Year 2000 World

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Kachina Technologies, Inc.
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