Remember Xenix?

No... not the Warrior Princess

Surviving the Solaris x86 Wars

by Zsolt Kerekes editor - SPARC Product Directory - November, 2004

This article looks at the long term prospects for Sun's Solaris x86 platform.

Marketing is warfare and a lot of companies are going to get burned if they rush like like moths to the flame of Sun's Solaris x86 for the wrong reasons at the wrong time. But there will be some winners too.

Surviving the Solaris x86 Wars

They say that elephants never forget. The wise old elephants of the herd help the survival of their species by remembering important stuff like where to find water in the rare years of drought. The young ones who are keen to find their own way and play with new toys are rude about the older generation thinking to themselves - they're just like mammoths. But now is not the time to challenge their wisdom. Not yet.

It's the same with the IT world. The old managers remember when they were screwed by supplier X a long time ago. So the young bucks have to wait till the old guys have moved on. The young IT guys say "What can I do with such dinosaurs running the place? My senior management won't let me try anything new." But their time will come - when they can experiment with new toys and make their own mistakes.

This is the first in a series of articles which will look at the long term strategic business and market implications of Sun's Solaris x86 platform. Yes - it has a long term. There was a time not that long ago when you couldn't say that. But there will be winners and losers in the community of users, IHVs, ISVs, and Sun VARs. And some uncomfortable truths will be revealed in later articles when we come to discuss the subject of losers. For now, this first article is just a reminder that not every platform in the Intel Architecture market has been a long term runaway success. By reminding younger readers about past failures I'm setting the scene for a cautious reappraisal of the future for the Solaris x86 server market.

As an old elephant myself, I've had cause to re-evaluate Solaris x86 four times in the past 18 years.

This is a subject I have viewed from many angles and in many market conditions. So I just want you to know that I'm not just a staff writer who was reviewing the latest PC game last week and has been asked to write a few hundred words about Solaris 10. There are plenty of those around. And I'm not caught up by Sun's hype machine either. I've been there a few times in the past - swept along by enthusiasm for an open systems standard called SPARC - in the early 1990s - which spawned this directory. SPARC became a whirlwind for a while which peaked in supplier numbers in the mid 1990s and is now heading towards a different kind of market. Actually I believe the prospects for SPARC over the next few years are pretty good - and I was the first editor/analyst publicly saying that Sun's revenue would get back to growth this year. But this article is not about SPARC. It's about a distant relation. So let's get back to that.

If we look at the Intel Architecture market today (and that includes AMD's Opteron) we see only successes. So that may lead some of us to believe that there's a Midas touch operating here. Surely the market for x86 deskstops and servers is so big - you might say - that there's room in it for a lot of success. After all, if you only get 1% share of the $250 billion PC market - that's a revenue you might be happy with for starting a new platform business plan. Let me warn you - that way disaster lies. That's the kind of reasoning which naiive entrepeneurs put in their business plans and some naiive venture capitalists used to swallow. But computer users are like gazelles - they can move fast sure - but they live longer if they go with the herd. They've noticed that those adventurous types who used to wander off to explore interesting looking paths on their own mostly got eaten by lions. So let's get back to the meat of this article.

CP/M - from Digital Research, was the market leading operating system in the Intel Architecture desktop PC market - back in the late 1970s. In those days - a lot of CP/M machines were actually running on Zilog Z80 processors. These were like an enhanced Intel 8080 - with more instructions and a single 5 volt supply rail. It was a 2nd generation 8 bit microprocessor world. The overall market leading PC at the time was the Apple 2. But unfortunately Apple standardised on the 6502 processor from Rockwell - which was a technical dead-end. So it wasn't easy for Apple to do a follow up machine.

Back to the Intel world... so successful was CP/M that when IBM's PC designers went shopping around for an OS to port to their 8088 based machine (which was an 8086 16 bit instruction set compatible processor with a lower cost 8 bit external data bus BTW) - IBM went first to talk to Digital Research. What happened next is part of the folklore and myths and legends of the PC world. Some facts are disputed. What's not in dispute is that a little company called Microsoft got the deal for supplying the new operating system. Although Digital Research later came out with a DOS clone - called DR-DOS - they were out of the game.

PC junior - following the initial success of the original IBM PC in the early 1980s - IBM saw a potential market in the home. Instead of lowering the price of the PC - IBM's marketers came up with the "brilliant" idea of making a low cost compatible consumer version. Before the launch of the PC junior - Fortune magazine ran a major feature listing all the companies whose fortunes would be made by the new product. But it was a dud. The keyboard was unusable, and the base PC had been deliberately designed to make upgrading to a business class PC difficult. Although this is an example of a much hyped but failed hardware platform - it containes the useful warning that analysts can be entirely wrong about the success of new computer product lines - even when they come from a well known source and it seems that nothing can go wrong. In a consistent move which in retrospect looked a lot like corporate suicide - IBM later compounded their hardware strategy failures by coming up with the PS/2 - which in its purest form had a bus called MCA - which was incompatible with the PC-AT.

Xenix - there was a lot of excitement in the market in the mid 1980s when 16 bit processors got enough disk space and memory to start running Unix. Systems based on Motorola's 68020 32 bit processor got a head start in the market because they were binary compatible with the 16 bit 68000 - which already had a bigger memory addressing range than the Intel chips at the time. And the 68020 also had hardware support for virtual memory management. Sun Microsystems' own Sun-3 workstations originally used Motorola chips. But most IHVs had big investments in Intel. So where could they turn to source a multi-user operating system? The surprising answer was Microsoft. I joined an ISV and VAR called Databix in 1986 which was using Zilog boxes running Xenix as its main Unix development platform. That was a problem because the Zilog Z8000 was a hardware dead end. (Within a year I had switched our Unix platform to Sun. But not the Sun platform you might think - see later.) Microsoft stopped developing and supporting Xenix which later got transferred to SCO.

OS/2 - "A better Windows than Windows." So ran IBM's hype machine as it signed up ISVs to support its own windowing environment for the 80286 processor generation of PCs - which had more memory than the original 1MB limit of the original 8086. Whole books have been written about this subject too. I had a bunch of good software people evaluating early version of OS/2 in the late 1980s. It was unstable, slow and misconceived. It is possible that if IBM had fixed on the 386 processor as the entry level OS/2 machine - it might have got there faster. But the compromises involved in making it compatible with Microsoft's stuff while at the same time retrofitting it to the low cost low performance (by then) 286 were too much. Although IBM marketers tried to convince analysts for years that it had an installed base of millions of users - most of those OS/2 machines were dual boot PCs - in which the OS/2 just never got booted. ...Later in 2004 - is Sun inflating its own Solaris x86 market numbers with its own dual boot servers? That's something we'll return to later.

SunOS (which became Solaris) - was another Intel Architecture dud in the 1980s. But it didn't look that way at first. If, like me, you were looking for a well integrated Unix platform on Intel Architecture in 1986 you could do a lot worse than choose Sun's 386i.

It ran SunOS and some DOS applications in a compatible window, and it had slots for PC-AT disks. There the similarity to a PC ended. Instead of low resolution PC graphics it had high resolution Sun graphics. That made the DOS screen seem small - even on a large 19" monitor. And you couldn't enlarge it.

Instead of low performance disk drives it came with high performance SCSI disks - and a lot more RAM than the PCs of that vintage. Although the 386i was rubbish as a graphics workstation (the graphics was too slow) and despite the fact that the DOS emulation was too slow and useless to run most DOS applications - the 386i was a low cost entry level database server which could outperform Sun-3's and low end VAXes for a fraction of the cost. When I first signed up as a Sun VAR in the 1980s - it was the 386i which I used as the trojan horse to replace our aged Zilog boxes and eventually displace the HP and DEC minis. We were using Motorola's VMEbus SBCs as our main real-time platform - but needed a Unix with a future to coexist with our multiprocessor applications. Although the first SPARC systems had come out - the original Sun-4's didn't inspire any more confidence in me than the myriad of other RISC based Unix servers which were hitting the market at the time. Sun was supporting 3 hardware platforms with its SunOS at the time:- Motorola, SPARC and Intel. My guess was that Sun's long term strategy would be to run with Intel. I was right - but there was to be an 18 year discontiuity before that became a firm reality.

We kept asking our Sun VAR guy - when was the next model coming? There was talk of a 486i. That's all it turned out to be. Talk. Sun's SPARCstation re-engineered the SPARC processor into a low cost high volume manufacturable product with a new bus called SBus. Sun end of lifed the Sun-3 and 386i products - and my engineers made a painless transition to the 6U VMEbus plus SBus compatible SPARCengine 1. That was a good move for Sun, and a good career move for me as in 1991 I started my own company to publish the SBus Product Directory. (Which transitioned into this SPARC Product Directory.) This was the first time that Sun end of lifed Solaris x86. There would be other times and missed opportunities in the future.

I kept an eye out for Sun in the Intel space for several years after that. Sun did look like it might resurface in Intel space when it acquired a company called Interactive Unix. Unfortunately when Sun did later launch a shrink wrapped OS based on the IX acquisition - the product was completely unrelated to SunOS. Sun didn't understand the needs of PC makers and their hardware drivers were out of touch with the reality of hardware bing shipped. The lack of compatibility with SunOS meant that the platfform was a standalone with little 3rd party support. As a result Sun was unsuccessful at getting market momentum. So this strand of Sun on Intel story came to a marketing dead end too. That was the second time that end of lifed Solaris x86.

During the late 1990s - the runaway sucess of the SPARC platform meant that few people seriously questioned whether Sun should have another go at commercialising a version of Solaris on Intel. I wrote an article in 1999 Should Sun Microsystems make its own brand of "Intel Inside" PC's? - because I could sense problems coming to Sun's business. My self defense mechanism as a publisher had been to launch in 1998 and reduce my dependence on the Sun market - just in case Sun crashed and burned. Sun's revenue growth did hit a brick wall in April 2001 - and it took 3 years to recover as a company nearly half the size.

Sun launched another version of Solaris x86 during the late 1990s - as a non commercial product to lure universities onto Solaris and thereby to their SPARC platform. It was never promoted aggressively and it was positioned as a hobbyist system - despite its great technical potential. During the period 2001 to 2003 - Sun decided a third time make extinct this latest Solaris x86 evolution too as Sun wrestled with the demons of an its unsuccessful Intel Linux business based on the acquisition of Cobalt Networks. Sun started to change its mind about Solaris x86 when user pressure force it to accept the idea that this product so unloved by Sun's marketers, but with a base of over 1.1 million licenses in Q1 2003, could possibly save the company by fragmenting the Linux market and creating a reason for new customers to buy Sun servers.

But future of Solaris x86 still looked uncertain as late as Q2 2004 - because users had learned by now to distrust Sun and the apparent ease with which it could terminate its proprietary products. It was only the promise by Sun in Q4 2004 that it would make the Solaris platform open source - that marked the end of the phoney war. The real marketing war for establishing Sun's Solaris x86 business, its true aims and eventual targets will play out in the next few years.

...Later:- Sun Announces Open Source License for Solaris

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - January 25, 2005 - Sun Microsystems, Inc. today announced that the source code for Solaris 10 will be made available under the Open Source Initiative approved Common Development and Distribution License.

The company has established a community Web site at Buildable source code for Solaris will be available at this site in the second quarter of 2005. ...Sun profile

Editor's comments:- as there are no independent makers of SPARC chips for servers any more (Fujitsu and Sun are more like technology partners than competitors) the only market Sun's open source move could make a difference to is the Intel Architecture server market. Will making Solaris x86 open source impact Linux or Windows sales?

According to IDC market research data (disclosed recently by HP) - "Solaris on x86 (Opteron and Xeon) has not been widely accepted by the marketplace. It has just 0.25% share of total x86 units shipped world wide."

Sometimes doing the right thing with the wrong timing has little or no effect. For example - slamming your foot on the brakes just after your car hits a brick wall.

Sun's open source move would have had a very significant impact on the server market if they had done it 5 years ago while their credibility was still high or even 4 years ago when it might have slowed down their revenue slide. There was a time in the darkest days when analysts were speculating if Sun would survive as a company - when the open source move might have reduced the anxiety of some users about availability and support if Sun went under.

But now? Sun's revenue is on an upswing again. They're profitable again. Users don't need that kind of safety net any more. Sun users who were going to defect to other platforms have mostly already done so. The products and price / performance in the SPARC/ Solaris space are getting better. Open source Solaris x86 may be a solution to a problem which only academics and geeks worry about. And the military - who were going to buy it in low volume anyway.

...Later:- in Sun President and COO Jonathan Schwartz's blog - February 19, 2005 - the statistics for the number of Solaris 10 licenses downloaded since first commercial ship were revealed as follows:-
  • SPARC: 191,107
  • x64/x86: 348,155
So, it looks like the dice are still rolling for Sun. Will Sun's long term bet with Solaris x86 play off despite years of adversity? We'll return to this subject in later articles.

At present it looks like Independent Software Vendors who support Solaris x86 with popular applications or system software stand to make more money out of this platform than Sun, or Independent Hardware Vendors or Sun VARs.

...Later:- Solaris 10 Passes One Million Licenses Milestone

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - March 28, 2005 - Sun Microsystems, Inc. today announced that it has distributed more than one million registered licenses for the Solaris 10 Operating System since the software became available on Sun's Web site two months ago.

Sun also announced that the Solaris 10 OS has set 14 world-record benchmarks in this same timeframe and demonstrated application performance improvements greater than 50 times that of previous versions of Solaris. ...Sun profile

...Later:- Dell Will Offer Solaris on PowerEdge Servers

SANTA CLARA, CA - November 14, 2007 - Dell and Sun Microsystems have signed an OEM agreement for Dell to make the Solaris OS and Solaris support services available directly to customers for select Dell PowerEdge servers.

"Dell's offering of Solaris redefines the market opportunity for both companies," said Jonathan Schwartz, president and CEO, Sun Microsystems. "The relationship gives Dell broader reach into the global free software community with Solaris and OpenSolaris and gives Sun access to channels and customers across the volume marketplace."

Editor's comments:- back in the late 1990s (while Sun's star was shining at its brightest) Dell did once offer Solaris as an option on its website. The route that Sun took getting back to a position that it gave away by shooting itself in the foot for many years over Linux and Solaris x86 denial - was long and tortuous. But in this case stubborn determination seems to have paid off.

...Later:- 4 Years After Publishing this Article

October 15, 2008 - An article called What drives customer demand for Solaris/x86? - Fear of failure - by Paul Murphy on ZDNet - explores the progress that Solaris x86 has made.

The author notes that scalability is an issue - speculating that many who have toyed with Solaris/x86 probably don't have heavyweight applications. For them - Linux may work just as well...
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...Later:- March 2009 - Sun eventually won this small war - for its OS at the same time as losing the much bigger war for its entire server business.

This article was first published. in 2004. Some of the milestones and comments in that 5 year gap are recorded and attached below.
The phony marketing war for Solaris x86 is over. It lasted 20 years and Sun retreated 3 times. The real marketing war is raging now. (November, 2004)
...Later:- in September 2005 HP revealed independent market data from IDC

In Q205 IDC reported that in the worldwide x86 server market Sun had a 1.2% unit market share worldwide.

In Q205, IDC reported that Linux on x86 worldwide outshipped Sun's Solaris on x86 by approximately 88 to 1.

In Q205, IDC reported that nearly three-quarters (74.2%) of x86 servers shipped by Sun itself were shipped with Linux - not Solaris x86.

article:- The Real Story about Solaris on x86 - by HP
...Later:- Sun Fails to Convince IBM that Solaris x86 Has Momentum

Editor:- January 17, 2005 - a new article in eWEEK says Sun is unhappy that IBM won't be supporting Solaris 10 for x86 with applications like DB2, WebSphere and Tivoli.

Frankly you don't need to be IBM to see that Solaris x86 is more a marketing concept which Sun has been using to deflect criticism of its flawed Linux strategies and past weaknesses in SPARC horsepower, than a viable market segment which is worthy of long term support.

My own view is that if the Solaris x86 base gets big enough Sun would lose less money by reselling Sun branded Dell servers with Solaris preloaded, or maybe just paying Dell to host a special Solaris server page on Dell's web site.

Sun will not make money in its x86 server business for years, if ever. And it's likely that long before that, SPARC will once again leapfrog the performance of Intel Architecture processors making Sun's x86 hardware business irrelevant.

Sun Counter Attacks "Sun Away" Programs from IBM and HP with Ten Moves Ahead Partner Initiative

Editor:- September 13, 2005 - Sun has a "Solaris Migration" marketing program designed to increase momentum for its Solaris x86 market.

The offers to ISVs etc run till January 31, 2006 and include, among other things, incentives to:-
  • Move SPARC applications to Solaris 10 OS for x86/x64
  • Offer Microsoft Windows operating system-based applications onto the Solaris 10 OS

December 21, 2004 - "Solaris/x86 is a joke," said Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux) in an interview on CNET. "Last I heard. (It has) very little support for any kind of strange hardware. If you thought Linux had issues with driver availability for some things, let's see you try Solaris/x86."
View from the Bunker - 2006 - Solaris x86 Wars
Editor:- January 25, 2006 - CNET today published an article which provides an interesting update on the long running Solaris x86 Wars.

In it - Stephen Shankland, from CNET - interviews Sun's John Fowler, Executive VP leading Sun's charge to capture market share in the x86 server market.

Straight from the horse's mouth, the interview confirms that Sun's x86 server market share is pitifully small, and that most customers buying Sun's own x86 hardware probably don't even run the pre-installed Solaris OS. But Sun has aggressive goals for changing all that.
HP to Offer Solaris 10 on x86 Servers

PALO ALTO, CA - February 25, 2009 - Sun Microsystems today announced an expanded multi-year partnership agreement that enables HP to distribute and provide software technical support for Sun's Solaris 10 OS on HP's ProLiant servers.

HP ProLiant led the x86 server market with 38% factory revenue share in the 4th quarter of 2008 according to IDC. ...HP profile
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