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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- "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.
(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
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.
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
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
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
STORAGEsearch.com 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
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
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
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 opensolaris.org. Buildable
source code for Solaris will be available at this site in the second quarter of
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
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.
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:-
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
- SPARC: 191,107
- x64/x86: 348,155
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
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.
...Later:- Dell Will Offer Solaris on PowerEdge Servers
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
15, 2008 - An article called
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
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. |
article was first published. in 2004. Some of the milestones and comments in
that 5 year gap are recorded and attached below.
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)|
in September 2005 HP revealed independent market data from IDC|
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.
Q205, IDC reported that nearly three-quarters (74.2%) of x86 servers shipped by
Sun itself were shipped with Linux - not Solaris x86.
The Real Story about Solaris on x86 - by HP
Sun Fails to Convince IBM that Solaris x86 Has Momentum|
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
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.
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.
December 21, 2004 - "Solaris/x86 is a joke,"
said Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux) in
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."