This past year has been a breakthrough for Sun for both their Linux and Solaris products. The most intriguing news of all is possibly the challenge Sun poses to Microsoft with their Desktop Initiative announced a couple of months ago. We spoke to Bill Moffitt, Product Line Manager of the Solaris Lifecycle, about Linux, the desktop and Solaris. Update: Bill Moffitt replies on our forums.It is already known that Sun will soon be releasing a desktop version of Unix for corporate customers. The project has the codename “Project Mad Hatter”. Many news sites jumped on the matter early with headlines like “Sun is after Microsoft Windows”, but Moffitt tells us that Sun is only after the corporate desktop and not home and individual users (yet a version of the OS will be available for individual purchase). It was revealed to OSNews that this version of Unix desktop will be nothing more than the popular latest offering of Red Hat 8.x, with the Evolution mail client, Mozilla and OpenOffice.org, or Star Office if the client chooses.
We asked the hot question of the day: “why would someone buy your version of Red Hat Linux instead of downloading it for free from the web, or even purchasing it directly from Red Hat?” The answer? Better integration of the tools, and full Sun support for the product, Moffitt replied. The target customers will be the existing users of Sun hardware and software around the US (mostly SUN contractors in the government, big companies and education), so this is an addition to the catalog Sun already offers these companies. This is a supplementary product for Sun, however, they do expect that the backend of these installations will run on big Sun servers (the Linux installations will be sold along with a low cost PC). Additionally, Sun hopes to attract new users with this low cost offer as well as entice existing customers to make the switch. There is no date for the release of the product, but Sun hopes it will be ready early next year.
Sun realizes that there is still some work to be done to improve the desktop. One significant weakness is the acknowledged lack of multimedia support on Red Hat 8. And since media playback is something important for most marketing departments (and…geek devs) Sun assured us that they will work on something that would please their customers (while they will continue to evangelize open formats). The same goes for Star/OpenOffice which, according to Moffitt, might not offer all the Microsoft Office features, but is still plenty robust for 99% of users out there. What’s more, Sun’s office solution is both very stable and powerful, making it an excellent alternative to Windows on the corporate desktop, said Moffitt. Evidently, Sun employees use it daily and have no problems with the feature-set or with the exchange of .doc or .xls files via email with external sources.
OSNews was also told that Sun will not commit Solaris code to the Linux kernel (Solaris is known to have one of the best, if not the best, SMP scalability in the industry with the only real competition coming from HP-UX and IRIX). Sun might write some drivers if needed and do some bug fixes, but will not be directly involved in the process of steering the Linux kernel. “Linus Torvalds and the community are doing a fine job on it. Sun will not attempt to hijack the open nature of the Linux kernel in any proprietary direction,” said Moffitt. Distinguishing Sun’s Linux policy with IBM’s, is important to Moffitt. IBM is endorsing Linux at the cost of not evolving AIX anymore, and this is not what Sun plans for Solaris. Indeed Sun’s flagship OS will remain the server and main operating systems for the company to drive all the main business and its hardware. “Linux is simply a supplementary service to our customers, geared towards very specific needs, mostly on the corporate desktop. Solaris is a different story, serving on other areas,” Moffitt said.
Moffitt explained Sun’s understanding of some people’s need for Linux. Linux has a reputation of being at the edge of development and software releases. Sun is after two types of users, Moffitt asserts, those who want to update their OS with the latest goodies every few days, and the second group who are more realistic about what Solaris can offer them technologically. Now, with the addition of Linux, Sun is able to offer both solutions.
Updating Solaris works differently. Companies with existing contracts get a special CD or download from the web special updates for the OS every 3-4 months. Having this very controlled update from Sun ensures they get support and a guarantee that everything works as it should. Also, Solaris updates are mostly geared towards people who have more than 10 machines and need automated, hassle-free ways of updating their OS. With the Linux move, Sun serves the users who prefer latest software and numerous updates instead of extreme and controlled stability, found in the (slower) Solaris updating process.
The first Solaris 9 update was released in August and the next one is expected in December 2002. With the following update, expected around April 2003, Sun expects to offer the availability of Gnome2 for Solaris 9 for both the SPARC and x86 platforms. Sun has now ported the XRender extension from the XFree86 project back to their proprietary X11 windowing system which will allow for some interesting speed-ups and features on the desktop. CDE will still remain the main desktop environment, but it would be easily interchanged with the final Gnome2 release. While Motif will still be supported, Sun encourages programming in Java 2 (Sun has created bindings and widgets so Java apps now look like Gnome/GTK+ apps!) and if the application in question is resource and performance hungry, GTK+ and Bonobo are also suggested as good solutions.
December will see a new beta release for Solaris for Intel x86, and the company expects that the final version might be ready as soon as January 2003 (as a standalone product and as pre-installed on some Sun machines). While Sun’s and Solaris’ focus will remain on the server side of things, “x86 Solaris will be interesting to watch. It will be a ‘fun’ year, next year” Moffitt told us.