Sun Microsystems is considering a port of its Solaris version of the Unix operating system to two new processor architectures designed by chip rivals IBM and Intel.

The comments came during Sun's quarterly earnings conference call with press and financial analysts on Tuesday, when Sun president and COO Jonathan Schwartz mentioned IBM's Power and Intel's Itanium processors while contrasting Sun's Unix strategy to that of other Unix vendors.

"Unlike IBM, who obviously is really narrowly deploying AIX onto one of their system families, we've also begun looking at delivering Solaris on Power, as well as Solaris on Itanium, as ways of really driving incremental volume," Schwartz said.

Schwartz was quickly cut off by Sun's CEO, Scott McNealy, who said, "That's not a product announcement," and Sun representatives declined to comment on when, if ever, such products might be released.

The idea of running Solaris on Intel's Itanium processors -- which compete with Sun's own UltraSparc chips -- is not a new one. In 2001, Sun actually completed a port of Solaris to Itanium, which was never brought to market because of low demand for Itanium systems, according to Sun.

A year after the Itanium port, Sun also terminated support for Solaris on Intel's other chip architecture, x86, but that decision was reversed several months later after Solaris x86 users blasted the move.

Now, judging from Schwartz's comments, the company is having second thoughts about the Itanium port.

A Solaris port to IBM's Power architecture would be a surprise, said Nathan Brookwood, principal with industry research firm Insight64.

"The question is, would people purchasing Power platforms from IBM be interested in Solaris as opposed to either Linux or AIX, and that doesn't seem like a real strong likelihood," he said.

Though Sun has promised to release Solaris under an open-source licence, Sun will have a near impossible task in convincing independent software vendors and hardware vendors such as IBM or Hewlett-Packard to provide technical support, performance tuning or marketing resources for Solaris on these new platforms when they have already committed to Linux, Brookwood said.

"Solaris is a Sun product, and therefore the likelihood that an IBM is going to put any effort into making Solaris run better on Power systems or that HP would put any effort into making it run better on Itanium systems is pretty close to zero," he said. "One of the big issues is not the open-sourcing. It is the vendor neutrality."

Still, Sun has made some headway recently with Solaris on x86. The company added 15 Solaris original equipment manufacturers and 54 independent software vendors in the last quarter, and the Sun has now certified 220 systems -- including those made by Dell Inc., HP, and IBM -- as compatible with Solaris, Schwartz said.

"Solaris is broader than simply Sun's hardware," he said. "We are very comfortable with our operating system strategy and the flexibility it gives us in creating disruptive pricing models, like subscriptions to an operating system that include free hardware," he said.