For years, Sun Microsystems has ignored Linux or dismissed it as just another Unix variant. But company officials are now talking bluntly about their failure to recognise the corporate IT push to low-cost commodity systems, which Linux has helped foster. This is, of course, in stark contract to Sun COO Joanathan Schwartz' vehemently anti-Linux (or 'linux' as he spells it) attitude, as evinced by his blog.

Sun "dropped the ball" while customers rushed to Linux/Intel computing, said John Loiacono, executive vice president of Sun's software group. But with its Solaris 10 upgrade due by year's end, Sun is hoping to change that perception by adding a list of new features and adopting an open-source model that's as good as or better than the models used for Apache, Mozilla Linux and others, Loiacono said.

Last week, Sun made a slew of announcements in hopes of luring users in the financial services industry back to its camp. Moreover, the company is working with AMD to build low-cost Opteron-based servers; a four-way box was released in the summer, and an eight-way system is expected next year.

Sticking with Solaris
Although Sun is supporting Red Hat Inc.'s version of Linux and Novell Inc.'s SUSE Linux, its preferred operating system is still Solaris. And some early users said they like the changes in Solaris 10.

Beta tester Eric Greenwade, chief IT architect at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, said the new version's use of containers, or zones -- a provisioning capability that isolates users and applications on a server -- is a major improvement. "I don't have to buy a box for every single group that believes they have a need for their own box," he said.

Because Solaris 10 is "lighter weight," meaning it's less intrusive on applications, performance has improved, Greenwade said. He also cited Sun's new TCP/IP stack as a plus.

The Solaris improvements are enough to eliminate cost as a deciding factor between Solaris or Linux, Greenwade said. He argued that Linux isn't necessarily inexpensive, because it often requires the addition of third-party tools to match functionality that's built into Solaris.

But the issue is complicated. The national lab in Idaho Falls also uses Linux systems. "Linux is in a lot of people's hands," Greenwade said, and all the users of the open-source operating system provide "a depth and breadth of feedback that you can't get in almost any other software testing program." As a result, features are added to Linux more quickly, he said.

Bill Morgan, CIO at Philadelphia Stock Exchange has a new electronic options-trading system that runs on Solaris 10, which he said has improved trading capacity by 36 per cent. Like Greenwade, he credited performance improvements to the TCP/IP stack, as well as improved multithreading support and a new feature called DTrace (for Dynamic Tracing) that tunes application performance.

Thanks to Solaris, the stock exchange expects to reduce the amount of new hardware it needs to buy in order to scale up the trading system. "You can in effect scale within the same machine, as opposed to adding servers," Morgan said.

But Sun may still have work to do on cost issues that are important to some users.

Gary Westaway, data centre operations manager at Sears Canada in Toronto, manages more than 750 servers in a mixed environment. He called Sun's technology proprietary and its licensing terms costly. For instance, Westaway said Sun informed him that his Sun server warranty would be voided if he installed the servers in anything other than a Sun rack, which he called "the most expensive rack on the face of this planet."

However, Sun officials said that isn't true for its x86-based systems. They said servers can be mounted in third-party racks, provided that the racks meet certain design requirements, and that Sun will honour the warranty.

And maybe Sun's boss will have some humble pie gobbling to do too.