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Sun gets liquored up on own code

Slosh the squeaky wheel

Sun Network Buzzed. Intoxicated. Blotto. Straight pissed on code.

That's the feeling sweeping through Sun Microsystems' software engineering ranks, as the workers attempt to correct a three-year enthusiasm-deadening lull in Sun's business. Yes, Solaris has been wounded by Linux. Yes, Sun's enterprise software business has made but modest gains. But all of that will change in the next couple of years, they say, before staggering away from an Opteron workstation.

Talking to myriad Sun staffers here at the Sun Network conference has made this sense of a software revival clear. Workers are inspired by former VP of software Jonathan Schwartz's ascension to President and former software CTO John Fowler's ascension to head of volume servers. They're inspired by a rich set of new technology in Solaris 10, renewed interest in Solaris x86, reworked versions of Sun's middleware and the most curious of pricing models behind all this code.

"We've been waiting for three years to show everyone what we've got," said one engineer over a beer. "We knew all this great stuff was coming, but we just had to be quiet about it and get the work done."

My filesystem is bigger than yours

At the top of the "all the software rage" category is the Dynamic File System - code-named ZFS - announced this week. This software was developed over the course of the last four years by several of Sun's Solaris engineers and will be a key selling point for Solaris 10 due out at year's end.

At its most basic level, the Dynamic File System creates a new way for administrators to add, subtract and manage storage in a virtualized fashion. It more or less presents all the disks in a network as one large disk to software. This makes it possible to create and grow file systems, add mirrored file systems and add disk space with just a few commands typed into a Unix shell.

Backing up this technology is the check summing of all the data on the storage systems to cut the risk of data corruption or loss. Sun is currently touting 19 9s of data integrity with the Dynamic File Systems and its engineers back up this claim. Sun also promises an 80 percent reduction in time needed for system administration tasks and 16 billion billion times more capacity than existing file systems.

Sun executives won't be this bold in public, but in private they insist the Dynamic File System will revitalize their storage business. They tout the software as the most modern of Unix file systems and a real challenge to storage vendors and Veritas, which makes millions selling a volume manager and file system for Solaris.

To complement its new file system, Sun plans to roll out a fresh line of midrange storage products dubbed the 5000 family. One system in this line will be a NAS (networked attached storage) device that supports both NFS and CIFS. In addition, Sun plans to ship more Serial ATA-based storage systems to give customer low-cost clumps of disks that can make use of the Dynamic File System.

While a number of companies claim to have revolutionary file systems, Sun insists its product is the real deal. No shocker there. Users can try out the code via the Solaris Express program, and we'd love to hear what you think.

Zoom, zoom, zoom

A second major contributor to Sun's software engineer inebriation comes from growing interest in the Solaris x86 operating system.

Sun insiders know they mucked up the Solaris x86 show by pulling back support for the product a couple of years ago. Since then, Sun has had trouble convincing customers that it's serious about this version of Solaris for Xeon and namely Opteron chips.

But again, while Sun employees won't be so vocal in public, they honestly believe that Solaris x86 is primed to give Linux a run for its money. Solaris 10 has been tuned to compete head-to-head against Linux on benchmarks wherever possible, it can run Linux apps without recompiles and it scales well beyond two processors. Add in the Dynamic File System, DTrace (much more on this coming) and a revised TCP/IP stack and Solaris 10 for x86 boxes screams, so we are told.

In total, Sun is hoping that many of the financial services companies that strayed from the Solaris path over to Linux will reconsider their decisions. A wise Texan once said, "There are things you can do with a truck that you can't do with a car. A truck makes money. A car doesn't." And that's exactly the thought process with Solaris x86 versus Linux these days.

Sun is getting major help in this push. Over the past year, it has signed up Oracle, BEA, Veritas, CA and a host of other ISVs to run their software on the x86 systems. In addition, it has close to 200 x86 systems certified to run the operating system. Sun even made gains here in China this week by adding Dawning and Founder Technology Group to its list of Solaris x86 OEMs. Not a bad move in a country with a strong disliking for Microsoft.

If you can't beat them, undercut them

To push this software cult along, Sun has been dabbling with some unique pricing models, including offering its Java Enterprise System (JES) middleware stack for $100 per employee to large companies. This week, Sun took the long awaited step of extending this plan one step further and introducing per citizen pricing to developing countries.

Countries, provinces, states and cities in less developed regions can now pick up JES at a price ranging from $0.33 to $1.95 per citizen.

Along with JES, Sun has extended a price discount for its Java Desktop System (JDS) Linux OS. Customers can pick up the OS for $50 a pop until December on its own and for $50 per employee if it is bought along with JES. Sun recently released Version 2 of the software.

Sun this week also touted what its Japanese partner SourceNext has been doing with StarOffice. In the last five months, SourceNext has sold 200,000 one-year subscriptions to StarOffice for $19.99 each. The company has a deal with 7-Eleven to offer the software on this subscription model at the convenience stores.

"I think you should watch this company," said Schwartz, during a keynote here.

Use the Schwartz

As mentioned before, much of the engineers' excitement about Sun's software future stems from having Schwartz atop the company. One staffer commented, "It's like the Solaris team is leading Sun now," which must be a good feeling for a group that has had Linux shoved down their gullets by analysts and customers alike.

Schwartz's software love, however, has the executive saying some unusual things for the President of a company that makes almost all of its money shipping hardware.

During his opening keynote here, Schwartz brought up a recent conversation with an executive at an auto-maker. The two were apparently joking about selling downloadable "horn tones" for cars - following the ring tone model on phones. After laughing at the idea, the executives kept discussing more pay-per-use and subscription services that could be delivered to a car and decided that if a customer would pay $220 per month for these products, the car companies could give away their autos for free.

Schwartz often discusses similar ideas, as he is determined to move Sun toward a recurring revenue, software subscription model. That's why he likes SourceNext so much.

Sun, for example, is currently offering developers a "free" Opteron server if they'll pay $1,499 per year over three years for Sun's developer software.

"I'd love to see how the competition can match that because we know they can't," Schwartz said. "Are we going to limit this to simple developer systems? I don't think so."

Add all of this together, and you can see Schwartz is itching to give Sun servers away where possible. This is a huge risk that pretty much sums up the giddiness over Sun's software business.

The coder religion has taken hold, and Sun staffers are sucking it up faster than a Register reporter feeding from a Pilsner trough. Whether or not Sun will fare any betters than our livers is anyone's guess. ®

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