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The Solaris on Itanium discussion stalls again

Intel needs attitude adjustment

IDF Fall '04 Everyone has seen the pictures of Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy laughing with Microsoft Chief Steve Ballmer. The two executives tried to portray an image of pleasant compromise and newfound respect. If, however, you thought a similar respect between Sun and Intel was developing around Solaris on Itanium, you'd be wrong.

Sun's President Jonathan Schwartz recently resurrected the notion of the Solaris operating system running on Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor. His reference to the odd pairing stirred up old buzz and lead some to believe that Solaris on Itanic may actually happen. Instead, conversations last week at the Intel Developer Forum have confirmed that Sun and Intel are still mired in a political squabble that puts Solaris' future on Itanium in doubt.

When asked by The Register about Solaris on Itanium, Intel's new server processor chief Abhi Talwalkar told us to check with Schwartz about the project. He gave the impression that Intel would welcome Solaris if Sun was serious about the effort. Later on, however, Talwalkar made several disparaging remarks about Sun's business, suggesting the company is no match for Intel or IBM in the high-end server game. He tried to convince the press that Sun will eventually fade and be only a trivial player in the IT market.

Talwalkar's talk didn't rub Sun's Schwartz the right way.

"I was hoping Abhi was going to be a businessman, not a politician," Schwartz told The Register. "I'm a little confused as to what Intel's strategy is. On the one hand, they seem to want to support us delivering Solaris on Itanium. That's definitely the sense I get from their senior execs, customers and ISV's, wondering what else to do with Itanium."

"But Intel can't seem to stop the anti-Sun rhetoric. We're able to work very productively with AMD - competing all the way. We both know the market will determine who buys what - a situation with which I think Intel is less familiar."

While there's clearly plenty of rhetoric on both sides, Intel seems to be in much more desperate need of Sun's help than the other way around.

HP is currently the only major vendor to offer a version of Unix for Itanium. But HP-UX on Itanium, while somewhat popular, has serious limitations.

For one, the Itanium market remains painfully small. The latest figures from Gartner show that all Itanium server vendors combined due as much business in one quarter as Sun does in one week.

Beyond that, only 50 percent of the HP-UX customer base plans any move to Itanium from PA-RISC at all, according to data from HP user group Interex. This is surely due, in part, to HP's lagging HP-UX roadmap, delaying new features and promised additions from Compaq's Tru64 operating system. As HP cuts its research and development budget for the server division, its key high-end operating system appears to be falling well behind both Solaris and IBM's AIX.

Intel would be well served to shift some of its attention from HP and to look to Sun for help boosting the prospects of Itanium. Even the biggest fans of Windows and Linux know these OSes have years to go before they can compete with Unix on the highest-end jobs. Customers appear to recognize this and are asking for Solaris, according to Intel.

"We certainly see there are customers out there expressing interest in Solaris," said Richard Dracott, general manager of Intel's enterprise platforms group, in an interview. "AIX used to be something people asked about but no so much anymore."

"In the end, it's Sun's call," added Nimish Modi, VP in Intel's enterprise group.

Industry veterans will remember all of this as similar to the exchanges Sun and Intel once had over Solaris on Itanic. Both companies pointed fingers at each other years ago for canceling their partnership around the pairing.

To this day, Intel claims Sun is not doing its part to create an "ecosystem" around Solaris on Itanium. Intel would like to see Sun line up ISVs and dedicate staff to handling the OS on its chip. Similarly, Sun uses the entire debate as a way of pointing out how unsuccessful the Itanium processor has been. Sun is without competition in the rhetoric department.

That said, Sun has proven that it's trying to become more of a software company than ever before. It has put incredible resources behind Solaris x86, embracing both Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron chips in the process.

While Sun still seems a bit wishy-washy on the Itanium front, it's clear that this is a real proposition for the company. If Intel wants to boost Itanium sales, it would be wise to curry Sun's favor. ®

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