Solaris takes on Linux

When Linux has all the trappings of a commercial OS, why not consider a commercial OS?

Sun Microsystems President and COO Jonathan Schwartz made a dramatic debut in the blogosphere this summer. Anyone who has met Schwartz knows that he speaks passionately and persuasively about Sun technologies, and I’m looking forward to hearing more of his unmediated voice in his Weblog. One of his early posts (“Competing against a social movement”) got me thinking about how I ended up placing my IT bets on Linux (the “social movement” referred to in Schwartz’s blog) these past few years and, more importantly, where my platform commitments should lie in the future.

Later in that same blog, Schwartz writes Linux as “linux,” with this accompanying explanation: “Now, I put linux in quotes (with all deference and respect) because that one word wasn’t just one product — it was, in effect, a reprise of the open source movement on which Sun was founded. And that movement yielded a blizzard of distros. There was (and still is, especially on desktops or clients) no single linux. But if you speak to as many customers as I do, you quickly see that neither they, nor ISVs can afford to support 100 different distributions in the datacenter.” Good point. And the gun is cocked for what I think is a reasonably compelling Solaris sales pitch.

Schwartz proposes Solaris as a viable and superior alternative to Red Hat. As a user of Sun hardware and software for a decade now, I don’t think Schwartz’s proposal is necessarily a bad one. In my experience, Sun products have always been solid and well-supported, and although Red Hat is indeed based on Linux, in recent years, the pricing and support models are basically unrecognizable to those of us who advocated Red Hat in the early days. The pricing basically neutralizes the requirement for an OS to be “good enough.” If I’m paying for it, “good enough” isn’t, well, good enough.

Schwartz’s phrase “blizzard of distros” is actually rooted in fact, and a few recent experiences here at InfoWorld make me reluctant to dismiss that phrase as mere hand waving. To a large degree, InfoWorld runs on the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) architecture, which gives us great latitude in what Linux distribution we use. Two years ago, we chose Debian as our preferred distribution because it was free and well-supported in the open source community. Plus, we thought its APT (Advanced Package Tool) management utility was superior to RPM (Red Hat Package Manager). Debian has been working well for us, but as our needs have changed during the past couple of years, we’ve needed to integrate more commercial software into our environment — and some of the pain in “linux” is starting to show.

We need to run Oracle for a key application, for example, and because Oracle isn’t officially supported on Debian, we went with Red Hat. We recently integrated another commercial software package into our environment and ran into trouble because the software had been compiled with the latest version of Red Hat in mind — yet our Debian “stable” distribution had critical differences. Fortunately, we were working with a small software company that easily recompiled the code for us, but had this not been feasible, we would have been pushed again to Red Hat.

If I’m going to be paying license fees and support to a commercial OS vendor, what difference does it make whether the core is a well-tested Linux or a well-tested Solaris? I don’t think I would lose sleep at night going with either.