Fate of Sun's products up in the air

An IBM purchase of Sun would end up killing some Sun technologies but may help others

With rumors of an impending Sun-IBM merger becoming more intense late last week, the next big question mark pertains to what happens to Sun's vast product line, which has hardware and software that overlaps with a lot of IBM's own product lines. Observers -- including a former Sun employee, a former software developer for the Sun platforms, and the founder of the Ruby on Rails Web framework -- maintain varying perspectives on what to expect and offer degrees of both optimism and pessimism about the whole endeavor.

A look at the two vendors' product lines reveals overlaps in areas such as chip architectures, with IBM offering its Power processor family and Sun the Sparc RISC processor. In the database realm, IBM has its core DB2 platform while Sun acquired the open source MySQL database in 2008. Both have sold desktop and server systems and have participated in dueling open source tools initiatives for the Java platform, with Sun driving the NetBeans platform and IBM launching the Eclipse platform, which has been spun out into an independent initiative.

[ Does the proposed acquisition mean the end for Sun? See how Sun's journey brought it into IBM's reach in InfoWorld's "Reporter's Notebook: Sundown for Sun?" ]

But both companies have been heavily involved in projects such as Java and open source, so while there are conflicts in their product lines, there are synchronicities as well.

"I think [a merger] would make a stronger case for use of open source software, particularly at the infrastructure level," says Tony Wasserman, executive director of the Center for Open Source Investigation, which is part of Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley. Wasserman was the founder and CEO of Interactive Development Environments (IDE), which provided a modeling tool running on both IBM and Sun workstations. "I was one of Sun's first ISVs [independent software vendors]," he notes.

The founder of the open source Ruby on Rails Web framework, David Heinemeier Hansson, expressed apprehension about the proposed merger: "I think it's pretty rare to see that technology actually improves post-big mergers, so I remain skeptical," Hansson says "But on the other hand, I'd rather see Sun's assets picked up by IBM than going down the drain. So I guess it might be the least-bad outcome of the possibilities available."

"I think if I'm a Sun customer, I'm happy" about the proposed merger, says Matthew Eastwood, group vice president for enterprise platform research at IDC. That's because IBM's apparent interest throws them a life preserver to Sun users have a lot invested in the technology at a time when Sun has "sort of sent the message to the market that they can't [survive] now," he says.

Whither MySQL, Java, Sparc, and Solaris?
MySQL, Wasserman says, would survive as an independent open source project should IBM by some chance not be interested in maintaining it.

"I just hope they don't screw up MySQL more than has already happened. I really care about that one," Hansson says. The MySQL missteps Hansson include the departures of key MySQL personnel, including one-time MySQL CEO Marten Mickos, and issues with the product itself.

A former Sun and BEA employee, Bill Roth, now vice president of product management at GSI Commerce, says that IBM has "smart business people" that would look at what Sun products make money. "I think that IBM will kill everything except core Java and the directory server," said Roth, who was vice president and general manager of the tools division at BEA until Oracle bought the company last year. "I think that the cloud offering [Sun Cloud, announced March 18] probably goes away," Roth adds.

Sun's Sparc processor technology would live on with Fujitsu, which has used the chip, says IDC's Eastwood. But Roth has a different view: "I think over time, [Sparc] becomes like DEC's Alpha chip. It just gets used and used in fewer machines until it finally disappears."

Solaris, meanwhile, should continue at IBM, Eastwood says. "I could see Solaris becoming the second operating platform that would run on all IBM systems much they did with Linux." But CEO of PHP tools company Zend Technologies, Andi Gutmans, is not so sure: "The big question mark is Solaris: Do they kill it and continue down their Linux strategy, or does it become IBM's open-source Unix strategy?" Still, he sees a strong reason for IBM to adopt Solaris: "Because in the past there have been tensions with some of the Linux vendors.  Now they would have their own open source Unix platform."

Doubt that Sun's development tools would survive
Observers offered different perspectives on the fate of Sun's development tools and NetBeans. Reflecting on how Oracle, which bought BEA last year, took control of BEA products, Roth had little optimism. "IBM, if they're going to be as aggressive as Oracle, will kill NetBeans and kill all the development tools and offer migration to the Rational product line," Roth says.

Wasserman was more optimistic about NetBeans: "Nobody in the world says there has to be only one integrated programming environment." Zend's Gutmans calls the proposed a merger good for IBM and Java. But he believes it could spell the end of NetBeans. "With IBM having over 300 projects on Eclipse and it being a strategic platform for them, they would probably wind down the NetBeans project over time.

(Both Sun and IBM have declined to comment on the acquisition rumors or how an acquisition would affect their product portfolios.)

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform