Seven ways Solaris can beat Linux

Sun needs to make a splash if it wants to win back its Unix OS market share

At a recent Sun Microsystems press event, Sun execs talked up plans to market the company's Solaris Unix OS to startups and small-to-midsize businesses. "Open source is what [customers] want to go after," said Peder Ulander, Sun's vice president of software marketing. "It's not so much Linux. Linux just happens to embody open source."

If that's true, then Sun should be in good shape. Solaris has been open source for two years now, and Sun is slowly but surely moving its entire software portfolio to an open source model. And yet, all the momentum still seems to be behind Linux.

True, Solaris is the technologically superior OS, but plainly that's not enough. If Solaris wants to win back the market share it enjoyed in the 1990s, it needs to make a splash. Here are a few ideas for how Sun can woo Linux customers back into the fold:

1. Raise Solaris' profile. Sun needs to find high-profile customers using Solaris in mission-critical applications that everyday people can understand, and talk about them. And talk about them. And talk about them. Where is Solaris being used at General Motors? In Major League Baseball? We should be seeing the Sun Solaris logo in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and USA Today. A Super Bowl ad wouldn't hurt.

2. License OpenSolaris under the Gnu GPL (General Public License). GPL is what sets the Linux faithfuls’ hearts aflutter. So why not a dual license? Besides being community-friendly, a GPL version of Solaris would allow more cross-pollination of technologies between the Linux and Solaris communities. Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz believes a rising tide lifts all boats. Sun should make sure the tide rises even further.

3. Ship a complete, gorgeous desktop system. Solaris' strength may be as a server-room heavyweight, but to get it noticed Sun needs to get it into the hands of the people who matter. Admins like to tinker and experiment, but they're not immune to eye candy and a seamless user experience. Win them over with a beautifully designed system and they're sure to begin favoring it for serious work. Ubuntu showed the way for the Linux community. Now Sun needs to charge ahead with Solaris. (Hint: Nexenta can give you a push in the right direction.)

4. Come up with a killer app. Linux wouldn't be much without the success of the Apache Web server. Microsoft has Office, and Active Directory and SQL Server ensure Windows keeps one foot in the datacenter. Solaris needs a differentiator; something that's amazing, powerful, and uniquely Solaris. "Project Thumper" is a great demonstration of how Solaris technology can deliver features other vendors can't match. But Sun's software division should be working overtime to find the special app that will knock the IT world's socks off.

5. Offer hardware support that's second to none. So far, Linux leads the Unix pack for hardware support. Sun can do better. It should be using its clout in the industry to get high-quality drivers running on Solaris for as much mainstream hardware as possible. Solaris should run on laptops just as easily as PCs. Solaris-powered graphics workstations should be powering the motion picture effects industry. No one should have to think twice whether they can install Sun's OS on their hardware.

6. Become the OS of choice for developers. There will always be a market for Visual Studio, but Sun has a chance to capture the developer market for enterprise apps outside the Windows world. Sun should throw its full efforts into developer tools and make Solaris a programmer's heaven, out of the box -- even if it means ditching NetBeans for Eclipse.

7. Virtualization all the way. Containers are a rock-solid implementation of virtualization for Solaris servers, and Sun is already offering to make Linux a guest in its home with Containers for Linux Applications. Why not do more? A VMware-like full virtualization solution shipped with every Solaris install would mean nobody needs to give up their other OSes to use Sun technology -- even if those OSes include Windows.

Got any other ideas? Drop me a line.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.