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- Et tu McNealy? - (December 1999)
Simon Moores jostles for space on the Linux bandwagon

"Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall".

With apologies to William Shakespeare for borrowing one of Marc Anthony’s most famous lines, this was my first reaction to news that Sun Microsystems plans to freely release the source code for its proprietary Solaris operating system to catch the rising tide spurred by Linux.

Outside Linux, Solaris is the first major operating system to even approach an open source development concept and by including it (with Java) within Sun's "Community Process", it will allow developers to freely make their own changes to the code, provided they use open interfaces and submit bug reports to Sun. As with Java, access to the Solaris code will be free for non-commercial development but Sun will, quite naturally, charge license fees when the code finds its way into commercial products.

It’s quite likely that as a Windows NT & 2000 explorer reader, you aren’t too bothered by the Open Source argument, don’t use Solaris or even Linux. In fact, you may be wondering if this is a good thing and how on earth Shakespeare found his way into the column.

Would you recommend it?

Marc Anthony’s words were chosen to emphasise what I feel is a momentous occasion and I’ll tell you why. At the beginning of 1999, I had dinner with Robin Bloor and my old friend Hellmuth Broda, the European CTO of Sun. It was only a matter of months since Linux first broke the horizon and at the time, it seemed more of a threat to Microsoft’s server monopoly, than a serious rival to Sun’s Solaris. Hellmuth confided in me, that if his son should ask him what flavour of Unix he should get to grips with, he would recommend Linux, because the source code was available and, of course, it’s free. Anything more serious, applications in the ‘Big Boy’s Toys’ division, would probably need Solaris and he seemed fairly comfortable that Linux was still a long way from achieving ‘adult’ (my words) recognition.

In August, Red Hat, possibly the most widely recognised of the Linux distributors went to the US market and walked away with a $6.5 billion market capitalisation. It’s stock leaping from $14 to $96 in a matter of days. In the months since my dinner, the massive wealth and influence of the IT industry, outside Microsoft, has embraced Linux as a serious platform alternative to Windows NT. In October we had the UK’s first Linux Show in London, and I have invited Red Hat’s CEO, Bob Young, to appear as a guest on the Sky Business Report.

The truly earth shaking nature of the Solaris ‘Open Source’ announcement lies in the recognition that the tidal wave of support behind Linux not only threatens the established order, a la Microsoft, but represents a clear and present danger to the interests of ‘The Gang of Four’, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, SCO and yes, I’ll include IBM, although it suffers from a split personality where Unix is concerned.

Microsoft quite possibly views Linux as the ‘Great Satan’ because it represents rather more danger to Windows NT as a populist idea, than as an immediate alternative and indeed, replacement technology.

Technologies can be fought and bought

Technologies can be fought and bought but new religions are rather harder to resist and it’s quite clear that Sun Microsystems has seen the danger to its own Solaris revenues that the express train Linux represents. For Microsoft, now balanced precariously between the old and the new versions of Windows, the ‘New Deal’ offered by the Linux evangelists couldn’t come at a worse time in its history. After all, here’s the deal: spend lots of money on Windows NT licenses and productivity software or choose Linux, follow a more Server-based computing strategy and maybe save 70% of your IT costs, depending of course on whose figures you accept.

Within the Unix universe, the new order appears to be moving towards a more cost effective mix, which involves low-cost Linux workstations and Linux responsible for Domain, Web-serving and File & Print tasks. The heavy artillery at the back-end could be Solaris or HP-UX and any requirement for Windows connectivity or productivity applications is provided, courtesy of Citrix, which is developing Metaframe for Unix.

Six months ago, I couldn’t imagine support for Linux growing fast enough to be capable of out-punching Microsoft before it was comfortably sandbagged behind Windows 2000. The truth is that the Linux phenomenon changes everything, it’s the computer industry equivalent of the Reformation. This in turn triggered the thirty-years war, a modern equivalent of which is about to be fought over the souls of IT Managers over the next three years.

Simon Moores is President of the Windows NT Forum. All views expressed here are his own.