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Sun Microsystems Inc. is again using the lure of free hardware to help grow its business, but industry insiders remain skeptical of the program, which is thus far falling short of its goals.

Sun is offering midsize ISV partners an entry-level x86 server with its Solaris 10 software preloaded to encourage the ISVs to accelerate adoption of the upcoming operating system. The hardware giveaway is the first of 10 campaigns in Sun’s new Ten Moves Ahead for Partners program.

ISVs that commit to releasing a commercially available product on Solaris 10 by March 31 will get an Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Opteron-based x86 V20z server, worth about $2,800, with Solaris 10 and development tools preloaded.

Sun is hoping to give away 1,000 servers by the end of March but, to date, only 167 of Sun’s more-than-700 iForce partners have signed up for the program, Paula Patel, the director for market development at Sun, in Santa Clara, Calif., told eWEEK. The goal of the campaign is to encourage ISVs that have SPARC and non-SPARC applications to also look at the x86 platform for them, Patel said.

Sun is making waves with its new open-source license proposal for Open Solaris. Click here to read more.

But some analysts question the Ten Moves strategy, saying Sun should be looking to cut staff to support its current business model rather than giving away hardware and software. Industry watchers also say that Sun faces a number of challenges, including overcoming the issues associated with Solaris 10 drivers on the x86 platform, building an ecosystem for Solaris on the Opteron and x86 hardware platform, and creating a Solaris development model as appealing as the open-source Linux model.

“There is still a driver issue with Linux on x86, and the Solaris driver issue on x86 is even less successful. Customers are also looking at having solutions that are more open than what Sun offers, and if Sun is trying to compete against Dell [Inc.] in the small-to-medium-size market, that’s a formidable task,” said Stacey Quandt, an analyst with Robert Frances Group Inc., in Westport, Conn.

Some Solaris x86 users, such as Thomas Nau, head of the Communication and Information Center’s infrastructure department at the University of Ulm, in Germany, said they feel Sun should give its ISVs support along with the preconfigured hardware. “Sun engineers know already about migration/compilation problems. This knowledge should be transferred to the ISVs,” Nau said.

Sun has used the free-giveaway tactic before. Last February, it unveiled the Java Enterprise Developer Promotion, designed to lure U.S. developers to its Java-based enterprise development tools by giving free hardware in exchange for a three-year subscription.

Quandt said that while giveaway moves have paid off for vendors such as IBM that have targeted ISVs around Linux, Sun will have a bigger fight ahead. Linux is supported by multiple vendors, so ISVs and customers are not locked in to a single provider.

“They are giving away hardware, they’re working on Open Solaris, they are talking about more competitive pricing to compete with Red Hat [Inc.], so how do they make money? Sun is a very large company and needs to shrink to be competitive,” Quandt said.

But Sun’s Patel was upbeat, saying that the company’s ISVs will “just have to take their current applications, recompile them and run them on the V20z, and you have a Solaris x86 application,” she said.

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