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Sun Microsystems Inc. is considering making an attempt to acquire Novell Inc., a move that would have enormous repercussions for competitor IBM.

In an interview with eWEEK, Sun President and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Schwartz acknowledged that the Santa Clara, Calif., company is considering making a move to buy Novell, saying that such a move could ultimately force Big Blue to depend on Sun for its Linux operating system.

Read why Linux & Open Source Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is telling Sun and IBM to quit their open-source posturing.

“Now that the Linux movement in North America on the server side has become the Red Hat movement, IBM has a problem as the bulk of the Linux deployments in this country are on Red Hat,” Schwartz said.

“Now that they [Red Hat] are supporting an application server, IBM now finds Red Hat competing against it in its installed base,” he said, referring to reports last week that Red Hat is expected to start selling a subscription service supporting an open-source Java application server.

Those reports follow a Red Hat announcement earlier this year that it planned to start selling subscription services supporting Jonas, an open-source Java application server built by the French consortium ObjectWeb. Red Hat is planning on selling support services for Jonas at around $1,000 a year, sources said.

“What would happen if Sun decided to acquire Novell? What would IBM do? If Red Hat is competing with them, they are left with only one choice: Novell SuSE Linux. And no matter how small a portion of the market SuSE represents, it runs on all of IBM’s hardware. Sun could then end up as the owner of the operating system that runs IBM’s mainframe. Wouldn’t that be an interesting scenario?” Schwartz asked.

He then went on to say that Sun had “never been more aware of IBM’s dependence on SuSE Linux given Red Hat’s application server plans. I think that represents an extreme vulnerability for IBM that has not gone unnoticed at Sun,” Schwartz said.

“But that competitive opportunity is very evident to us, and I’m sure is evident to IBM. Hypothetically, if Sun were to acquire Novell, that would leave IBM dependent on Sun for its operating system, and what would happen when Sun then started offering upgrades off of SuSE onto Solaris? This would be a complete replay of the IBM/Microsoft Windows play in the 1980s. The difference between humans and white mice is that white mice learn from their mistakes. IBM has been down this path before,” Schwartz said.

Asked whether IBM could outbid Sun in any possible deal for Novell, Schwartz said he was not sure that would be the case given how well-financed Sun is. “We have more cash on hand than IBM does. Novell is a public company, and public companies are always for sale, and its directors would have to be open to any such discussion should it ever happen,” he said.

The current situation leaves IBM in a very precarious position and what “we have known all along that if we stay focused on performance and innovation, and with our plans to open-source Solaris we can now start moving to upgrade IBM’s installed base off AIX or to HP-UX,” Schwartz said.

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