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I have a love-hate relationship with Sun Microsystems. I love many of its products and technologies; I hate the way it presents and packages them. I feel like it can hardly manage one step forward without taking a step back. Take, for example, the confusion about the company’s operating systems for the x86 market.

On the one hand, Sun Microsystems Inc. says it favors Linux. On the other, it criticizes its biggest Linux partner, Red Hat Inc.

On the one hand, it’s tried to kill off its Solaris on Intel program at least three times by my count. On the other, the company is bringing it back with more OEM partners than ever.

And I’ve been wondering lately whether Solaris x86 really still exists only to counter Linux’s growth.

But after talking with Jack O’Brien, Sun’s group manager for x86 operating system marketing—aka Solaris x86 and Linux—I think Sun has decided to really support Solaris 86. In short, Solaris x86 will no longer be the red-haired stepchild of the Solaris family.

When I last spoke with Dan Kusnetzky, IDC’s guru of all things operating system, we agreed that Solaris on Intel had always been a few features short of Solaris on SPARC.

Your customers would get a taste for Solaris, but then they’d find out that to really get the most out of it, they’d need to upgrade from Intel to SPARC systems. That worked for a while, but these days customers—used to the bottom-line prices of x86 systems and Linux—aren’t willing to pony up the cash for SPARC.

Now, Sun, according to O’Brien, is making sure that Solaris 10 will be “feature- and bug-compliant” on both the x86 and SPARC platforms. Now, I’m a show-me kind of guy, and this isn’t the first time I’ve heard similar things about Solaris x86. But this time, Sun appears to be walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

One of Solaris’ best features has been its clustering support. Hewlett-Packard Co.’s TruCluster and IBM Corp.’s AIX are fine and dandy, but I’ve always really liked the unified view and control that Solaris gave me over clustering.

It also so happens that this is one of the areas where I think Solaris has a clear edge over Linux. And this crown jewel of Solaris has never been available on Solaris x86—until now.

On May 11, Sun made Sun Cluster 3.1 4/04 available on Solaris x86. OK, so maybe I’m wrong, and Sun is trying to make Solaris x86 a serious operating system for its customers and resellers.

Of course, companies don’t make their buying decisions based on operating systems alone. According to Kusnetzky, they usually base their decisions on either the applications or the infrastructure software (DBMSs and the like) that they use.

And it seems that Solaris on Intel is making headway here with its ISVs. For example, Oracle Corp., I’m told, will be bringing Oracle 10G for Solaris x86 in its next quarter.

The spotty past of Solaris on Intel won’t make it an easy sale.

That said, getting Solaris x86 into businesses will be an uphill battle. Even though Solaris on Intel has as a history of more than a decade, its on-again, off-again past means it won’t be an easy sale. After talking with Sun, though, it seems to me that the company is finally making the right moves to make it happen.

Of course, the first place resellers should look for Solaris x86 customers is in existing Solaris shops. For these users, moving from SPARC to Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s Opteron servers will be a no-brainer. Their existing IT staffs should have no problem running Solaris on either platform.

Where does Linux fit into Sun’s plans? According to O’Brien, all other things being equal at a customer’s site, Sun will be pushing Solaris x86.

Jason Perlow, president of Argonaut Systems Corp., a Tenafly, N.J.-based systems integration firm specializing in Linux IT solutions, said he thinks Sun goes too far with this stance.

He told me, “Sun came into my client in Newark, N.J., to show their 1U Opteron Linux box and bid on a 500-node Linux cluster. What did they do after I told them, ‘Linux, Linux, Linux’? Propose Linux? No!”

Instead, Perlow said, “They get all high and mighty about how we should really consider Solaris x86, and we should migrate to Solaris 10 on Opteron, because it will provide better performance and stability than Linux.

“And guess who won the bid? IBM, who came into the proposal more listening to what we wanted than what they thought we needed.”

While Perlow, a hardcore Linux supporter, wasn’t happy about his experience, I can understand why the Sun sales representatives pushed Solaris; clustering is one of the areas where Solaris shines.

OK, so where does Sun support its Linux options, Red Hat and SuSE? O’Brien told me that in situations where companies want low-end, edge servers and/or already have an existing Linux infrastructure, they’ll push Linux.

Sun also will be pushing Linux and the Java Desktop System (JDS), which is currently based on Linux, for the desktop, according to Peder Ulander, director of marketing for desktop solutions.

But JDS is also on its way to Solaris x86 and will soon be showing up on Sun’s thin-client Sun Ray devices. It sounds to me like in the long run, Solaris will be the centerpiece of Sun’s desktop plans as well.

And where do you, as a reseller or integrator, fit into all of this? Well, O’Brien told me that Sun is planning on making its partners a real part of its Solaris x86 efforts. I believe him. Without its partners, despite all of the company’s other efforts, Solaris x86 can’t possibly fly.

Frankly, I’m hoping that Sun makes this move. Now, I think Sun could have done better by Linux, but frankly, what I want—and what I suspect Sun’s resellers want, too—is just a clear direction from Sun on its x86 plans. And when I put it all together, it seems to me that Sun does have a roadmap for the x86 platforms, and its destination is Solaris x86.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is the editor of Channel Zone and has been covering the channel for more than a decade and first used Solaris when it was SunOS.