Beachhead - Navigating by the Sun

by Jon "maddog" Hall

“Dead reckoning”, cried Davi. “What is that?”

I had been adjusting the compass of my sailboat, the Agape, measuring for possible magnetic influences that would affect the readings, and I had mentioned the dead reckoning method of navigation to Davi. Now, I knew I was going to pay the price of explanation.

“Dead reckoning is the method of determining where you are by knowing where you have been, adding to that the direction and speed you have been traveling, and the length of time you have been going in that direction to determine a new position. It was used for many hundreds of years at sea”, I told him.

“Wow, that must have been hard”, said my young friend. “And it must have generated many errors.”

“Yes”, I answered, “and the method was blamed for the loss of hundreds of ships and thousands of lives, including the wreck of the HMS Association and several other ships from the British fleet off the Isles of Scilly on October 22, 1707—1,400 British sailors died.”

I continued, “This accident led John Harrison, a carpenter, to develop the marine chronometer, a clock accurate enough to calculate longitude easily while at sea. Harrison's life is a fascinating story of perseverance and hard work, which led to many important inventions, including bi-metal strips and the roller bearing. Unfortunately, England's Board of Longitude kept rejecting the work done by Harrison, citing inaccuracies in the running of the clocks, and it was felt that part of this rejection was because Harrison was a humble carpenter and not a gentleman. Eventually, the king had to intervene to see that justice was done.”

Aboard the Agape, e-mail is my prime method of communication, and lately, I have been receiving messages from Sun Microsystems, telling me I should be switching from Linux to Solaris. They cite many “reasons” for doing this, and although some are features of Solaris that have not yet been incorporated into Linux, most of them reek of marketing hype.

The first message I received (May 25, 2007) told me that “Solaris offers one thing Linux does—and 600 things it does not. The Solaris OS is free and open source—same as Linux.” Yet, nowhere in the rest of the message does Sun identify those 600 things that Solaris offers. Nor could I find them listed on Sun's Web site where the links guided me. Although the message does identify several features that Solaris has “built in”, some of those features are offered by major Linux distributions, and others can be added by “rolling your own” in the Linux space.

Two of the major features Sun offers are “low-cost licensing and support options” and “a disruption-free migration path from the difficulties of a Linux platform to the ease and value of a Solaris 10 solution”. Hmm, sounds a bit like marketing hype to me.

Then, on June 27, 2007, I received another letter from Sun:

A lot of myths have been circulating about Linux—that it's low cost; that it runs more apps; that it's pervasive...but when you look at the facts you see a different story.

Red Hat 5.0 does not save you money, runs fewer certified applications, and makes migration more difficult. These are just three of the many compelling facts that should make you wonder, “why are you running Linux when you could be running Solaris 10 OS?”

Now, Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) studies abound showing how Microsoft is cheaper than Sun, Sun is cheaper than Linux, Linux is cheaper than Microsoft, and so on. Normally, these TCO studies show whatever the sponsoring company wants them to show, and it does not take heaps of intelligence to realize that a TCO study that does not show the desired “winner” would not see the light of day. Although TCO is important (because if you cannot afford the solution, you cannot implement it), the really interesting indicator is Return on Investment (ROI) and long-term benefits, which I call Value of Investment (VOI). VOI is usually what a company wants for the long run.

Regarding the claim that Red Hat 5.0 “does not save you money”, Sun offered one example of a solution offered to Marc Andreessen. Sun's solution was cheaper than “Linux on Intel commodity hardware”. Okay, fine. But, this particular customer also was Marc Andreessen, and having worked in the UNIX Group at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) for 16 years, I can imagine the discussion between the various management groups inside Sun to make sure it won this account and to make sure it was “a good deal”, of which there is no detailed analysis of the terms listed in the e-mail or on the site. There is nothing wrong, illegal or even immoral about this deal and its subsequent use in marketing (and certainly not on Marc's part); it's just a bit opportunistic by Sun to use a well-known name on a single deal to make its point—not scientific, by any means.

As for the claim that Solaris supports more “certified applications” than Red Hat v5.0, Sun used the application base of its SPARC and its x86 architectures combined. How many people want to run both a SPARC and an Intel box just to get the complete suite of applications? Additionally, the Solaris OS version had been out for a while, giving independent software vendors (ISVs) a chance to certify their applications. Red Hat's v5.0 had been out for only a month or so at the time of the “data effectiveness” cited in an e-mail message on April 4, 2007. This is hardly enough time for the ISVs to certify their software on top of Red Hat's newest release and and get it into Red Hat's system. Again, there's nothing wrong or illegal, it's just a little sleazy as a marketing ploy—okay, more than a little sleazy.

Sun's claim that Red Hat “makes migration more difficult”, brings about the question “migration from what?” Last night, I went to my Linux user group meeting, and the speaker, who was running a mixed Solaris and Linux shop, lamented how hard it was to work on a Solaris system because of the antiquated and nonstandard set of utilities on the upper levels of the operating system. His presentation confirmed some of the issues I knew about and showed that being a Sun customer was not all peaches and cream. But then again, I do not expect Sun's marketing group to haul out the spoiled milk.

Sun also claims binary compatibility between releases, but when you actually read Sun's terms and conditions on binary compatibility, it basically says Sun guarantees your program to run as long as you did not use any interfaces that did not change or were not deleted. This is a guarantee? It sounds like most of the warranties in the EULAs of most software products I have seen—basically worthless.

I received a final e-mail message on June 28, 2007, inviting me to tell Sun why I used Linux, and offering me a free 4GB iPod Nano if I came in for a one-hour meeting to listen to why I should use Solaris. I would get the iPod if I signed up and if I was qualified and if the number of iPods (25) had not been depleted. Hmm, not that I even want an iPod, but what was the chance of getting that iPod? That's not illegal or immoral or even sleazy—just marketing.

Why am I making a big deal about what obviously is a badly positioned marketing campaign? After all, I was in the marketing group for DEC the last eight years of my employment there. I know what it's like in a large company with many product groups and many marketing strategies that often run in conflict with each other. I imagine some people inside Sun really believe in FOSS and the community, and gnash their teeth whenever they hear of such things. I even know one.

First, Sun purports to be a friend of the Free and Open Source community and a reseller of Linux and Linux hardware. It has had four of its server systems certified by at least one Linux distribution, and it is listed as a Gold Partner of that Linux distribution. I assume that it is making money doing this and perhaps even is selling services for those servers and the Linux systems on them.

But, then I hear reports (and receive e-mail messages) that show this is simply a bait-and-switch program—to get Linux customers onto its customer list and convince them to switch to Solaris. With partners like this, you really don't need competitors.

Second, Sun has had a long and troubled history with maintaining the consistency it brags about—corporate decisions that went in the face of what its customer base really wanted, such as:

  • The very painful migration of BSD SunOS to System 5.0-based Solaris, and the needless renaming (and subsequent system administration issues) of the BSD-based SunOS code base to Solaris 1.x (even though it was the same code base).

  • Supporting and then decommitting from Solaris Intel, not once, but twice.

  • Ignoring the fact that SPARC is big-endian and Intel is little-endian, so that binary data often is incompatible. (“NFS takes care of that”, says Sun at a tradeshow. “No, it does not”, says maddog back to them at the same show.) Endianism was a point that Sun kept pushing as long as Big-Endian machines were prominent in the marketplace, but it has ignored this ever since Intel/AMD reached dominance and SPARCs were the poor kids on the block.

Third, Sun needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It continues to spend millions of dollars to duplicate a base operating system, when it could be addressing customers' needs by better supporting the Linux community and recognizing that the real enemy is a certain closed-source, proprietary operating system from a company that does not allow real competition. Sun needs to redefine its strategy and become a solutions company (like IBM and HP are doing), while not abandoning its line of VARs and resellers that made Sun great. Sun needs to learn how to compete on the really equal playing field that computer products are now proceeding toward. It can do that, but only if it is smarter about it.

Fourth, Sun needs to clean up its marketing messages. It claims to have been “founded as an open-source company”. In reality, Sun was one of the companies that took UNIX into a binary distribution model. Although it is true that this model was somewhat forced by AT&T's arcane licensing strategies of the time, it was this movement of UNIX companies to restrict the source code distribution that helped motivate Richard Stallman to produce the GNU suite and the University of California Berkeley to complete the first freely distributable Berkeley Software Distribution.

I do not want to imply that Sun has never helped the Open Source community or contributed to its well being. Certainly, through time there have been stellar examples of individuals at Sun that have contributed more than their share to the community overall. But, let's put it into the perspective of a company that has had its share of proprietary, closed-source products and standards wars.

Sun does have some good products. Its work in multicore chips and multicore development tools (illustrated in an article this month by Roman Shaposhnik, a Sun employee, on page 80) is a good example of Sun leveraging off its technologies. Sun also has been doing some good work in environmentally sound server systems and solutions.

Unfortunately, there is a big difference between having good people working for you who believe in free and open-source software and what the corporate, management and marketing culture states is the direction of the company.

Here is my beef: I am a Linux Guy. I believe in free and open-source software, and this means more than just the open-source licenses that Sun offers. It means that customers easily can contribute back to the path that Sun as a company takes, and it means that customers easily can contribute back to the code that Sun writes. It means that as a business partner, I can feel free to propose my solutions to my customers without having my partner run roughshod over me. I have found my solution to free and open-source software in the Linux kernel and the people and companies building and contributing to it.

That said, when I engage customers, I engage them with the concept of solving their problems, and I am not above using a less-open solution than what I might otherwise find if I think it is worthwhile for the customer's VOI. I view this as a tactical solution, although the strategic (and long-term) solution may still be FOSS. This even might lead to me advocating a Solaris solution for my customer. But this is what I, as the solution provider, work out with my customer.

On the opposite side, being a Linux Guy also means that when I engage Sun as a supplier of Linux servers for my customers, I want to feel safe that I can turn my back for a moment and not have the Sun people who service or resell those servers approach my customers and tell them that my solution is bad, particularly when that story is based on half-baked marketing messages with no staying power.

When I was at DEC, I was making fairly good money in a fairly stable job with good benefits. I saw no issue in selling both Digital UNIX and Linux on the Alpha. What my customers asked for, I sold them. When customers asked my opinion, I gave them the best answer I could for their solution. At that time, Digital UNIX was a commercially robust and feature-full implementation, and Linux lacked in a lot of the features that Digital UNIX offered. I did not tell customers to buy Linux or buy Digital UNIX, because they both made money for Digital. I could, however, see the writing on the wall. I knew that over time Linux would have all the features of a fully robust commercial system, that it would be used as the research arm for computer science, and that companies pouring $200–300 million a year into developing their “own version of UNIX” would not be able to compete with an operating system and kernel being developed jointly by many companies and many minds.

I left that stable job at DEC, because I believed in the Linux community and the free software model, and because I did not want to embarrass DEC by actively and aggressively criticizing its biggest business partner, Microsoft.

Now, Sun runs the risk of alienating what could be its biggest and best business partner, the Linux community, including Linux VARs and Linux resellers.

Just as ships no longer use marine chronometers and sextants to “follow the Sun”, but use GPS systems instead, companies no longer guide their businesses with half-baked marketing statements.

Sun's marketing group needs to understand that this is no longer the time of sailing ships and dead reckoning. You cannot just start from where you have been and hope to end up where you want by setting some course and sailing full steam ahead. You will find yourself on the rocks.

The product era of computer science is sinking, and now the era of service-oriented computing is well underway. Sun's marketing and business practices need to move into the 21st century, and Sun needs a new vision for how it is going to provide solutions for its customers and partners and move the company forward. I really hope Sun finds it.

Jon “maddog” Hall is the Executive Director of Linux International (, a nonprofit association of end users who wish to support and promote the Linux operating system. During his career in commercial computing, which started in 1969, Mr Hall has been a programmer, systems designer, systems administrator, product manager, technical marketing manager and educator. He has worked for such companies as Western Electric Corporation, Aetna Life and Casualty, Bell Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, VA Linux Systems and SGI. He is now an independent consultant in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Business and Technical issues.

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