For a company that has had its core businesses attacked with such vigor, Sun executives remain remarkably upbeat about the future. "Solaris 10 will be one of the most rapidly adopted operating systems in the industry," predicts Stuart Wells, senior vice president of financial services worldwide at Sun Microsystems (Santa Clara, Calif.).
He may have a point. Linux backers had scored points against "proprietary Unix" implementations - including Solaris - by pointing out that Linux is open-source and free. Sun's response: Solaris 10 will follow suit, opening up its code base to the external developer community and making it free to download, install and use. "Sun is the No. 1 commercial contributor to open source," says Wells. "Sun is incredibly supportive, not just in terms of words, but in terms of products and in terms of overall contribution to the open-source community."
Sun is positioning Solaris 10 as a superset of Linux, with high-end capabilities designed for enterprise needs. For example, the operating system includes "preemptive healing" for grid implementations and high scalability for running hundreds of processors, according to the vendor. Similar capabilities are available from IBM, Microsoft and third-party providers, but having them built into a free, open-source operating system raises the bar.
Solaris also enables "containers," in which the operating system partitions itself into any number of copies of itself. As a result, the operating system can support applications designed to work on Linux. "If you want to run them faster or less expensively, you can run them on Linux - in a container in Solaris," says Wells. Indeed, Sun offers its own branded Linux offering, along with competitively priced support for both operating systems.
Finally, to neutralize the perception that Sun is offering a proprietary stack, Solaris 10 will not only operate on Sun's SPARC platforms, but also on x86 machines - including those made by Sun itself.
All of this means that Sun may benefit as applications vendors create Linux versions of their software - as long as Sun can convince its enterprise customers that it offers superior support for a superior operating system. "There's nothing free in this world," adds Wells. "If the banking system goes down, you want someone that you can call up and get your problems resolved as quickly as possible."
Firms should have an easy time switching from one version of Unix to Linux. The same cannot be said for companies considering a switch from Windows to Linux. "A major Linux deployment or switch from Windows is four times more expensive and takes three times as long as a Windows upgrade," says Martin Taylor, general manager, platform strategy, Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, Wash.), citing research from the Yankee Group (Boston).
Also, Linux administrators command higher salaries than do Windows administrators, Taylor points out. Part of that is a supply-and-demand issue that will work itself out as the next wave of system administrators earn their wings. But there's also an element of complexity involved in Linux, which typically calls for higher skilled help. "The Linux model may offer customers unlimited options in terms of custom development, but it pushes cost and complexity to the end user - or consultant - to implement," he says.
Modern-day operating systems are generally able to handle the basics. Thus, the main question is where these platforms are headed, and from where will the greatest innovations come?
With its "Experience Banking" initiative, Microsoft has been encouraging bankers to craft a future vision for the customer, employee and the operations experience. "We talk about what the customer experience will be in five years from now," says Warren Lewis, global industry manager for banking, Microsoft. "We're spending $6 billion a year in creating capabilities for some of that future experience."
"You first need to have the infrastructure taken care of, and then you have to have your basic business applications and your information worker applications solid," adds Lewis. "Then, you have to get very strategic and decide how to differentiate yourself."