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What if Oracle dumps Solaris on x86?

Bill Claybrook

Will Solaris on x86 survive Linux at Oracle? As an IT manager, you should be aware of the significant possibility that Solaris on x86 stands a good chance of not surviving Oracle's acquisition of Sun.

Why? Solaris on x86 is lagging Linux significantly in market share and ISV enthusiasm, and Oracle has large investments in Unbreakable Linux and Oracle Enterprise Linux. On the other hand, Oracle is not likely to drop Solaris on Sparc in the short term because there is a huge installed base of Solaris on Sparc (bigger than that of AIX and HP-UX combined), and this base runs a lot of Oracle applications.

Solaris vs. Linux on x86

How well does Solaris on x86 compete with Linux? In terms of subscription costs, Solaris on x86 and commercial Linux on x86 are similarly priced. As the number of CPUs per server goes up, Solaris on x86 becomes a little more expensive, but it's not a deal breaker. With respect to ISV enthusiasm, Solaris on x86 is a big loser to the two largest commercial Linux vendors, Novell and Red Hat -- and we can soon add Ubuntu to the list.

In April 2009, Gartner presented a chart that shows the relative size of a software portfolio on the vertical axis against the enthusiasm and popularity among the ISV community on the horizontal axis for several operating systems. The chart shows that Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server rank well ahead of Solaris on x86

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in terms of number of certified applications supported and ISV enthusiasm.

In terms of hardware flexibility, Linux is well ahead of Solaris on x86 when it comes to the number of platforms supported. Linux runs on just about every x86 platform from the major and minor hardware vendors as well as all IBM hardware, including the mainframe. (Solaris has been ported to the mainframe but it has not received much, if any, support from mainframe customers.) Solaris on x86 runs on a subset of Intel and AMD servers from Dell, HP and IBM. For a number of years, more Linux ran on Sun's x86 servers than did Solaris on x86, an embarrassing situation for Sun.

Solaris on x86 is trying to catch up with Linux in terms of virtualization. In the past year, Sun has released Sun xVM Server and Sun xVM Ops Center virtualization software. Most virtualization software vendors, such as Citrix, Microsoft and VMware, support various Linux distributions as guest operating systems; however, only VMware has support for Solaris on x86 as a guest. Sun's late entry into the virtualization software business limits Solaris on x86 as a host platform for server virtualization. Lack of support by hypervisor software providers for Solaris on x86 limits it as a target operating system for migrating workloads. Because Oracle now has three sets of virtualization software products (from Oracle, Sun and Virtual Iron), it is not clear if the Sun virtualization software products will survive after the acquisition, as Oracle begins to slash products to reduce costs.

More obstacles to Solaris on x86

Lack of interest from the Solaris-on-Sparc installed base and small market share also present problems for Solaris on x86. Each year, several hundred thousand RISC/Unix platforms are migrated to Linux and Windows, with a few others migrated to another Unix flavor. Few RISC/Unix platforms are being migrated to Solaris on x86, and even Solaris-on-Sparc users are not jumping to migrate to Solaris on x86. A recent survey by Gartner indicates that more than 50% of Solaris-on-Sparc customers said they have no intent to migrate to Solaris on x86. Dell, HP and IBM have Solaris-to-Linux migration programs in play, migrating Solaris on Sparc to Linux on their x86 server platforms. Likewise, Novell and Red Hat have programs to migrate from Solaris to SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and Red Hat Enterprise Linux, respectively.

Solaris on x86 plays in a volume market, and having a small market share makes survival difficult. Solaris on x86 has a very small market share when compared with Linux. Linux has a 24% share of the operating systems shipped on x86 servers, whereas Solaris 10 on x86 has a 4% share. In 2007, Solaris on x86 represented only 1.6% of server shipments.

Another problem with Solaris on x86 is lack of interest from users and ISVs. Part of the reason for this is that Sun was unable to decide quickly enough whether or not to open source Solaris, even though it had been a large open source software contributor for years. Sun was also very slow in trying to interest ISVs in Solaris on x86 because it thought that Solaris on Sparc, with new multi-core, multi-threaded Sparc technology, would be competitive for a long time, even though only the volume Sparc servers were competitive with x86 servers on pricing and performance.

Today, Solaris on x86 shows few signs of being competitive with Linux (or Windows). The survivability of Solaris on x86 depends to some extent on greatly expanding the OpenSolaris developer community outside Sun developers to provide the type of innovative technology that routinely flows into Linux. We do not see progress being made in this area. Without market share, ISVs and IHVs have limited enthusiasm for supporting Solaris on x86. Without significant, enthusiastic open source support of OpenSolaris, Solaris on x86 will fade away, because Oracle will not continue to support Sun's level of investment in Solaris-on-x86 development.

As an IT manager, what should you do? Given the low interest level of other IT managers in Solaris on x86, you should be very careful in choosing Solaris on x86 as a platform for your applications -- even Oracle applications. Lack of interest from ISVs is another good reason to be wary of Solaris on x86. Almost all application development is being done on Linux and Windows, with very little, if any, on Solaris on x86. Failure in this situation means that Linux will continue to grow market share, distancing itself even more from Solaris on x86. Because more applications are being deployed on x86 hardware, it is unlikely that Sun or Oracle can establish Solaris on Sparc/x86 as a serious competitor to Linux and Windows long term.

If Oracle looks to favor Linux more than Solaris after the acquisition of Sun is completed, then you should expect the survival of Solaris on x86 to be in serious danger. If Oracle favors Linux, this will cause a downward spiral effect on enthusiasm for Solaris on x86 and, eventually, Solaris on Sparc. We believe that current market/use information favors Oracle placing more long-term emphasis on Linux than Solaris.