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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

Sun Microsystems plans to announce a free version of its Solaris operating system Monday, taking a page that Red Hat tore from its playbook in 2003.

Anyone who registers with Sun will be able to use Solaris for free on servers with x86 processors, said John Loiacono, executive vice president of Sun’s software business. It’s not a totally free lunch, though: Sun will provide security updates in the free version but will charge an annual subscription fee for bug fixes and support.

Sun will begin the new pricing when it starts selling its new Solaris 10 version, scheduled to ship by the end of January, Loiacono said. The per-processor, per-year subscription will cost $120 for bug fixes, $240 for 12-hour support five days a week and $360 for 24-hour support seven days a week. For example, with premium support, the new Solaris 10 version will cost $1,440 per year for a server with four Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices.

The pricing strategy, to be announced at a quarterly product launch event in San Jose, Calif., is the first half of an ambitious effort to retrieve relevance that Solaris lost to Linux. The second half will arrive in 60 to 90 days as Sun releases the source code of Solaris under an open-source license, Loiacono said.

Targeting Red Hat
Solaris competes with Microsoft’s Windows and with Unix variants such as IBM’s AIX and Hewlett-Packard’s HP-UX. But Linux is a particular thorn in Sun’s side: It runs on inexpensive x86 servers like Windows does, but it employs the Unix style and features, which are familiar to Solaris and AIX system administrators.

So it should come as no surprise that Sun is targeting Red Hat, the top Linux seller, with Solaris.

Sun has made no bones about its plans. The Solaris subscription plan will allow Solaris “to become a lot more transparently competitive with Red Hat,” Sun President Jonathan Schwartz said in March. And Sun says it won’t “hijack” open-source programmers, as it accuses Red Hat of doing.

Two years ago, Red Hat had only one version of Linux, a product that was certified to work with other companies’ hardware and software and that could be installed on as many servers as a customer desired. But in 2003, Red Hat split its product line into two halves: the free “Fedora Core” version that’s unsupported, uncertified and fast-changing; and the Red Hat Enterprise Linux version that costs a minimum of $349 per server per year and comes with certifications, stability and support.

Red Hat counters that it has long open-source roots, while Sun has refused to release Java as open-source software. And it points out that open-source programmers don’t like it when proprietary software companies employ open-source concepts just for marketing purposes.

The new plans aren’t the first time Sun has tried bold moves to restore Solaris prestige. With the release of Solaris 8 in 2000, Sun let people look at the source code, if not actually change it, and said it was free, besides a $75 fee for CDs.

The x86 version of Solaris is now front and center, but it’s had a rocky past. Sun nearly killed the product by “deferring productization” of that version of Solaris 9 in 2002. It resurrected x86 Solaris later that year and is now promoting it with a vengeance.

There’s work to be done. “The x86 space is where we have currently, relatively speaking, zero to minimal presence,” Loiacono said.

Sun has explicit goals. Among them, it wants to double the number of software companies that support x86 Solaris from the current 600, Loiacono said.

Solaris 10 features
Sun hopes that new features will attract customers. Several will debut with Solaris 10:

• N1 Grid Containers, which let a single copy of Solaris be sliced into multiple independent parts, letting a server share separate jobs and be used more efficiently.

• Support for 64-bit x86 processors, including AMD’s Opteron and Intel’s Xeon. Linux features such support today, but Windows won’t have it until 2005.

• DTrace, which lets customers or developers scrutinize software as it runs to ferret out bottlenecks.

• Predictive self-healing, which lets Solaris diagnose and recover from some types of hardware or software problems.

• FireEngine, revamped networking code to boost performance and help Solaris shuck its disparaging “Slowlaris” nickname.

• Process Rights Management, technology that assigns more detailed privileges that make it harder for a computer attacker to exploit a vulnerability.

• Project Janus, which lets Red Hat Enterprise Linux software run on the x86 version of Solaris. That feature won’t ship until the first update of Solaris 10.

Sun has showed off the new features in test versions of Solaris 10. About 600,000 copies of Solaris have been downloaded so far, half of them the x86 version, Loiacono said.