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McNealy PR Stunt Number 105: Merge Solaris and HP-UX

Published: March 1, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

No one ever accused Scott McNealy, one of Sun Microsystems' founders and its current chairman and chief executive officer, of not being a wiseguy. In fact, throughout its history, Sun has probably had the highest per-revenue density of wiseguys, smart-alecs, and hecklers in the IT industry. And, just to spoil an otherwise normal server announcement by Hewlett-Packard tomorrow, McNealy sent an email to Mark Hurd, HP's president and CEO, proposing to merge Sun's Solaris Unix with HP's own HP-UX.

HP is planning to announce its third generation of Itanium-based Integrity servers, machines that use the "Arches" chipset and were designed to support Intel's dual-core "Montecito" Itanium 2 processors. The Montecitos are running late--they were expected at the end of 2004, then in mid-2005, and then the end of 2005, and then, last October, Intel pushed it to mid-2006. Since the Montecito chips are socket-compatible with the existing single-core "Madison" Itanium processors, HP can launch the Integrity servers using the Arches chipset with the Madisons, and that is apparently what the company plans to do tomorrow. (Why, you might be asking yourself, didn't HP do that last fall, then? Good question.)

The Montecito delay and the Arches launch were just the reason for McNealy to send the email and get a little publicity for Sun and cause some amusement and pondering in the IT industry. Most of the pondering will have to do with people checking their calendars to make sure it is March 1, not April 1. This is a joke, right? Have we started a new pseudo-holiday? If so, I didn't get that memo.

But I did get a copy of McNealy's letter to Hurd, just like everyone else in the IT press pool did. And, as always, you have to admire McNealy for his chutzpah and sarcasm. It all starts out friendly-like, but the barbs start poking out a few sentences in.

"HP and Sun share a common history of innovation," said McNealy in the note. "We've both delivered terrific products over the years. But HP has also made strategic decisions that compel its customers, developers and partners to change: ending development of your enterprise servers based on PA-RISC, and relegating your operating system, HP-UX, to Itanium. We propose an alternative--that Sun and HP commit to converge HP-UX with Sun's flagship volume Unix, Solaris 10. As Unix operating systems, HP-UX and Solaris 10 share a common heritage. By combining our resources and investments, HP's customer and developer communities would gain the benefit of the fastest growing operating system in the marketplace: improved economics, rapid innovation, and a rich future roadmap otherwise unavailable to your ProLiant user base (given that HP-UX doesn't run on ProLiant)."

Note: I fixed a bunch of typos in that passage, which suggests McNealy really did write it--unless you are cynical enough to believe that Sun's president, Jonathan Schwartz, wrote it and then added in typos to make it look like McNealy did.

McNealy's note, which you can read here, then went into a commercial for Solaris 10 and its 4 million downloads and its 550 non-Sun platforms, including HP ProLiants. And McNealy jabbed at HP for not supporting HP-UX on its own ProLiant machines, which is a valid criticism. By the way, I installed Solaris 10 on one of my ProLiant DL360 rack servers, which is admittedly a crusty Pentium-IIIS machine, and it did some very unnatural things to it that I still haven't been able to figure out. This box was clearly not one of the 550. (Solaris 10 has worked fine on some other gear I have, though, including an old Dell box. I plan to try it out on a VIA Technologies Mini-ITX board when I get a moment.) If HP was actively involved in promoting Solaris 10 on ProLiants or HP experts were participating in the OpenSolaris community to help write drivers, my ProLiants DL360 might not have gone nuts.

Sun, of course, knows a thing or two about converging Unixes. In 1987, Sun and AT&T brought together its BSD-derived SunOS, AT&T's Unix System V Release 3, Berkeley Software Distribution 4.3, and Microsoft Xenix to create Unix System V Release 4, which Solaris is based on. That worked out so well that two years later, AT&T sold off its Unix business to Novell, and rivals to the AT&T-Sun Unix International consortium spawned the creation of the Open Software Foundation, which was backed by HP, IBM, and Digital Equipment. HP, too, has some experience in merging Unix lines, having bought Compaq and then set its very well-regarded Tru64 Unix out in the cold in favor of support for HP-UX on the Integrity line.

McNealy wrapped it up his proposal to Hurd this way: "With the end of PA-RISC systems, and HP-UX now only available on Itanium, we're convinced a converged HP-UX/Solaris 10 platform could play a far stronger role in HP's product portfolio. We believe there's benefit to HP, our mutual customers, developers and partners. We're hopeful that HP will work with us and further embrace Solaris 10." That last line is the deal clincher (er, breaker). It sounds more like Sun wants to do to HP-UX what HP has done to Tru64.

But maybe the embrace McNealy is proposing is a loving one, not a crushing one. It would be very hard to imagine how Solaris, which runs on X64 and Sparc processors, could be merged with HP-UX, which runs on PA-RISC and Itanium processors. Sun has ported Solaris 8 to Itanium (and then sat on the port), so it could presumably get Solaris running on Itanium-based Integrity servers. Creating a shared runtime for Solaris and HP-UX applications would be a necessity for a converged platform, and how this would be accomplished is anyone's guess. To make it a fair convergence, both Solaris and HP-UX customers would have to suffer, and the proposed "Solahpuxris" would have to run on X64, Itanium, and Sparc processors.

After a few attempts to get a comment from HP on the proposition of a Union of Purple and Gray Unixes, one spokesperson finally came through with the obligatory, predictable, and dull, "no comment." Presumably, HP didn't want to dignify the proposal with a response. (We all know members of the opposite sex like that, right?) But, if I was HP, what I would have said was this. "That's OK. We think IBM's AIX Unix should go first. Maybe then Big Blue can get its licensing and intellectual property issues with The SCO Group worked out using your Unix licenses."

Now see, that is sarcasm. It ain't hard. Not like getting chips and servers out the door on time is--as HP, Sun, and IBM know all too well.

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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Delroy
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