Solaris Coming to the System i?
August 20, 2007 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Many things in the IT world have achieved the status of being zealously supported by a community of companies and users. The OS/400 and i5/OS platform won the minicomputer wars in the 1990s and is staunchly supported by its community. And so is the Solaris variant of the Unix operating system, which achieved zealot status during the dot-com boom, and being the first major Unix to go open source with the Solaris 10 launch more than two years ago only reinforced the zeal. And that is why IBM, Sun Microsystems‘ long-time rival in the server space, last week announced that it has forged a reseller agreement with Sun.
That agreement will see Solaris supported fully and officially on IBM’s System x and BladeCenter lines as well as moved to Big Blue’s mainframes. And maybe Solaris will be moved to the System i and System p servers someday, too.
While Sun has been testing and certifying that Solaris 10 will run on various X86 and X64 servers from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and others, are finding that having Sun or the OpenSolaris community attest to the usability of Solaris on a particular box is not the same thing as having the maker of that box actually sell the operating system on the machine and guarantee that the drivers all work. Such a guarantee requires an official reseller agreement as well as some engineering, and this is precisely what IBM has signed up for with Sun.
Specifically, IBM will officially support Solaris 10 on its System x3650 (two-socket Xeon), x3755 (four-socket Opteron), and x3850 (four-socket and higher Xeon MP) rack-mounted servers. IBM is also selling and supporting Solaris 10 on its BladeCenter HS21 (Xeon-based) and LS41 (Opteron-based) blade servers; the HS21 is a two-socket Xeon blade, while the LS41 is the result of linking two two-socket Opteron blades together to create a four-socket blade.
Sun says that it has certified Solaris 10 on a total of 820 different X86 and X64 platforms, including these and other IBM servers. But under the agreement announced today by Sun and IBM, the two companies will work together to make sure drivers for the peripherals inside the IBM servers are part of the normal Solaris distribution, and IBM is going to contribute engineers to perform system-level integration between Solaris Unix and the System x and BladeCenter hardware. (A server is more than its processor, after all, and servers have service processors and other management features that need to be integrated with the operating system.)
Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s president and chief executive officer, has been taunting the tier-one server makers to adopt Solaris 10 as an official operating system alongside their own platforms as well as Linuxes from Red Hat and Novell and Windows from Microsoft. IBM is the first tier-one server maker to sign such an agreement–not even Sparc partner Fujitsu-Siemens has such a deal. And by doing so, IBM has the right to sell standard and premium subscription licenses to Solaris on its server iron. Having done that, IBM gets a cut of the action and passes the rest back to Sun. Exactly what IBM’s cut is on the Solaris support sale is not clear, and Bill Zeitler, general manager of IBM’s System and Technology Group, was not about to be specific. He said IBM got “normal commercial terms” for Solaris support contract sales. Under the deal, both IBM and its reseller channel for the System x and BladeCenter machines will be able to sell Solaris 10 on IBM gear, much as they do Windows and Linux today on the same iron.
With IBM and Sun being such staunch rivals in the Unix space, it may seem odd for the two to be working together on a Unix distribution deal. In years gone by, IBM was doing everything it could to try to kill Sun with impressive Power-based servers and its own AIX environment, and when AIX didn’t work, IBM brought out the Linux lever to dislodge Sun from customer accounts. IBM, like HP and Dell, made a fortune bashing Sun between 2001 and now. But Sun is revitalized–even if it is not exactly the profitable company it once was–and more importantly, if IBM didn’t dislodge Solaris from an account in the past six years, it probably cannot. At this point, it is better to get a hardware sale and a piece of a support contract sale than see the whole deal go to Sun or some other vendor, which is why IBM is suddenly willing to support Solaris officially on its X64-based machines.
Of course, neither Zeitler nor Schwartz can come out and say that this is the real reason for their deal. Zeitler said in a conference call discussing the announcement that IBM learned its lesson from Linux. Back in 2000, when IBM embraced Linux on all of its server platforms, including mainframes, people within IBM and those outside figured Big Blue would see its sales decline because of this. But this is not what happened. IBM’s share of the server space has increased, in fact. “We are doing better on the whole now that we do give customers choice,” said Zeitler.
Schwartz echoed that sentiment. “When we decoupled our hardware from our software, we sold more of both,” he said.
Up until now, Sun was selling support contracts for various IBM gear, but now IBM will officially support Solaris on these machines.
The OpenSolaris project has had a kernel for the Power architecture running since January 2006, but the Polaris sub-project to get Solaris 10 ported to Power-based servers has not seen a lot of activity since then. Zeitler did not want to say much about Solaris-on-Power, except that he was all for the idea. “That’s certainly something that I would like to see,” he said. “But we’ll just have to see if it makes sense.”
Apparently what does make sense to both Zeitler and Schwartz is getting Solaris 10 ported to IBM’s System z mainframes. Sine Nomine Associates, which helped get Linux ported to the mainframe in the late 1990s and which has been working on a Solaris port to the System z architecture since July 2006, has been working on its own OpenSolaris port to the mainframe. The consulting company had expected to get a variant of Solaris for the mainframe out the door in the third quarter of 2006, but it is not yet available. Exactly how IBM and Sun will assist this project along and when it might yield a commercial product is unclear, but both companies want to see it happen. Zeitler said that a number of mainframe shops have been asking for this capability, in fact, which is why Sine Nomine was working on the project to begin with.
For IBM, Solaris on the mainframe means more mainframe engine sales, if the company’s experience with Linux is any indicator. If IBM had not ported Linux to the mainframe six years ago–or more precisely, if it had not backed the work done by others to get it done and supported the efforts of Red Hat and Novell to get commercialized Linux support out the door–the mainframe market would have been in a slump for several years now. Red Hat and Novell love Linux on the mainframe because they sell licenses to the tune of $15,000 to $18,000 per mainframe engine. Sun would obviously love to see such revenue from software, even if it does mean losing hardware sales, because if IBM pushes hard enough, customers wanting to consolidate from X86 servers to mainframes will make the jump from Solaris to Linux anyway.
The financial details of the deal between Sun and IBM were not disclosed, but Zeitler said that the driver and system optimizations and certifications would be finished within the next 90 days, at which point IBM and its channel will be able to sell Solaris 10 directly on the specified iron.
Dell does not currently have a reseller arrangement with Sun, and HP’s relationship with Sun is “arm’s length,” according to Schwartz. What that means is that HP says that Solaris 10 is supported on specific ProLiant server platforms, but the certification is done by Sun and its partners, and HP is not authorized to pre-install or resell Solaris support licenses. HP shops have to go to Sun to get their support, which means they have to shop twice instead of once. The odds are, Dell and HP will get similar reseller deals with Sun soon, and maybe even Fujitsu-Siemens will see that this is a good idea, too.