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Sun Gives Red Hat, Novell Their Niagara Marching Orders

Permission to Port Granted

  • December 9, 2005
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Sun Microsystems is "talking publicly" this week with both Red Hat and Novell SuSE about doing native ports of their respective Linux distributions to the high-powered and relatively low-priced RISC-based T1000 and T2000 Fire Servers rolled out in New York on Tuesday.

"But when I say 'talking publicly,' I mean we are talking to them through you," Mike Splain, chief technologist in Sun's Scalable Systems Group, in a meeting with LinuxPlanet at Sun's full-day dog-and-pony show in Manhattan.

"We want Red Hat and SuSE to do native ports," Splain told LinuxPlanet.

Right out of the starting gate, the new SPARC servers will run Linux apps on top of Solaris through container technology.

If and when they happen, the native ports of Linux will also be layered above Solaris.

But Sun hasn't yet embarked on private discussions about the prospect of native ports with either its long-time partner Red Hat, or with Novell SuSE, the other binary Linux market leader.

"We want Red Hat and SuSE to approach us about this. But if they don't approach us, we will approach them. And whoever talks to us first will have the advantage," according to Splain.

At a customer/press launch earlier on Tuesday, Sun CEO Scott McNealy and other officials drummed up perceived benefits to the new SPARC servers that included fast performance, a small rackmount form factor, new CoolThreads technology, and support for "social responsibility" through lowered power consumption.

Due to these characteristics-- plus relatively low pricing-- the T1000 and T2000 are better suited than x86 servers to use as Web servers, database servers, and data center deployment, according to the executives.

McNealy also popped the announcement that Sun plans to "open source" the 64-bit, 32-thread SPARC processor--codenamed Niagara--on which the T1000 and T2000 are based.

Sporting a tie for the occasion in midtown Manhattan,, the Sun CEO told an overflow crowd at the Equitable Center that processors, after all, include a lot of software.

"We're thinking about building a community around this processor," according to McNealy.

Via a video clip, development consultant Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly & Associates put in his two cents about the open sourcing of Niagara.

O'Reilly predicted that access to a "contemporary chip" could stimulate new activities among small development shops.

Meanwhile at the Equitable, Sun customers EDS and Ebay attested to the servers' advantages for building scalability and saving on power consumption.

"Binary compatibility" with Linux was another recurrent theme on Tuesday. Heather Peck, senior engineering manager at Ebay, said the servers will prevent "scrambling" among Web administrators by giving them the commodity hardware needed for adding capacity quickly and cheaply.

"And then, of course, there's the binary compatibility," according to Peck.

As some industry analysts see it, Sun's latest RISC-based servers do pose a big competitive threat to Linux-based PC servers.

In another interview with LinuxPlanet, Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, cited the SPARC servers' multithreading capabilities as one key advantage.

The SPARC servers' copious multithreading will save time for application developers, while providing end customers with applications that run more processes, according to Haff.

But Haff tempered his comments about the multithreading by pointing out that the SPARC servers will face some limitations.

Whether it's wise or not to swap out from x86 to SPARC will depend on the situation, according to the analyst.

"And the servers still need to be played with by real customers-- not the captive customers [at the launch] today," said Haff.

Moreover, even though the SPARC servers will run Linux apps on top of Solaris, Linux administrators won't necessarily want to use Solaris management tools, Haff suggested.

The analyst doesn't buy into the notion that smaller developers stand to benefit from the open sourcing of Niagara.

"Sun wants to build an ecosystem of SPARC-compatible [hardware] systems," according to Haff.

"But this is for larger [hardware] companies. You can't fabricate a chip in your living room." At a product expo on Tuesday, Sun and partners such as WebMethods, J-Boss and Covalent showed off the performance benefits and multithreading features of the new T1000/T2000 servers to customers from Wall Street and other industry sectors.

Many other ISVs made announcements supporting the Niagara servers, including huge names like Oracle.

But Sun officials also admitted to a need for more apps that can take advantage of Niagara's multithreading.

"We'd like to see ISVs [develop] applications with more threads," said Dr. Ed Chen, head of Sun's engineering arm, during a press Q&A at the launch.

On the other hand, Linux apps housed in containers won't get the benefits of multithreading, according to Splain, who suggested that this particular quandary is the main reason why Sun seeks a native Linux port.

For some time now, Sun has been using container technology to supplement the inherent binary compatibility between Java-based apps, according to the chief technologist.

Without the use of a container, or software "wrapper," a Linux app running on Solaris would need to be recompiled each time the server got an upgrade to a new release of either Linux or Solaris.

At this point, said Splain, Sun is getting a better fit between Java apps by moving from Solaris wrappers to Java-based container technology,

But for the future, Sun plans to develop a next generation container technology that will allow wrappered Linux apps to benefit from multithreading, and Linux containers to be freely portable between SPARC and x86 implementations of Solaris.

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