Thursday, August 16, 2007

IBM Sees the Light?

Wow, I didn't see this coming.

IBM and Sun today jointly announced that IBM will offer and fully support Solaris on their compatible hardware lines. This raises some interesting dust clouds.

What does this mean to AIX, IBM's flagship UNIX? Personally, I think it means little. Sun supports Windows and Linux on their hardware, but those of use who have been with Sun for a long time still prefer Sparc in most cases. I believe the same will be true of IBM and Solaris.

How will Solaris compete with the investment IBM has already made in optimizing their previously supported operating environments? There's no way it will be on the same level right out of the gates, but when you consider the OpenSolaris model, it becomes clear that IBM will not have to jump through hoops to make it happen, and I believe they will. When IBM announced that they would be supporting Linux it was initially a bit of a surprise because of the inherent undermining ot AIX. And yet, they have contributed some incredible advances to Linux's abilities in the enterprise data center. I think of IBM as the mature mentor that helped Linux to grow up.

Now Solaris is no padawan looking for a master to study under, so that makes for a different game. But there's no question in my mind that IBM will have a serious group of Jedi coders participating openly and actively in the OpenSolaris community, and that can only help Sun and Solaris.

Of course, the down side is the precident this sets leading towards too broad a foundation. Using Linux as an example we see a massive code base that tries to support as much hardware as possible. There are basic laws of software engineering, just as there are laws of physics, and the more lines of code you have, the more potential you have for bugs, integration issues, and regression failures. Doesn't matter how good your developers, the probability still goes up. I'd hate to see Solaris supporting everything Linux does; I'd like it to stay focused in its sweet spot of quality hardware, which despite my preferences, I think IBM hardware is in alignment with.

What does this mean for Linux in the Enterprise? Well, I think Linux has a tough climb ahead of it as it stares up the cliff at Solaris' backside. Linux was developed on PCs by people who aren't typically in an enterprise. You could argue that the coders went to Linux because they coudln't afford at home what they had at work, but the bottom line is still the same.

Linux does not have a lot of "stick time" on servers built at the scale of Sun's high end servers like the Enterprise 20k. On the other hand, Solaris has been running on multiprocessor systems since before Linux was a twitch in Linus Torvald's ear. You have to spend time working with servers that have 20GB of RAM and 64 processors before you can even anticipate the kinds of problems that occur. Linux just doesn't have that kind of time in a data center. I'm not saying they can't get there, I'm just saying you have to pay your dues to provide stability at the high end.

Keeping all that in mind, put yourself in IBM's shoes. AIX is not gaining market share, although its a rock solid enterprise class operating environment. Linux brought IBM a huge customer base, and helped them to sell Intel hardware. Unfortunately, it didn't really put them in the data center where they belong. Along comes Solaris with the openness of Linux, and the opportunity to leverage it quickly - just as they did with Linux. But this time, they start at the upper end of scalability and bypass that climb altogether. Where would you put your resources in the long run?

Wearing my purely speculative hat, I think this announcement was a big strike against Linux in the Enterprise, and a foreshadowing of Solaris' long term viability. As more and more products come on-line with the Internet, data centers are only going to grow. And as that continues to happen, consolidation will be the only way to drive utilization up and costs down. The natural extension of this prophesy is that the operating environment that scales best and stays stable is going to be the evolutionary top of the food chain. And I think that Solaris will be in that seat.

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