Black Hole Sun

When I was attending my first college, the entire university was decked out with DEC Alpha workstations in all the labs (except for Computer Science, which was using this little-known operating system called Linux). This was before the dominance of Windows and I am happy to report that this university has thus far resisted the move to Windows, having replaced the Alpha workstations with Linux boxes.

I took some time off of school to play pool and poker. When I returned, it was to another university; this one had a much better reputation (it is a private institution). It was also totally inundated with Windows. That is to say, except in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department which used all Solaris machines on Sun hardware. I started working as a Solaris system administrator there and rekindled my lost passion for UNIXy-type stuff.

As well, the curriculum for Computer Science was switched entirely to Java-based programming the year I started there. No C or C++ (like my last school); just Java. They didn’t even cover C in my Programming Languages class. Forget about assembly. Luckily for me, I had been working with C and assembly for years prior to my college education. The administration felt that using Java in all Computer Science classes allowed them to focus on the more core aspects of the art like why O(n3) is bad, m’kay?

Now, I missed the heyday of Sun Microsystems. I was learning to play pool and hanging out all night at truck stops while they were selling massive units of high-end hardware to dot-com startups and ISPs. I missed out on the feeling of superiority one felt at that time by staring down a rack of Sun iron every morning when you came in to work because you knew that was the best money could buy (this is, of course, assuming that you had never heard of the far superior Alpha processor). I also completely missed gaining the irrational feeling of Sun’s superiority, despite there always having been a more powerful system out there with another company’s name on it.

Given the position of Sun in the minds of IT professionals at that time, and their current position now, I’d like to say that I think Sun is finished in this industry. Sun no longer captivates any particular section of the market. Their hardware is too expensive for the college student or hobbyist and Solaris x86 is, has been and always will be a joke. Their operating system is nowhere near as open as Linux or any one of the BSD’s, and these platforms offer more for software development than Solaris ever did. And as far as their big iron goes, they are no longer even near the top. The Alpha was always faster than the SPARC, but now IBM and Intel have stepped up to clean Sun’s clock and totally remove them from the high-end server market. IBM’s zSeries servers are twice as fast for a sixth of the price of the SunFire 15K.

Now, given that position, one would think that Sun would be attemping to co-opt Linux as fast as humanly possible. This would allow them to immediately inherit hundreds of developers and applications, as well as step into a much stronger position in the minds of young developers (which is to say, against Microsoft). Except, they’re not doing that.

This is rather strange, to say the least. But it gets better. Microsoft and Sun just settled their long running lawsuit over the fiasco that was the Microsoft VM for Java. This effectively blinded Sun to what was really going on for years and Microsoft has finally delivered the killing blow by giving them just under $2 billion to fund joint development of to-be-announced integration products.

Now, Sun is fine with co-opting Linux’s desktops and applications and is now starting to talk the talk a little bit with the Java Desktop System, but this is way to little, way too late. No one is going to run out and buy much-slower-and-more-expensive Sun hardware just so they can run Evolution under GNOME when they can do that for a lot less money (not to mention faster) on the latest PC special from Best Buy or Walmart. And who but those most loyal to Sun would seriously consider them a competitor in the desktop market anyway, even desktops for workstations? I mean, they just moved off of CDE this year!

Lets get back to the settlement for a second. Microsoft gave them all this money for integration products. Raise your hand if you think that $2 billion is a lot of money to Microsoft. If you just raised your hand, you’re a winner. They have a lot of money yes, but no company on Earth can afford to piss away $2 billion on nothing and Microsoft had the legal firepower to draw that case out for a lot longer in order to just wait for Sun’s eventual death (which they seem to be rapidly approaching).

Sun is now infused with cash but cannot spend it freely. Microsoft knows this and will force Sun to work on projects that will benefit them or at the very least not threaten their existing position(s). Translation: no money for desktop stuff. Money spent on SERVER integration tools. So, in effect, Microsoft has taken Sun’s strength (the server arena) and forced them to spend time and effort on improving Microsoft’s own weaknesses (the server arena). In addition, Sun will also spend money on improving .NET as it will now interoperate with J2EE better than ever before, giving new projects even less of an incentive to choose Java as the development platform. All this plays right into Microsoft’s hands and leaves Sun spending found money improving someone else’s company.

Sun is going down fast. They need some serious help to get out of it. They need to drop the “Linux is Solaris’ little brother” attitude and get serious about Linux on their hardware (trust me, its the only thing that can save that tired architecture). They also need to get serious about Java on the desktop and possibly give up some control to see it gain wider adoption in that space. If that means opening the source to Java, fine. Do it.

One thing about that, though. The source for several Java VMs has been available for years. Blackdown has an excellent implementation of the Java VM and its totally open source. When people call for Sun to open source Java, they want Sun to give up ultimate control over the course of Java’s development, not necessarily the actual source code that comprises the VM and class libraries. IBM’s JDK has been superior to Sun’s on Windows and Linux for some time now; I have to believe that when IBM calls for Sun to open Java up, they mean “let go the reigns”, not “show me the source to something inferior to a product we already have”.

As well, Sun would do well to can its current management. They clearly have no idea what they are doing. They shift positions frequently and make just plain idiotic statements to the press and are clearly suffering from a delusion that makes them think they are the company they were 10 years ago. Earth to Scotty: Sun is sucking in every conceivable way now. Bad Boy Ballmer is not your friend. He wants to eat your lunch and stuff you into a trash can after he’s sucked the Java bones dry.

A friend of mine hit me on IM a few weeks ago, totally ecstatic. He had just been hired by Sun and was going to move there to work for them. Another friend of ours from college was hired by Sun right out of school and has always said good things about them (given that he was hired as an evangelist for them), so my buddy was looking forward to working for them and making things happen. Unfortunately, he never even got to really dream about it. His division was hit with layoffs before he even got to move up there (luckily) and now he’s interviewing like a madman at any place with an IT deparment. Wow. Bet he won’t be too excited next time Sun offers him a job.

Sun has so many problems its hard to pick the biggest one. Personally, I would say that its their management but others might pick their adherence to tired hardware, their unwillingness to move on OSS development and integration, their scattered public statements and image, their lack of an ability to fend off Microsoft now that they’ve taken Bill’s money. Take your pick. Microsoft will marginalize Java with this settlement and if Sun doesn’t move fast to the Linux side of the fence, they will go out like Netscape.

P.S. Sun, this postscript is for you specifically. Whoever decided to publicly propose the idea of opening the source to Solaris, fire them as fast as you possibly can. That is the single stupidest idea that could ever have come out of your company, ever. Should you do that, any key features that are in Solaris that are still not in Linux would be quickly absorbed and Solaris itself forgotten. I am normally a fan of Open Source, but in this case, it makes no sense for you to give up the only piece of software you have that is actually worth a damn in a half-hearted attempt to win over a handful of developers. Do yourself a favor and wait until you file for Chapter 11 protection before you open the source for Solaris.