Why Sun Microsystems Will Eventually Go Away

There’s a story on CNET News.com here that talks about Sun’s plans for a comeback from the abyss it has fallen into, partly due to major vendor support for Linux. They’re viewing this as mostly an OS war, though hardware isn’t left out in the cold either. The problem with this plan, and the reason I think Sun will fall on its face, is that Sun completely fails to account or take responsibility for things they have been consistently bad at, which made people look to Linux in the first place.

Sun is so focused on fighting Linux and IBM they’ve forgotten to fix the problems in its own platform, and so this whole campaign really looks like nothing more than a marketing scheme which will cost all kinds of money that would be better spent fixing the problems that clearly exist internally, and crop up as flaws in the OS.

What problems? Well, to give an illustrative example, I’ve spoken to more than one Sun engineer about what I view as a major shortcoming in the Solaris LDAP client implementation. In fact, there is more than one. When I brought these issues up to people are Sun consulting engineers and the like, the typical answer I get back is “we have multiple customers requesting the same things as you, for the same reasons as you, and it never gets past the lab coats”. That is an enormous problem.

The difference now is that there’s a viable alternative that has an added benefit of being an OS that can be run pretty much everywhere at some point. It’ll start at the network edge, work its way into core services, and someday reach the enterprise desktop. It’s already doing this, so if you’re thinking I’m a zealot for thinking this way, it’s due to the fact that I’m fanatical about keeping up with news in this area, which you probably haven’t the time or inclination to do.

They also fail to take into account the fact that Linux got where it is partially via underground movement, and partially because Linux makes simple things simple, and hard things doable. Sun does neither. Ever run an “strace” on a simple “getent passwd ” under Solaris? Compare that to the output from a Linux machine of your choosing. 85% of the time, this isn’t really likely to matter, but it illustrates a point, and during the other 15% of the troubleshooting occurrences, things are a bit simpler under Linux. Period. There’s just no comparison.

Another illustrative example: do you know what the Sun-recommended method is for changing the name of a machine? One word: “reinstall”. Now, in Sun’s defense, this isn’t absolutely ludicrous if the machine is running all kinds of services that use a hostname in their config files. But they recommend this even for workstations which really do nothing in the way of offering services to other machines on the network! On a Linux box, this isn’t (to my knowledge) made *super* easy for you, but you can absolutely do it, and have the machine act in a predictable manner afterward. On the other hand, I once took a Sun system administration course, given through a Sun-certified learning center and all that, and I had this teacher who was a Solaris field engineering consultant veteran with over 10 years experience. He had tried multiple times in the past to change a hostname on a Solaris machine. Every time something went wrong. Not to mention the fact that you have to change somewhere in the neighborhood of eight files, and still there’s no guarantee. Some of those files are ones that nobody can even understand what the hell they do.

Solaris needs to change. Mostly, it needs to be fixed. Did you know that if any user in a Solaris environment belongs to more than 15 groups, the entire system becomes unusable? Did you know that a NIS netgroup has a size limit that forces many installations to have really messy nested netgroups? Further, did you know that if you put one machine in two netgroups, and then give mount priveleges to both netgroups in your NFS configuration, your NFS server will completely puke?

But there are changes, too. CDE (Sun’s graphical desktop environment) is disgusting. Attempts to port GNOME to Sun have, so far, sucked badly, to put it mildly. The whole idea that fonts suck in CDE seems to be mandated by Sun. The intrusive registration nonsense that requires a support call to fix, the Netscape browser that just about everyone has grown tired of, and the lack of choices in preinstalled applications are not only all things that Solaris users have been griping about for 10 years, they’re things that Linux easily fixed. For free.

Sun will eventually go away because they’re approach to the battle between them and Linux consists mainly of equating “Linux” with “Redhat” to clarify the target. Unfortunately, Novell has bought SuSE, and by some estimations, SuSE has every bit the shot Redhat does of becoming the Microsoft of the Linux world. In addition, I can’t imagine that Mandrake won’t get bought out eventually. Laugh if you want, but Mandrake has been doing a ton of work in areas like clustering, security and a lot of enterprise-specific areas, and I think that, speaking of strictly the technology, Mandrake is a worthy target for acquisition, and a worthy opponent to both SuSE and Redhat. So there goes a bearing wall in Sun’s so-called structured approach. If they bought Mandrake, they’d be better off in all likelihood.

Sun, like Microsoft, is about getting more proprietary in a world that is getting more open, and calling themselves “open”. Ironic. Sun will eventually come to understand all of this. They will eventually understand that people wouldn’t have moved to Linux if Solaris worked properly. They will eventually understand that just because they’re called “Sun” doesn’t mean the rest of the universe revolves around them. And yes, Sun will eventually go away.