Sun Steers Ubuntu Linux to Sparc

Sun Microsystems partnered with a somewhat unlikely ally as it announced Tuesday that the popular Ubuntu Linux operating system (OS) would run on its latest Sparc servers, the ‘Niagara’-based Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 enterprise servers.

The two may combine for a powerful server punch, as Sun’s Ultra-Sparc T1 servers provide for multi-core, multi-threaded parallel computing that could be leveraged by Ubuntu. This Debian-based Linux OS is wildly popular because of its ease of use, but is largely limited to desktop computing.

Sun said the next version of Ubuntu, 6.06 “Dapper Drake,” expected early in June, would be the first Linux operating system to support the Niagara-based servers. However, there were questions about why Sun did not partner with a larger Linux brand such as Red Hat or Novell, and whether Sun’s latest Linux moves could have much impact.

“Overall, based on performance, I don’t think the market will resist this,” Interarbor Solutions President and Principal Analyst Dana Gardner told LinuxInsider. “On the other hand, the market has not been overly impacted before by Sun and its work with Linux vendors.”

Important Distro

Canonical’s Ubuntu, a community-developed Linux distribution praised for its simple, trouble-free operation, is one of the most important, if not the most important of Linux distributions in the world, according to Sun Executive Vice President John Fowler.

“The availability of both Solaris and Linux-based operating systems on the Niagara platform will further expand our lead in delivering chip multi-threaded innovation and choice to consumers,” he said.

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth indicated an active OpenSparc community has been working on the Sparc platform, and the promise of Sun’s “CoolThreads” or Niagara-based servers was a “natural fit” for the next version of Ubuntu, which was described as “enterprise-ready.”

Sun said the Sun Fire T1000 would be priced at US$2,995, and the T2000 at $7,795, with Canonical Ubuntu support available starting at $700 a year for each machine.

Preferred Partner?

Gardner said the announcement shows Sun found a Linux partner for Sparc, while Ubuntu found a willing processor provider to add to AMD, Intel, and IBM, which already support the Linux OS in the server market. He questioned Sun’s choice of Ubuntu, however.

“It seems Sun is entering this with partners looking to move up the food chain, in this case, from desktop to server,” Gardner said of the deal with Ubuntu. “One would think some larger Linux distribution may have been more preferential.”

Indicating Sun is “still mending fences” with the open source community, Gardner doubted whether the Ubuntu announcement would shift perspectives on the company.

Thoroughbred Contender

Gardner did indicate the Ubuntu-Sparc combination could be as appealing to enterprise IT shops as the Ubuntu OS is to Linux fans.

“Because these are such high-performance servers and aggressively priced, a very stable Linux server distro on these servers could be a real racehorse,” he said. “The price-performance aspects could be appealing. It could be a thoroughbred that could run aggressively with the rest of the pack.”

The key for the partnership will be the Ubuntu community’s ability to exploit the Sun hardware’s parallel computing capabilities, Gardner noted.

“For overall success, there’s going to be a need for more community development around the specific hardware Sun has here,” he said, calling the 10-month porting of Ubuntu to Sparc “a good start.”

Shading the Sun

However, Sun’s struggles in the server market and past open source efforts continued to be cause for skepticism. The Ubuntu on Sparc announcement was downplayed by some industry analysts, including Illuminata Senior Analyst Gordon Haff.

“Sun is not in the foreseeable future going to push Linux on Sun very hard,” Haff told LinuxInsider. “They’re not going to push Linux on Sparc. There’s really no reason for them to.”

The success of Linux in corporate servers centers on the x86 platform, and even grander efforts toward Linux on other platforms, such as IBM’s Linux on Power strategy, have been relegated to niche markets, Haff explained.

As for Ubuntu, Haff said it is doubtful another Linux distribution can significantly cut into the market of the established enterprise Linux flavors, namely Red Hat and Novell’s Suse.

“It’s hard to see how that is going to happen with any of the other distributions,” he said, doubting whether vendors such as Oracle or IBM are willing to test their applications to a third or fourth Linux distribution.

Stressing the situation is no reflection of the quality of another distro, such as Ubuntu, Haff said enterprise customers want familiarity, certified applications and external support.

“As an enterprise distribution, requirements change,” he said.

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