Sun yet to answer challenge from users

Sun Microsystems has yet to respond to a challenge from a group of its users made earlier this week, calling for an public debate about the future of the Solaris operating systems on Intel chips.

John Groenveld, associate research engineer at Penn State University, shelled out US$9,292 to place an open letter in the Tuesday edition of the San Jose Mercury News that challenged Scott McNealy, chairman, president and chief executive officer at Sun, to discuss the future of Solaris on the Intel platform. Groenveld is one of many users who have battled with Sun over the last nine months to make Solaris 9 available on a wide range of Intel-based hardware and to gain support from Sun for the product. Sun in January halted development on Solaris 9 for Intel chips as a cost-cutting measure. Last month it made Solaris on Intel available as a product, but only on its Sun LX50 server.

"A challenge is being made to Scott McNealy to meet face-to-face with members of the Save Solaris Organization and the (IT trade press) in an open, public forum," one part of the letter read. "Mr. McNealy is being challenged to support his company's actions and subsequent decision making with respect to a large community of Sun customers. Mr. McNealy has earned a reputation for flamboyantly berating his competition. His loyal customers have earned the opportunity for an open forum."

The letter, which carried the headline, "Shame on you, Scott," charged Sun with failing to communicate with its user base and act in their best interests. Although most users run Solaris on Sun's own UltraSPARC processors, some businesses do run Solaris on Intel chips. In addition, some users have put Solaris on laptops and low-cost desktops instead of more expensive Sun gear. In the past, Sun has offered free downloads of earlier versions of Solaris for Intel-based systems.

Sun, based in Santa Clara, California, has met over the last nine months with a group of users known as the Secret Six, discussing ways in which non-Sun developers might help out with bug-fixing and writing drivers for Solaris on Intel. In addition, Sun had discussed an edition of Solaris that would be maintained in part by the user community, lowering Sun's cost burden for the software. However, these talks have stalled at times.

Sun officials declined to say whether McNealy will accept the invitation to a debate.

In a recent interview with IDG News Service, McNealy said he felt that the company had addressed the needs of most of its customers by providing Solaris 9 on the LX50 server. He said some users might still be upset but that Sun was answering the call of its paying customers.

"We are still very engaged with the community to figure out a solution that makes business sense for Sun," said Brett Smith, a spokesman at Sun, on Tuesday.

Sun has said its decision to pull back Solaris on Intel development is a result of the tough economic conditions facing all hardware vendors. The company has used its own resources to support past versions of Solaris on Intel but does not see full Solaris 9 support on all Intel hardware as practical at this time. The company has cut costs and resisted recent pressure from analysts to cut its workforce.

Groenveld and other users are asking Sun to expand its support for Solaris 9 beyond the LX50 server. In addition, some users have been irked by Sun's decision to ship its own distribution of Linux as well, seeing the Linux distribution as a competitor to Solaris on Intel.

"Solaris x86 is particularly useful to a developer wishing to learn and target the Solaris environment without the impediment of expensive SPARC based hardware," he wrote in the letter.

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Ashlee Vance

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