Surprising Signs of Life For Solaris

When I began reporting this week’s story on Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, one question rose above all others in handicapping Sun’s future: is Solaris getting any traction? Two years after open-sourcing the code, all Sun seems to talk about are the ten million people have downloaded the code. That’s terrific, but what were they being used for? Where were the killer Solaris-compliant apps and huge customer wins? In other words, the business benefit?

But an interesting thing happened as I did the reporting: I kept running into examples of people who were using Solaris again.

For starters, there was Ning, Marc Andreesen's social networking start-up. It's already well known that they're using the OS, but a talk with operations chief Alexie Rodriguez was illuminating. He says the company started off with Linux, but decided to move to more battle-tested Solaris after Ning's databased crashed in 2005 due to a bug he says wasn't fixed for months. While Linux supporters often talk about the vast number of developers supporting that platform versus Solaris, he says he preferred having a corporate support staff on hand to quickly help deal with problems. "It's great to have a million developers, but who are these people--and which one is going to fix my problem?"

I ran into some surprising sources of bullishness about Solaris. I called John Roberts, CEO of SugarCRM, figuring I'd hear about how it was too late for Solaris to steal back any momentum from Linux and Windows. Instead, he told me how impressed he is with Solaris, and with Schwartz, who agreed to keynote Sugar's developer conference earlier this year. "There was a lot of good will in the room [towards Sun], that's for sure." He says Sugar and Sun are working on hooks so its CRM software would work, suite-like, with Sun's OpenOffice. "Solaris certainly has a future.”

In particular, there's quite a lot of buzz about ZFS, a new file system that's bundled in with the free Solaris distribution. With enough capacity to theoretically store pretty much every bit of info that currently exists, its been adopted by Apple and others. “It’s pretty amazing. It could be the end-all, be-all for file systems for the next decade," says Chris MacAskill, CEO of photo site SmugMug.

Intel CEO Paul Otelini also gave me some time, and talked about his hopes to to use Solaris as a means to gain more of the high-performance computing market for X86-based hardware. “There’s a lot of potential there,” he says.

Sun also gave a bit more information on about developer support for Solaris. The company says the numer of OpenSolaris community members has jumped from 58,000 in June to 76,000 now, and the number of Universities that are using OpenSolaris in computer science and engineering courses has risen from 90 in June to 134 today.

Of course, these are only glimmers of hope, in a battle that will surely be an uphill one for years. It may well be that Solaris will never approach its influence--and value to Sun. But some glimmers are better than none at all.

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