For Sun Microsystems Inc., the best offense may be the best defense in the looming 64-bit battle with Intel Corp.'s IA-64 processors.
Much has been written about Intel trying to invade the territory where Sun reigns supreme: 64-bit workstation and enterprise servers. But little noticed has been Sun's widening forays into Intel and Microsoft's PC-based territory. Since Sun is a vertically integrated loner, OEMs wedded to Wintel are threatened by any Sun penetration into their domain.
Sun is pushing a new, open Star Office software that competes head-on with Microsoft's Windows Office suite. It has all the spreadsheet, word processing, e-mail, and applications capabilities of the Microsoft counterpart. In fact, it runs all Microsoft Office applications. And Sun is giving Star Office away free. Take that, Bill Gates.
Star Office runs on X86-based PCs, which Sun has no interest in making. In fact, if you want to chuck Windows altogether, Sun will also give you gratis its Solaris X86 operating system. And if you don't like that, you can use Linux -- also free. Sun simply wants the client PCs to link with its servers.
When Intel this fall launches its IA-64 processor family with Itanium, and in another year with McKinley, Sun will offer a new Solaris for the IA-64 operating system, just as it did for Intel's 32-bit processors. Christopher Ratcliffe, Solaris marketing manager, doesn't know why Intel is fuming that Sun is not cooperating about having a Solaris for the IA-64 OS. "When Intel finally goes into full production on 64-bit processors, we'll have a version of Solaris ready for them," he said.
A new layer of low-cost front-end network-appliance servers has also erupted in the market-heavily X86-based systems intruding ahead of Sun's enterprise servers. Wintel and OEM adherents hope to move out from these servers by going with the upcoming Intel IA-64 architecture to penetrate Sun's space.
Sun's counterattack so far has been its acquisition a few weeks ago of Cobalt Networks, giving the big-muscled server company a foot in the low-end Internet-server field. It will also give Sun more extensive experience with Linux, the potential rival to Microsoft and a possible OS weapon to attract more PC-client and front-end server users to network with Sun's systems.
Sun is buttressing its own enterprise hardware by finally introducing its long-delayed UltraSparc III processor, the first new architecture in five years. The first release at 750 MHz trails current Intel and AMD processors. But it is 64 bits, and in production well ahead of the rivals.The battle lines are drawn. Let the war begin.