More to Oracle’s Red Hat offer than meets the eye

It doesn't bode well for Sun, says Neil McAllister

It wasn’t the Oracle-branded Linux that many were expecting. In a way, it was something much worse.

A collective gasp rose up from the blogosphere following Larry Ellison’s keynote speech at last month’s Oracle OpenWorld conference. To many, Oracle’s decision to offer full, enterprise-class support for RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) — including software updates but without Red Hat branding — was a direct attack on the leading Linux vendor. Red Hat’s stock plummeted in response.

But what about Oracle’s other erstwhile OS partner, Sun Microsystems? Judging by Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz’s speech at OpenWorld, everything is hunky-dory. “I don’t think our partnership has ever been stronger than it is now,” Schwartz said.

However, this latest move by Oracle doesn’t bode well for any ambitions Sun might have to regain its former glory.

At the height of the dot-com boom of the mid-’90s, Sun Solaris was the operating system of choice for new Oracle database installations. Oracle and Sun servers went virtually hand-in-hand. But as venture capital began to dry up, budgets tightened and commodity x86 servers grew more powerful, that began to change. The catalyst for that change, of course, was Linux.

Fast-forward to today, and the love affair between Oracle and Solaris has cooled, to say the least. Just look at what goes on internally at Oracle itself. According to Wim Coekaerts, Oracle’s director of Linux engineering, Oracle’s own production servers are rolled out with Linux — not Solaris — and Linux is now the de facto standard platform for 9,000 Oracle developers.

Sun is quick to point out the technical advantages of Solaris over Linux, and to be fair, they are numerous; score a point for Sun. What’s more, Solaris is open source, just like Linux. So, in theory, Oracle could offer support and software updates for Solaris, just like it’s doing with Linux. But it isn’t, and that’s telling.

Still, on the surface, anything that’s bad for Red Hat is great for Sun, right? For years, Sun execs have savaged Red Hat at every opportunity as they watched the open source OS steadily erode Sun’s Unix business. Oracle’s decision to go head-to-head with Red Hat in the Linux support game probably elicited cheers at Sun headquarters. But then again, if Oracle plans to beat Red Hat at its own game, then Oracle is now competing with Sun, too.

In the past, Sun has characterised Red Hat as a young company that isn’t necessarily trustworthy when it comes to enterprise support. That certainly can’t be said of Oracle. In his speech, Ellison said Oracle plans to offer an upper tier of support for Linux beyond what Red Hat provides.

Sun says that when you run the numbers, Red Hat’s subscription pricing is expensive compared with what you get with a Solaris licence. Oracle apparently agrees, because its baseline Linux support contract will be priced at half what Red Hat charges.

In short, whatever the effect Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux has on Red Hat, it will also have a heavy impact on Sun. If Sun thought Solaris on x86 would be one pillar of the strategy that restores its languishing stock price, those hopes are effectively dashed, as of now.

In April, I ended a column with a crazy idea: that Oracle might be waiting for Red Hat’s stock price to sink low enough before moving in to acquire it.

So let’s stir up an even crazier idea, just for fun. Suppose Oracle does buy Red Hat. And then, when the time is right, it acquires a struggling Sun, too. In so doing, Oracle becomes the custodian of Java and gains Sun’s identity management and RFID businesses, not to mention its server and storage hardware.

Oracle customers say they like the idea of Oracle offering a database appliance. Picture an Oracle storage array and server appliance built from Sun-quality hardware, running a flavour of Oracle Linux that incorporates the best high-end features of Solaris, perfectly tuned for running an Oracle database. How does that idea strike you?

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