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Anatomy of an attack: The New York Times on Solaris

Last September 24th the New York Times published a Paul Krill IDG hit piece directed at Sun under the hopeful title "Is Sun Solaris on its deathbed?".

Although getting in front of shareholders and investment managers through placement in NYT was a coup for somebody, this article also got a lot of push in the IT press: Computerworld for example, published much the same text under the title: Analysis: Is Linux causing Sun Solaris to lose steam? and variations popped up everywhere from Infoworld to eweek.

The piece itself illustrates the standard recipe for attack journalism: use a title sure to attract the attention of editors sympathetic to your cause; pretend to balance in the article but actually use strong negatives and weak positives; find one or two third parties to attribute the really nasty stuff to; and, strip any facts you need of their real context while leveraging reader assumptions to add an emotional patina of your own.

Thus using "Sun Solaris" in the title instead instead of just "Solaris" or "OpenSolaris" invokes one of the not so secret handshakes characteristic of the anti-Sun community to grab the attention of any editor with a Microsoft or IBM agenda.

With editorial attention in the bag the next requirement is an appearance of balance - and so the NYT version has three section headers "The case for Solaris's demise" on the first page; and both "The case for Solaris's existence" and "The debate over Solaris's open source future" on the back page.

Both attack sections feature strong, confident (but wrong) pronouncements by Linux Foundation executive Jim Zemlin, the defense section a weak and somewhat hedged, but correct, response from a Sun spokesman.

Compare, for example, the tone and structure of the introductory paragraphs for each section:

"The future is Linux and Microsoft Windows," says foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin. "It is not Unix or Solaris."

That's strong, clear, authoritative - and wrong (because prior to SCO everyone involved, from Torvalds down, recognized that Linux is Unix.)

Sun stands behind Solaris. "For customers who'd chosen Linux in the past, we're seeing some of those same customers come back to Solaris," said Charlie Boyle, director of Solaris product marketing at Sun.

That's weak, hedged -and right.

As part of its plans to give Solaris a longer life, Sun has developed an open source effort based on Solaris, called OpenSolaris, featuring a binary release of Solaris through Project Indiana.

That's strong, authoritative, clear - and made up from three lies mashed together: that OpenSolaris is a con intended only to sell Solaris, that it's only a binary release, and that it's entirely a Sun product.

The really nasty stuff has to be attributed - so Zemlin is the attack dog in both sections. For example:

With capabilities such as ZFS and DTrace, Sun is trying to compete based on minor features, Zemlin says. "That's literally like noticing the view from a third-story building as it burns to the ground." And the Linux community is working on rival technology, Zemlin adds.

Notice how conflicted this is? key Solaris innovations including ZFS and DTrace are trivialities - but his people are trying to reinvent them as fast as they can. There's subliminal value to this kind of thing because most readers aren't overly analytical and apply the discomfort this kind of conflict raises to reinforcing their memory of agreeing with the main argument.

On the other hand, this kind of negativity works best in small doses, so our author cools the emotional temperature of the piece through recourse to authority:

Thanks to its strong support of the x86 hardware architecture, "in terms of overall volume, Linux is just a much higher volume product than Solaris ever was," says Al Gillen, an IDC analyst. IDC data show that worldwide Linux shipments in 2006 were about 2.4 million in 2006 and nearly 2.7 million in 2007. By contrast, Solaris shipments totaled 376,000 in 2006 and 371,000 last year.

Sounds terrible: poor Solaris, getting shellacked in the market by Linux - except those Sun numbers pertain to paid licenses on fully supported systems and he hasn't mentioned about 12 Million free OpenSolaris licenses or the more subtle issue that the SPARC servers tend to have far more users than the typical Linux machine.

With the emotional groundwork now laid, our author can go to Novell's go to guy for the killer quotable quote:

One company that is moving from Solaris to Linux is Sesame Workshop, famous for TV shows such as Sesame Street. A key reason is that more people are available to support Linux than Solaris, says Noah Broadwater, vice president of information services at Sesame Workshop. "I honestly have one person who is certified on Solaris. I have four people who are certified on Linux," Broadwater said.

The other key issue with Solaris boils down to one word: cost. Sesame is saving about US$20,000 a year in support costs by moving to Linux, Broadwater says.

One fear that Broadwater had in moving to Linux was degradation in performance, but he has been pleasantly surprised such degradation has not occurred. For example, the company's IBM Cognos BI application runs faster on x86 Linux boxes than it did on Sparc Solaris, he says.

There are three separate claims being made here:

  1. That Solaris support costs more than Linux support.

    This simply isn't true for comparable support on comparable products. What he's doing here is comparing the cost of support contracts on SPARC gear purchased years ago to the cost on new x86 boxes today.

  2. That the SPARC servers are slower than the x86 ones.

    The reverse is actually true - Sun's "Niagara" boxes own virtually every applicable performance benchmark there is. Again what he's doing is comparing SPARC machines bought years ago to today's latest x86 products.

    He doesn't tell us how old that SPARC gear being replaced was - but if you use google to search for applicable resumes you'll find that Sesame had people working on Sun SPARC II gear in the late nineties, and no records of anyone installing Sun gear there since Mr. Broadwater's arrival in 2003.

  3. That Mr. Broadwater is a credible witness.

    He may be, but the case is at least arguable because he came to Sesame from one of Novell's biggest client sites; seems to spend a lot of time getting interviewed; and spends a lot of time, in those interviews, selling Novell.

    Here's his CXO public profile:

    • Noah Broadwater
    • V.P. Information Services
    • Sesame Workshop

    As the Vice President for Information Services at Sesame Workshop, Mr. Broadwater determines the strategic technology direction for the company and advises on technology related programs. Mr. Broadwater is a strong advocate for Identity Management and Open Source Technologies. He has been featured in CIO magazine, ComputerWorld, TechTarget, and CNET for his work in both the importance of Identity controls, Open Source, and Virtualization. Prior to Sesame Workshop, Mr. Broadwater consulted for several Fortune 500 companies in Identity Management and Directories for handling mergers and acquisitions. Noah has spoken at numerous colleges and universities about the use of technology in business and has been quoted frequently in technology and business publications.

The balancing section defending Solaris is both much less emphatic than the attacks and rather more revealing of the inner workings of the attack process. Consider this bit of damning with faint praise:

"I think Solaris is absolutely a great OS," says Neil Wilson, a former Sun employee who later left the OpenDS project. Solaris is "absolutely far superior to Linux for the cases where the hardware support is there," he adds.

Neil Wilson isn't just a former Sun employee who later left the OpenDS project - he's a man who could reasonably be expected to be bitter toward Sun and whose earlier comment on the end of his role at OpenDS really was bitter. On the other hand, he's also an adult - and responded to being quoted by Krill here by writing a piece under the title "Why I like Solaris" which starts with this:

A recent InfoWorld article asks whether Solaris is going to be able to continue to compete with Linux. Apparently someone from the Linux community pointed Paul Krill, the author, to my earlier blog article about the earlier issue that I wrote about with OpenDS and he asked me about it. While I didn't really want to bring that up again, I did tell him that I felt Solaris is a better OS than Linux. I was briefly quoted in the article, but I would like to expand on that a bit.

First, let me say that I've got a pretty decent amount of experience with both Solaris and Linux. I started using Linux in 1995 and Solaris around 1998. Linux was my primary desktop operating system from probably around 1997 through about 2004, when I switched to Solaris. I still run Linux quite a bit, including on my laptop out of necessity (primarily because Solaris doesn't support the Broadcom Ethernet interface), but for the work that I do, which is primarily development, I find that Solaris is just more convenient. On servers, there is no question that I prefer Solaris over Linux.

So why is this particularly revealing? because in the second attack section Krill approvingly quotes Zemlin without identifying the blogger mentioned as Wilson:

The Linux Foundation's Zemlin, though, dismisses Sun's open-source Solaris as "too little, too late." His foundation has also charged that there is no real open source community around OpenSolaris, arguing that Sun still controls development. To back up its point, the foundation points to blogs detailing disputes over control of OpenSolaris and the Sun-driven OpenDS directory projects, from February 2008 and November 2007. Sun declined to comment on the specifics of these issues and noted they both happened several months ago. Zemlin claims Open Solaris is no more than an attempt to expand the Solaris user base to drive customers to commercial Sun technology.

It's reasonable to think, therefore, that Zemlin identified Wilson as someone good for an anti-Sun quote, Krill failed to get one -and met his deadline by being very selective about what he quoted from Wilson and not mentioning the linkage when introducing the quotation from Zemlin.

And, finally, Mr. Krill goes for the coup de grace: guilty people acknowledge guilt, so for the defence:

Sun's Boyle acknowledges that Sun employees participate in OpenSolaris development, but says they do so along with individual and corporate contributors such as Intel. Community registrations in the OpenSolaris community exceed 160,000, far in excess of Sun's total employee account of 34,000 people, he notes.

All of which leads to my bottom line question: Linux is a pretty good Unix - capable of standing on its own and competing head on with Microsoft and anyone else. It doesn't need Krill, or anyone else, to shill for it and the attacks on Sun -incidently the biggest code contributor in the open source community- gain the Linux community nothing. So who paid for this?

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.