Computing competitors IBM, Sun plan collaboration

Two longtime rivals in computing, IBM ibm and Sun Microsystems sunw, plan to cooperate on some server technologies, a move that could put pressure on Hewlett-Packard hpq.

Sun's chief executive, Jonathan Schwartz, called it a "comprehensive relationship" that "represents a tectonic shift in the market landscape."

The collaboration announced Thursday will enable Sun's Solaris operating system to run on IBM servers. That means customers using Sun servers can switch to IBM hardware without having to rewrite programs.

At first this will be possible on IBM's "x" series of servers, which also run Microsof's Windows or the open-source Linux system. But eventually IBM hopes to bring Solaris to mainframe computers, the big multitasking machines that have been one of the company's core profit centers for decades.

IBM has been expanding the kinds of programs that can run on mainframes to encourage customers to consolidate multiple servers onto these bigger machines as a cost-saving move.

These steps threaten to take Sun servers out of action in favor of IBM machines. But Sun can gain from this partnership by collecting Solaris subscriptions and service revenue from customers who run that operating system on IBM hardware. Otherwise, Sun risked losing customers entirely to IBM.

That also is in keeping with Sun's strategy to rebound from a devastating slump in the first part of the decade by expanding its role as a software vendor. This week, Sun and Google goog expanded their partnership as Google began distributing Sun's StarOffice suite of word processing, spreadsheets and other desktop programs.

"Our view is when you make your products available on other people's platforms, you just meet more customers, which just gives you more opportunities," Schwartz said.

Left out of the mix here is Hewlett-Packard, which is locked in a battle with IBM for leadership in the worldwide server market. IBM and HP each had 29% share in the most recent figures compiled by market tracker IDC, while Sun and Dell dell were tied for third with 11% each.

"Hopefully it's the beginning of what could be a stronger, cooperative set of offerings between our two firms," William Zeitler, who heads IBM's hardware business, said in a conference call with Schwartz.

Relationships like the Sun-IBM deal, in which companies collaborate on one front and compete on others, are common in the technology world.

But analyst Bob Djurdjevic of Annex Research said this could herald something deeper between IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y. and Sun, based in Santa Clara, Calif. — perhaps an eventual acquisition of Sun by its older, larger rival.

In that scenario, IBM and Sun would have a broad software portfolio to sell together, and they could join forces on the very expensive development of next-generation microprocessors for their servers.