RealTime IT News

Sun Smokes Big Blue with Snarky Web Site

It's no secret that Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp. have become increasingly locked in heated competition in the past year, matching each other (though they would say "outmatching" each other) server-for-server spanning low- to high-end appliances.

There have been scoffs and rebuttals over whose benchmarks are insidious cover-ups or misrepresentations. And who can forget the beating Sun took when it announced some Linux leanings in February? IBM did not mince words when it pointed out what it saw as hypocrisy on Sun's part about this undertaking.

So Sun has looked to breathe a little levity into the situation with a humorous, sarcastic, yet technically competent Web site called BigBlueSmoke, which pokes fun at its major East Coast rival. Since January of this year, the California company has been quietly posting "World News" stories, which are really a series of refutations to IBM's advertising and marketing for various server announcements, including points about Big Blue's "Raptor" mainframe and a benchmark test pitting the eServer p690 versus the Sun Fire 15,000 that Sun said was a bit iffy. Now Sun has decided to peek through the clouds with its new project.

So, here is the rub: IBM and Sun both go back and forth with competitive he-said, she-saids constantly, but IBM appears to throw more money at it, according to Sun. Rather than continue the boxing-esque stick-and-move approach, BigBlueSmoke is Sun's attempt to take IBM's marketing vernacular and challenge it on a point-by-point basis.

Sun Vice President and Chief Competitive Officer Shahin Khan, who spearheaded the project, agreed.

"This is a light-hearted way of pointing out that IBM is taking liberties with the facts," Khan told InternetNews.com. "They have a bigger ad budget than we do. They are a bigger company, but just because they do 500 different things does not mean that they do it better than we do. IBM's puffery and chatter confuses the issue for people. Sure they had $1 billion to spend on Linux, but it's self serving. It would be good if they spent the money on truly making Linux open."

IBM isn't biting, or at least not to a huge extent. However, one representative of their public relations staff did offer a biting remark. In a brief e-mail to InternetNews.com John Buscemi, manager of media relations for IBM's eServer pSeries and xSeries, said: "It's nice to see that Sun found a hobby, as selling servers doesn't seem to be a priority for them anymore. I hope the Website makes them feel better about losing the UNIX server crown to IBM."

Buscemi is no doubt referring to a March 2002 crop of server stats from IDC, which found a positioning shift among Sun and IBM. Indeed, the fourth quarter of 2001 was the first time since 1998 that IBM took the top spot for worldwide Unix market share. Big Blue's 26.9 market share gave it a marginal edge over Sun Microsystems' 26.8 percent.

"This is cool; it's something very new," said Edward Broderick, a principal analyst who tracks server hardware for the Robert Francis Group research outfit. "I think Sun is using it half in jest and half in very serious medium to talk about IBM."

While Broderick appreciates the humor and sarcasm levied by Sun toward IBM, he also regards BigBlueSmoke as a legitimate vehicle for technical dissemination.

But one analyst strongly disagreed. Giga Information Group's David Mastrobattista said he did find factual errors in the "Raptor" (z800 mainframe) item in the "World News" archives. Specifically, he disagreed with Sun's assessment that IBM's Raptor is "factory crippled," a phrase he said means to him that IBM artificially slowed the technology down from the z900. He also said Sun's claim that this Raptor required ISVs to port and recompile applications before they will run is completely false.

"I think Sun crossed the line with BigBlueSmoke," Mastrobattista told InternetNews.com. "I thought that what started out as an intent of parody crossed the line to bias or inaccuracy."

Mastrobattista said the site is a classic case of what is known as the industry as "fear, uncertainty, and doubt," or FUD. That is, rather than pointing out the best things about its own products, Sun is knocking down IBM's appliances.

"I called them on it," he said. "I think it really damages their credibility.'

If this is true, Sun's Khan would probably point out that Sun had to send IBM cease and desist letters over advertisements it posted in the Wall Street Journal claiming a certain IBM server was both faster and less expensive than a Sun model. Unfortunately for Sun, IBM was comparing one of its own midrange models, with one of Sun's pricier high-end models.

"IBM is being aggressive to the point of being liberal with the facts or economical with the truth, however you want to look at it," Khan said.

So disagreements abound. Who is obfuscating what if the analysts can't agree? One thing for sure is that Sun has stepped up its own marketing efforts with BigBlueSmoke. Moreover, the sharpening of the anti-IBM axe started in public before the Web site was made public.

"About 2 months ago, Sun started to swing back -- they've come a heck of along way in the past year," Broderick said. "IBM had to realize they would come back and now the boxing gloves are off."

Sun hinted at its sharpened competitive edge in February when it announced a program to help IBM customers, which Sun said have been neglected by IBM's discontinuation of its NUMA-Q platform, make a smooth transition to the Solaris Operating Environment.

A marketing tool like BigBlueSmoke begs the question: how will IBM respond? While Sun's claim that IBM will be forming a marketing committee to buy a response to Sun is another gag about the way the company throws money around is a gag, we really don't know.

Broderick is betting that IBM is pretty touchy about the subject, just as Sun may be touchy about IBM's Unix server market share gain. He's also betting IBM won't respond in kind with a Web site because it goes against the company's more conservative corporate culture.

"I can't for the life of me imagine a [former IBM CEO] Lou Gerstner or a [current IBM CEO] Sal Palmisano putting up a comparable Web site," Broderick said, noting that this is something people could expect from a company headed by Scott McNealy, a chief prone to spouting off the cuff remarks: at the JavaOne show in San Francisco last week, McNealy likened Microsoft to drug pushers who give users a taste of their product for free, but charge later.

"This is very helpful in understanding Sun's perception of reality," Broderick said. "And they do well to address a highly-technical subject that is not easily communicated. This is a marketing, infomercial and technical tool rolled into one."

While Mastrobattista doesn't agree with the accuracy points, he does concede that it is unlikely that IBM will counter with a similar Web site.

Nevertheless, the battle rages on, as both Sun and IBM are preparing to unveil new servers next week. Stay tuned!