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VARs weigh possible IBM takeout of Sun

Sun and IBM VARs ponder repercussions if IBM does, in fact, end up buying Sun Microsystems.

At least one Sun Microsystems integrator sees a possible buyout of Sun by IBM as a good thing.

The two companies together would form a symbiotic pair, said Mike Davis, chief operating officer of Applied Computer Solutions, based in Huntington Beach, Calif. IBM would get great chip and operating systems technology, while Sun would get access to IBM's services arm and strong financial backing. IBM traditionally gets easy entry into the CEO suite whereas Sun does great with chief technology officers and engineers, he said.

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"Sun has awesome patents and technology in multiprocessing and chips. But it's like the old Digital Equipment Corp. and the Alpha chip … it was like putting bike tires on a dragster. ... You get no traction," Davis said. Applied Computer Solutions (ACS) is in both camps -- Sun's and IBM's, although it does more business with Sun.

Should IBM buy Sun -- The Wall Street Journal reported that such a move is at least under discussion -- lingering questions about Sun's viability would disappear. Sun partners have long worried about the company's financial well-being, both in the long and short term. A reported $6.5 billion offer wouldn't dent IBM's balance sheet, yet at 100 times Sun's earnings, it is a respectable figure.

Francis Poeta, president of P & M Computers Inc., an IBM partner in Cliffside Park, N.J., also sees a copacetic match in the making.

For one thing, he thinks Sun's StorageTek line would boost IBM's storage share. Both vendors are strong proponents of Java and open source computing. The combination of the two companies "would make an awfully powerful operating system," Poeta said.

Poeta also doubted that the acquisition would cause much channel disruption. A longtime IBM partner, he has seen Big Blue buy a lot of companies, and "99% of the time, it has been the easiest thing in the world," he said. "IBM's the bigger company. It's IBM's partner program. It's not going to change."

But, where Poeta and Davis saw mutual benefits, others see overlap, especially in storage and hardware. And while Davis said he could see the rival Sparc and Power chip architectures merging over time, others said an IBM purchase of Sun would lead to an early death for Sparc.

In addition, while both companies push open source -- Sun came later to that party than IBM -- their current approaches actually compete with each other.

IBM is a huge proponent of Linux and open source as long as it stays far down the stack, said Jonathan Eunice, principal IT advisor for Illuminata Inc., the Nashua, N.H.-based research firm.

"IBM is pro-open source at the platform level but anti at the middleware level. They have to do this fancy dance. The OS can be free but, oh, not the database and middleware because IBM Software very much wants to sell DB2 and WebSphere," he said.

Meanwhile, Sun has done a good job pushing open source up the stack into middleware with its GlassFish Portfolio, Eunice said. The GlassFish LAMP stack comes in both free and commercial form and undercuts IBM and Oracle prices. In this respect, Sun is well-aligned with the market, which is getting comfortable running open-source-oriented application servers and other middleware.

More customers now use open source middleware -- databases and application servers -- Eunice said. That class of software is now at the same point Linux was a few years ago in that many customers are starting to trust it with bigger, more important jobs further up the stack, he said.

Some Sun VARs have seen the vendor improve its channel program of late and see it as a source of better margins than IBM or other hardware players, and they will watch any deal go down with trepidation.

Sun partners are more of an elite club than the IBM channel, and they don't want that to change. One East Coast partner told recently that he can make more margin and sees far less channel conflict with Sun than with IBM. The prospect of IBM Global Services armed with Sun technology is not a pleasant thought for him.

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