August 4, 2005

OSCON: Sun, Yahoo, Google -- and maybe you

Author: Jay Lyman

After two days of tutorials, O'Reilly's OSCON Open Source Convention began in earnest yesterday by highlighting some unusual approaches to open source software development and use, including Sun's contention that OpenSolaris should be compared to Linux less on ideology and more on a technical basis.

Sun COO Jonathan Schwartz asserted that his company's recently opened operating system was bringing more competition and choice to the community and that beyond ideological differences, was comparable to Linux. "Let's compare them," he said. "It's no longer about competing with a social movement. Let's get the politics out of the way we talk about competition."

Touting between 7,000 and 8,000 developers signed up for OpenSolaris development, Schwartz also said once price was eliminated with the availability of free operating systems, the result would be more innovation.

Schwartz had skeptics in the crowd of developers and open source leaders, some of whom called Linux "a different animal," the development of which benefits the community, while the development of OpenSolaris stood to benefit Sun.

In response, Solaris engineer Bryan Cantrill indicated Linux development was benefiting a number of companies, including Sun rivals Hewlett-Packard and IBM, and that the adolescent OpenSolaris community was just as interested in the overall benefit of their efforts.

"We've got a community that feels just as strongly and just as passionately as the people in the Linux community," he said in an interview.

Cantrill stressed Sun's message of flexibility and choice, indicating the key to those was competition, which Sun was now providing for Linux.

Does Yahoo open source?

Wednesday's morning also included a keynote from Yahoo's Jeremy Zawodny on his company's uses of and contributions to the open source community, something the Yahoo search veteran indicated is somewhat of a mystery in the industry.

Zawodny talked first about the scalability of open source, which is critical for a company that sees heavy loads on its sites and services. He also downplayed the ideological, philosophical side of open source, indicating Yahoo's use is about results.

"Anything we do, we have to do in a big way," he said. "That means the stuff has to scale, and to do that, we use open source software."

"It's not about religion," Zawodny continued. "The important thing is the benefits. What is it we're able to do?" Outlining open source software that Yahoo uses to provide its services -- FreeBSD, Apache, PHP and APC, Perl, mdbm, and MySQL -- Zawodny indicated the company's employees also rely on open source products such as, Firefox and Konqueror, Thunderbird, Gaim, KDE/GNOME, and more. As for development, he listed Bugzilla, CVS, RequestTracker, and Emacs among the tools of Yahoo.

"The reality is we have hundreds of open source packages in use by the company," he said.

Zawodny also highlighted Yahoo's contributions back to the community, referring to support in the form of developers and code related to Python, Ruby, rsync, BIND, Qmail, and others.

Google's good reasons

Google, often singled out as a successful open source user, also outlined its open source involvement in a talk from company open source program manager Chris DiBona.

Referring to Google's heavy use of Linux, Apache Tomcat, SSH, and SSL, DiBona said Google was not leveraging open source for recruiting or for public relations. "Honestly, this isn't what it's about," he said. "In a lot of ways, it's just who we are."

DiBona explained that Google's roots as an academic organization had much to do with its open source attitude, but also indicated control and independence from external code requirements were also reasons for using open source software. "We want to make sure our history as a computer science [organization] is preserved," he added.

Legal issues

Attendees learned about how to safely participate in an open source project during a talk from Goodwin Procter attorney Ira Heffan, who indicated the most common mistake companies make is misunderstanding the notice provisions of open source licenses.

"There are a lot of different licenses and you just have to do that work and crunch that out," he said.

Heffan discussed the differences of legal disputes involving open source projects and companies, indicating that it is far more difficult to sue a group of developers spread across the world than to go after a large company that is making lots of money. "And for a company with patents trying to figure out who's the right person to go after, you can end up like the music industry, and it doesn't really work going after individuals."

As for those looking to participate in open source, Heffan stressed the need to manage separation between proprietary and open source projects. He also indicated company higher-ups must be involved for a smooth open source strategy.

"A lot of times, it's like, 'We're going to do what? We're giving away what?' It's important that the whole company is on board. It needs to be something that goes up as high as it needs to go to be on board."

Safe open source use

Many of OSCON's reported 2,000 attendees were on missions from their organizations to find out more about the use of and participation in open source development. Sandeep Giri, project lead of a startup called Open Intelligence, a business intelligence software company, said he was excited by the expertise and people in open source that he might not otherwise have access to, but was also somewhat apprehensive over open source licenses and related issues.

Paul Silevitch, a programmer with Tufts University's medical center, was attending OSCON to investigate potential savings and other benefits from moving more to open source software. "Right now, we're all over the place," he said. "It's not as open source as I would like." Silevitch had some licensing and other concerns, and indicated that the amount of information to wade through was somewhat overwhelming.

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