December 1, 2005

Sun furthers open source commitment

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Sun Microsystems, already waist-deep in open source, is getting in deeper. The company announced yesterday that it would be releasing more of its software for free -- and, eventually, as open source software.

The company has already released most of Solaris as open source, and is now promising to release the Java Enterprise System, N1 System Manager, Identity Management Suite, SunRay server software, developer tools, and more.

Sun is also planning to fully integrate all of this software into the Solaris OS, to provide an integrated stack called the Solaris Enterprise System. The Sun Java Enterprise System and developer tools are also available for other platforms, including Linux, HP-UX, and Windows.

Conventional wisdom has been that open source software would prove an inhibitor, at best, for revenue for a company like Sun or Microsoft. Sun, however, is now taking the opposite viewpoint, and company execs say that proprietary software is the barrier to revenue.

Some may question the wisdom of offering Sun software for free and releasing it as open source, from the revenue perspective. According to Sun executives during Wednesday's announcement call, the company receives about $100 million per year in revenue related to the products it is making free. However, Sun is banking on its customers paying in order to continue receiving support from Sun, rather than for the privilege of getting the binaries.

In addition, by providing the software in a more open manner, the company is trying to interest developers in using Sun's offerings. It hopes to expand the number of developers building applications on top of the Solaris Enterprise System.

According to Jim McHugh, senior director of software portfolio strategy and marketing, Sun's customers "love the idea of getting access to software at no cost, to build out products at no cost," but will turn to Sun for support when they deploy its software in production environments.

If the model sounds familiar, it's because companies like Red Hat and Novell have already been doing it for years.

Though Sun has said it would offer the software stack as open source, it hasn't specified the license or licenses that it intends to use yet. McHugh said that Sun had not yet decided on licenses, but that Sun's Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) is a likely choice for some of the software. He also mentioned that Sun would be watching the GPL revision process closely.

Simon Phipps, chief open source officer for Sun, added that the company would be "looking for ways to contribute and be helpful" during the GPL revision process, but that Sun hasn't had the opportunity to create a plan for involvement in the process since it was just announced. Phipps said that he'd be particularly interested in seeing the Free Software Foundation "clarify some rules about code mixability."

What's not being opened? Well, for starters, Java. Despite the number of Sun technologies that sport the Java moniker that are on the path to open source, Sun's Java Virtual Machine (JVM) isn't on the list. Phipps said that Java is an open standard, and pointed to free software implementations of Java and and the class libraries, such as Kaffe, and the work being done by Project Harmony.

Software that came with Sun's acquisition of StorageTek is also not on the list, largely because the company needs to go through the code and verify that it is free of encumbrances that would prevent its release.

At this time, Sun does not have a specific timeline set up for the release of source code under open source licenses. McHugh said it would be a "rolling timeline" and noted that the needs to go through the code and "remove encumbrances" before it could be released under an open source license.

During the Sun teleconference, executives also mentioned the problem of patents as a barrier to open source, and the need to extend the reach of Sun's patent portfolio to protect Sun customers and the open source development community.

It would seem that it would make more sense for Sun to work towards abolishing software patents altogether, rather than half-measures that still leave Sun and open source project vulnerable to patent problems. Phipps said that it would be desirable to get rid of software patents, but "changing the law won't be done with a snap of the fingers." In the interim, Phipps said Sun would work to create "patent safe areas" for its customers and open source development.

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