November 4, 2005

Sun sends open source to school

Author: Jay Lyman

Sun Microsystems recently announced a curriculum, a contest, and a university-level collaboration involving open source software, but aimed squarely at the company's own Solaris 10 and OpenSolaris platforms.

Sun announced a new nonprofit spinoff it calls the Global Education Learning Community (GELC) for knowledge sharing in education at last month's Educause 2005 conference.

"During the conference, Scott McNealy's comment was that Sun's got a pretty good history of developing sophisticated communities," GELC executive director Larry Nelson said. "It seemed there was a strong opportunity or need for community around education and open source technologies, best practices, and content."

Nelson explained there are many open source "one-offs that aren't shared or disseminated effectively," and stressed that the GELC spinoff was its own entity, and "not a Sun initiative in that way."

Open source as Sun sees it

However, those already entrenched in open source and higher education question whether the efforts, including the Sun Solaris University Challenge for students to create applications for Solaris 10 or OpenSolaris, will end up benefiting collegians or the company behind them.

Oregon State University's Open Source Lab associate director Scott contrasted Sun's education initiative with IBM's Academic Initiative, announced at the end of last year, and also with the hosting and development efforts at the OSL, which administers servers and fosters developers for Mozilla, Debian, and other major open source projects.

"Sun I'm sure would love to be able to get more people hacking on their software, both Solaris and Java. The key difference here is that IBM's is focusing on open standards-based software," he said. "Yes, they have a bit of their own software in there, but they aren't excluding alternatives. IBM, as well as companies like Google, understand that having a healthy open source community is good for their business. I'm afraid that Sun hasn't made that connection yet. I look at the GELC and see another 'come and play with open source as Sun sees it' initiative."

Concerns about keeping the code

While GELC will be focused primarily on K-12 education and an online education community around open source, Sun is also looking to spike open source in higher ed with its Solaris University Challenge, which offers participants working on Solaris 10 and OpenSolaris a chance at cash and Sun technology for themselves and their institutions.

Sun's Jay Visvanathan, market development manager for higher education, explained that the effort was partly a response to the academic community's rebuke of the lock-in and lack of control from mainframe and Microsoft IT at colleges and universities. "That doesn't fly in higher education, where they use IT to differentiate themselves," he said, adding the University Challenge was another example of Sun bringing its "billions in innovation" to a community, this time in education.

Some university folks well versed in open source, such Clarkson University grad student Patricia Jablonski, praised the Sun education initiative, but expressed concerns over Sun's follow-through with community.

"The concept of the GELC seems to follow the open source model in that groups of people are able to give back to the community without the guarantee of monetary benefits," Jablonski said. "In concept, the GELC seems like it would provide great benefits to the students, teachers, and the open source community involved, but whether it will be carried out in the spirit of the community to which it is given will really determine its success."

Jablonski -- part of Clarkson's winning team in the latest TuxMasters development competition -- added the corporate-sponsored competitions, and Sun's in particular, may help drive new innovations. However, she said there are some issues around the code that gets developed under such contests, who owns it, and who benefits from it.

"In recent years, we've seen more companies begin to sponsor contests for university students to submit their open source projects to, so Sun may be making a move in the right direction by starting its own contest. One of the surprising aspects to Sun's contest is that, unlike the others, they are allowing university faculty and IT staff to submit contest entries as well. This may provide Sun with a more diverse set of project submissions and may prove to be beneficial to Sun and the community.

"One concern about university contests with open source project submissions is the fact that there could potentially be a large number of innovative projects that are submitted, but only one or a few are chosen as winning entries," Jablonski said. "However, all the submissions are open source, so the company could use this to their advantage without proper compensation to the authors. I understand that this could happen without a university contest in place (i.e. just view and use the source of any open source software already in existence), but a university contest will bring certain software specifically to the company's attention, without them having to search for it. And, the additional benefit to the company with a university contest is that the contest submissions may be limited to particular areas of interest to the company. It follows that the primary concern would be the terms of the open source licenses that the submitted contest entries are bound to."

Jablonski also expressed some concern over the requirement that projects be based on Solaris 10 or OpenSolaris, licensed under the CDDL. "This limits the wide scale applicability of the projects in that they are tailored to a specific operating system and/or hardware. Also, having US$100,000 in Sun products as the university prize almost ensures that the university will begin using the proprietary hardware and software. However, releasing Solaris 10 for x86 is a step in the right direction for Sun in promoting flexibility in open standards."

Sun to the world

Sun officials acknowledged the criticisms, with Visvanathan conceding Sun's desire to promote and prove the company's technology. Still, Sun market development director for education Art Pasquinelli said the computing giant understands the open source equation, and realizes that what benefits to the community will be more beneficial to Sun.

"There is more creativity outside of Sun than there is inside Sun," he said. "So if we can cultivate it, it'll pay off."

Sun also stressed an international aim for its education efforts, with GELC working alongside local, state, national, and foreign educational institutions, and the University Challenge open to faculty, staff, and students at accredited universities in a number of countries.

For his part, OSU's Kveton said the US is in the lead in terms of utilizing open source software for better real-world curriculum and research.

"That said, emerging markets like China and India are producing millions of engineers a year, so it's just a matter of time before they become key players in the open source space," he added. "Engaging these markets should be a primary focus of the open source community."

Jablonski stressed the importance of U.S. companies expanding beyond U.S. borders to provide to the global market.

"Especially with Sun's influence on the network and Internet, it is in their interest to become as global as the Internet," she said. "With what they see as a change from the Information Age to the Participation Age, it is necessary that everyone around the world has the opportunity to contribute in the knowledge sharing efforts or else it is not truly participative. Not only should the collaboration be global, but the results should benefit the entire global community as well."

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