Sun considers GPL license for Solaris

Sun Microsystems Inc. may be selling servers running Linux, but that doesn’t mean it is cutting back on the evolution of Solaris. Among its plans, the company is considering offering a free, open source version of its flagship operating system, and offering Solaris with a version of its Java Desktop System, said Jonathan Schwartz, the company’s recently appointed president and chief operating officer.

“Maybe we’ll GPL it,” Schwartz said of Solaris, referring to the GNU General Public License under which the Linux operating system is distributed. “We’re still looking at that.”

In a wide ranging interview in San Francisco Friday morning, Schwartz described a number of initiatives in the works intended to make Solaris more competitive with Linux, which has been taking market share from the low end of Sun’s product line.

Until now, Sun has made Solaris freely available to certain non-commercial users, but it has not released the Solaris source code, and still charges US$99 for a single-processor license. Adopting the GPL would dispel criticism “that if you can’t build your own kernel, then you’re not open,” said Schwartz, calling that notion “a fantasy.”

“I just find that kind of comic,” he said. “Open standards are all about enabling more competition, not about enabling CIOs to have more source code. They don’t want more source code,” he said.

Though Sun executives have been cool on the GPL in the past, Schwartz said there was “not a lot” preventing Sun from releasing Solaris under the GPL. It would offer support contracts as an option, in a model similar to that of Red Hat Inc. “We view the GPL as a friend. Remember, (Sun) was built off of BSD and the BSD license,” he said, referring to the open-source Berkeley Software Distribution license.

Still, Sun has its apprehensions. “What worries us about the GPL is its capacity to encourage forking, because what’s happened in Linux is that Red Hat has forked. Not in the sense that the kernel is different…It’s forked because if you write to the Red Hat distribution, you can’t go and run on Debian.”

Sun will likely move “very quickly” to a free licensing model where Solaris revenue would come from a paid subscription, Schwartz said. He wasn’t specific about when this might occur or what the pricing of such a model might be, other than to say it would be “less than Red Hat.”

In fact, with an open source version of Solaris and a subscription licensing model, Sun’s model for selling Solaris would become very similar to how Red Hat sells Linux, Schwartz said. “We wouldn’t be different, except we would be driving open standards, because our fundamental objective is to promote the standards agreed to by the community to drive a broader market, not trying to fork it,” he said.

Schwartz cited Sun’s work with the Java Community Process and the development of the Java 2 Enterprise Edition market, dominated by BEA Systems Inc. and IBM Corp., as proof that Sun can work with the development community on open standards, even when they are beneficial to competitors.

Red Hat has yet to prove it can adopt such a role, Schwartz said. “We are starting to migrate people off Red Hat and on to Sun, and the reason is that our customers have had the epiphany that open source does not mean open standards,” he said, echoing a comment delivered by Mary Hanafin, Ireland’s Minister for State, at a recent Microsoft-sponsored conference in Ireland.

“It is important to remember that open standards are not the same as open source,” Hanafin said, according to a report by ElectronicNews.Net. Ireland had been examining the use of open source software for its e-government initiative, but determined that “the long-term cost of open source may outweigh the short-term savings,” according to Hanafin.

In the future, Solaris will also play a prominent role in Sun’s Java Desktop System, Schwartz said. “We will definitely run our desktop on Solaris and provide an option to our customers to choose whichever (OS) they think is relevant.”

A Solaris version of the Java Desktop, which is presently based on the SuSE Linux distribution, would take advantage of Solaris security features such as trusted containers and fine grained, role-based access control, Schwartz said.

“Over time, security is going to become the dominant issue in clients,” he said. “Therefore the infrastructure we have built into Solaris….could have relevance to a desktop.”

Sun’s simultaneous embrace and disparagement Linux and the GPL may ultimately prove confusing to customers who turn to the company for guidance on where Linux might be appropriate, said George Weiss, an analyst with the Gartner Inc. research firm.

“Unfortunately, I think Sun is going to have to be a little bit more thoughtful about the way they articulate their thinking, because they have a lot of users confused,” Weiss said.

The market has clearly decided that there is a role for Linux, Weiss said, and to hear Sun promote Solaris as a cheaper and better alternative for all roles may ultimately undermine the company’s credibility. “If they don’t clarify (their Linux positioning), users are going to be reluctant to use Sun, whether it’s Solaris or Linux,” he said.

One area where Sun has remained constant is on the topic of whether it will ever sell the Windows operating system. Despite the Santa Clara, Calif., company’s recent landmark US$2 billion deal with Microsoft Corp, Sun still has no plans to begin selling the rival operating system. “I doubt we’ll ever sell Windows,” Schwartz said. “Let’s be clear: they are still the competition.”

– With files from James Niccolai, IDG News Service and Paul Krill, Infoworld (U.S.)

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