Sun mulls plan to offer open source app server

Sun Microsystems Inc. is hatching a plan to offer versions of its application server and Web server under an open source license, Jonathan Schwartz, the company’s executive vice-president for software, said in an interview Wednesday.

The move could help proliferate the use of Sun’s Java server software by making it more attractive to developers, some of whom like the freedom to view and modify software code that an open source license provides. Sun isn’t disclosing a timetable for its plan, but it’s exploring what type of open source license would be the most suitable to offer, Schwartz said.

He positioned the move as an outgrowth of Sun’s efforts to promote its Java Desktop System in China. The desktop system is a package of open source software products including Linux and Sun’s StarOffice productivity suite that Sun is pushing as a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Corp.’s desktop software.

Earlier this week Sun announced a deal to provide China Standard Software Co. Ltd. (CSSC), a consortium of technology companies that does work for the government in China, with as many as one million seats per year of its Java Desktop System. CSSC will package and distribute the software for the Chinese government.

The China deal is important, according to Schwartz, because it will help to establish widespread use of technologies such as Java, as well as the file formats in StarOffice, which in turn will make the marketplace for desktop software more competitive by loosening Microsoft’s grip, he argued.

Sun sees related potential benefits from offering an open source version of its server software, Schwartz said.

“This deal (in China) has far-reaching impacts, not simply in the marketplace but also inside Sun with respect to our relationship with the open source community and how we might potentially modify our business going forward,” Schwartz said.

“It may have an impact on how we relate to the open source community with our server products,” he continued. “With the release of J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) 1.4, we’ve made a basic version of our application server available free of charge. We’re looking now at how we might make that open source,” he said, adding later that Sun’s Web server is also part of the plan.

“Open source doesn’t have to mean free,” Schwartz said, explaining how the move might benefit Sun. Making the products open source should get them into the hands of more corporate developers, and companies may end up paying for services or higher end versions of its application server, he said.

Sun may also have its eye on nascent Asian markets where governments have been showing increased interest in open source software. In September, Japan, China and South Korea said they would work to develop open source products for use in their countries, most likely based on existing open source software such as Linux.

A few open source Java application servers already exist, from JBoss Group LLC and from the ObjectWeb Consortium, which develops JOnAS (Java Open Application Server).

Getting Sun’s Java software in the hands of customers for free is better than not having them use it at all, Schwartz said. With that in mind, he said Sun is also mulling a free version of its Java Desktop System for students and educators.

One concern about offering an open-source application server is that it could result in the development of incompatible versions of the product, Schwartz said. Sun is particularly concerned that Microsoft could distribute a modified version of the product in order to disrupt the Java market, as it was accused of doing with Sun’s Java software a few years ago. “This is the singular greatest concern,” he said.

Sun is exploring alternatives to the widely used open-source GPL (General Public License) that might guard against such incompatibilities, he said. The company is interested in the BSD license, he said.

Software has become a more important part of Sun’s overall strategy in the past two years. With sales of its higher-end Unix servers in a slump, the company has been emphasizing the value of its Java software stack, which includes an application server, directory server, portal server and other products.

It competes with similar stacks from IBM Corp., BEA Systems Inc. and other Java vendors, as well as with Microsoft’s .Net server software. Despite the widespread use of Java, Sun’s share of the application server market remains relatively low, and some analysts have criticized the company for not having profited more from Java’s widespread use.