Sun opens Solaris source code

Sun Microsystems Inc.’s hint that it will open up its Solaris source code was welcomed by members of the Linux open-source community as validation of the principles of open source; but the move was derided by other programmers, who say it isn’t enough.

The reaction came in response to an announcement by Greg Papadopoulos, Sun’s chief technology officer. Papadopoulos said the company intends to open its operating-system code to the programmer community under the restrictions of its Sun Community Source License (SCSL).

However, SCSL exacts a heavy price from developers who choose to look at the code, analysts say. Programmers can examine Solaris source code for research purposes and submit bug fixes to Sun. However, they are not allowed to develop products based on the code without ponying up licence fees and receiving Sun’s approval.

SCSL differs from the GNU General Public License (GPL), under which programmers develop Linux applications. A group of programmers launched the GNU project in 1984 to develop a free Unix operating system, called GNU. Linux is a variant of GNU. GNU GPL requires that programmers make the source code to their developments available to others. Developers can create programs based on the source code but cannot make changes to it.

While Sun’s move was applauded by most Linux developers, it was also roundly criticized. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, was one of the first people to applaud Sun for “acknowledging how powerful open source is as a medium.” However, he also explained that Sun’s version of community source isn’t open enough to let anybody use it freely.

“It results in a kind of ‘read-only access’ for programmers,” Torvalds said. “To distribute it commercially, you have to come to an agreement with Sun, so it’s not going to result in the kind of third-party proliferation that drives Linux.”

Another programmer agrees but cites caution. “Sun is tempting the curious to peek at the code and then making them pretend they never saw it,” opined Terry Ahnstedt, a Windows NT programmer at Tivoli. Ahnstedt said this situation makes it difficult for programmers to write code that does not incorporate any of the information they viewed. For instance, a Linux developer might accidentally contribute code derived from Solaris into Linux and put Linux at risk over patent issues. “You almost need to set up a clean-room development environment,” he said.

In addition to breaking Solaris licensing issues, Sun’s port of the operating system is complicated by trademark and licensing from other vendors. Solaris is based, in part, on The Open Group’s Unix 98 and the University of California’s Berkeley BSD 4.3 system.

SCSL is no different than the agreement Sun requires Java, SPARC or Jini developers to sign, said Stacey Quandt, an analyst with Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, Calif. “Sun is trying to create a community where any developments stay within the community. They’ve created a Chinese wall to keep everything inside.”

Until Sun adopts full measures and a true open source licence, its “half measures will draw only yawns, and developers will put their Solaris CDs in the microwave to watch the sparks,” said Donald Marti of the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group.

Nearly every other systems company has drawn the applause of the open source community for their contributions. IBM recently began to offer a Java compiler and Java Unicode classes under an agreement approved by the Open Source Initiative.

Unicode defines a universal character set that allows all languages to be expressed as a common data format. Apple says it would contribute the Darwin operating system for its Mac OS X server, through a licence approved by the Open Source Initiative.

Hewlett-Packard last summer announced that it would work with Puffin Group to port Linux to the PA-RISC platform.

SGI also announced earlier this year that it would distribute its XFS file system to the open-source community.

The Santa Cruz Operation and Starnix will license their System Activity Reporter source code, which is used to retrieve data for administering the UnixWare 7 System V Release 5 kernel. This will help standardize kernel administration across operating systems, according to vendor claims.

Intel, Cygnus, HP, IBM, SGI and VA Linux Systems are working on the Trillian Project, a Linux port to the Itanium platform, and making it available to the open source software community. Itanium is the newly minted name for Intel’s 64-bit Merced processor. It will be available mid-2000.