Sun open source plans remain unclear

Sun Microsystems Inc.’s COO Jonathan Schwartz set lips flapping and rumours flying in early June when he said the company will release the Solaris operating system for Intel under an open source license.

At SunNetwork Shanghai on June 2, Sun COO Jonathan Schwartz and executive vice-president of software, John Loiacono, discussed the company’s intentions to create “a rich, open environment” around Sun’s enterprise class Solaris OS.

Since then, Sun has remained mum on the issue and will not confirm or deny what Schwartz declared in front of the crowd in Shanghai. Consequently, Solaris for Intel remains proprietary.

The question remains, however: would this be a good move for Sun on the open source software front?

“Personally, I don’t think anybody is going to care,” said Bill Claybrook, president, New River Linux and Grid Computing in Maynard, Mass. “The problem is that if Sun open sources Solaris they will have to be able to attract a community of developers. I am not sure there is a large group of people interested in working on Solaris on x86 (Intel).”

Claybrook said he is unsure of Sun’s reasoning behind the open source plans. When he had spoken with Sun executives recently, Claybrook said he was told the company thought the move could increase the number and variety of Solaris users. But Claybrook said he does not see it happening.

“Some people still think it’s a cool thing to open source something. They don’t really know what they are going to do with it once they open source it. You have to have someone out there that is interested,” he said. “I think what Sun is doing is trying to cause a stir to promote Solaris and is trying to get some publicity. I think (image perception) is a big part of this.”

Claybrook added that if Sun wanted to really take a chunk out of the Linux server market, the company should be thinking less about open sourcing Solaris and more about open sourcing Java.

“Java benefits so many people,” he said. “Sun would gain a lot of kudos if they open sourced it. I think they will eventually.”

The plan to release the Solaris code is not Sun’s first attempt at the open source space. The company has, in fact, released a number of open source software products to date, including the OpenOffice productivity suite, components of the Gnome desktop and the Tomcat servlet container.

Warren Shiau, research Manager, Canadian software markets and directions at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto said Sun outsourcing Solaris on Intel would be a business decision based upon Intel boxes becoming a commodity. Anyone can make them and they are generally in the same price range regardless of manufacturer. Sun’s Solaris on Intel doesn’t make the company as much money as Solaris on Sparc however Intel servers are sold more often and in higher volumes than Sparc servers.

“On the volume portions that suround the Intel boxes, [Sun] has quickly come to realize this has become a commodity-based business and really is the fulfillment of Sun moving towards a commodity type business model in one part of its business,” Shiau said. “By making Solaris open source when it is sitting on an Intel platform, [Sun] is making the software a commodity as well.”

Anthony Fitzgerald, senior technical advisor at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Halifax thinks going open source is a positive move for Solaris because it will allow more individuals contribute to it and hence, solve problems. UNB runs Solaris on Sparc not on Intel, Fitzgerald said but UNB does support the open source development model and runs Red Hat Inc’s Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Red Hat 7.

According to a statement released June 4, Sun is committed to working with developers, customers and partners on open source and standards-based technology.

“Through the success of Java, we have seen that an open, collaborative development environment accelerates creation of innovative products, solutions and services,” the statement said.

The company is now in the process of collecting customer feedback on its plans and has not released any details in regards to launch dates nor licensing models.

Additionally, Sun and Fujitsu Ltd. announced on June 2 that they will be merging their Solaris and Sparc-based systems. By mid-2006 Sun and Fujitsu will unveil what is currently code-named the Advanced Product Line (APL), to replace Sun’s Sun Fire and Fujitsu’s PRIMEPOWER offerings.

Sun said APL run on Solaris, the Java Enterprise System and every major enterprise application. Also, Sun and Fujitsu will start selling each other’s products varying upon location.

In recent years, many companies have dropped Sparc servers in favour of lower-cost Intel cousins but Sparc still has its place in the network.

“Our experience with the Sparc machines is that they’re somewhat more expensive but they’re somewhat more reliable,” UNB’s Fitzgerald said.

“More and more we’re putting in Linux but our experience is, when you need the extra reliability, Solaris on Sparc is a more reliable platform than Linux running on Intel and I’m not sure who to blame, Linux or Intel,” he added.

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