The dinner guest

There are no free lunches (or dinners)…except for Linus Torvalds at Jonathan Schwartz’s table.

The Sun CEOs dinner invitation to Torvalds – the chief overseer of the Linux kernel – has had the blogsphere buzzing over the past several days.

Posts on this topic have been truly wide and varied – delight “that Sun and the Linux community can finally work together”; sage recommendations about the type of wines that Torvalds should take to the dinner (“as an alternative to California wines, he could bring an Oregon Pinot Noir”) and suggestions on topics that could be discussed with each course.

One blogger even thought up some clever titles for the big event (should it occur) – for instance: Linus’ last supper and Linus being led to the lions.

We know what he thinks about the outcome of that dinner!

The trigger for Schwartz’ invitation was a passionate post by Torvalds last week on the Linux kernel mailing list, which basically suggested that all Sun’s talk about furthering an open source agenda is precisely that…just talk.

“How many announcements about Sun and Linux have you seen over the years?” asked Torvalds rhetorically. “And how much of that has actually happened?”

He even alleged that Linux – the Unix-like open source operating system (OS) named after him – has hurt Sun badly…decimating the company’s hegemony over the chip design market. (“SPARC performance is so horribly bad…that to do chip design on them is just idiotic.”)

With that sort of experience, he said, Sun “sure as hell [doesn’t] want to help Linux.”

Sun, Torvalds suggested, is keeping close to the vest some of the more interesting features of the Open Solaris-Open Source project — such as ZFS, a file system for arranging data on computer storage — while giving back “the stuff that doesn’t matter.”

He wanted to know why it took Sun “so long” to release Java under the General Public License, version 2 (GPLv2), and suggested the eventual release was more because other Java implementations started becoming more relevant than any desire to give back to the open source community.

His lengthy diatribe notwithstanding, the Linux champion did end on a somewhat positive note (from Sun’s perspective).

Torvalds’ post closed with some words of praise for the Sun CEO (“the good news is [he] actually does seem to have made a difference”) and it expressed the ardent hope that Schwartz was really as serious about open-sourcing things as he claimed to be.

It was just the opening – or in this case the closing – that Schwartz needed. In a “turning swords into ploughshares” kind of message posted on his own blog page (on the Sun site) Schwartz expressed the hope that by joining forces, Sun and the Linux community could bring “transparency and opportunity” to the entire planet.

“You’re not the enemy for us, we’re not the enemy for you,” the Sun CEO declared. “Most of the world doesn’t have access to the Internet – that’s the enemy to slay, the divide that separates us.”

Denying the charge that Linux had hurt Sun (“No, not a bit”) Schwartz listed Sun’s “contributions” to the open source world, and Linux, specifically: freeing OpenOffice, elements of Gnome, Mozilla, delivering Java and so on.

Some of Sun’s actions that Torvalds criticized, Schwartz attributed to prudence, not predation. “Are we after your drivers? No more than you’re after ZFS or Crossbow or dtrace…Let’s stop wasting time recreating wheels we both need to roll forward.”

On balance, I think in the Torvalds-Schwartz interchange so far, the Sun chief has emerged as the clear “winner.” He has decisively – yet elegantly – responded to most of Torvalds’ accusations – such as his faulting Sun for not releasing OpenSolaris under GNU GPLv2, which currently governs Linux. (The license for OpenSolaris is the Community Development and Distribution License, which Sun created based on the Mozilla Public License).

Schwartz responded that Sun is leaning towards supporting GPLv3 — which should be released in its final version in the next few weeks as an option for OpenSolaris and other Sun open-source projects — before GPLv2, which Torvalds prefers.

The differences between GPLv2 and v3 have caused a public rift between Torvalds and other key members of the open-source community.

“We love where the FSF’s GPL3 is headed,” Schwartz wrote, citing a “variety of mechanical reasons” why it would be difficult to license OpenSolaris under GPLv2, and re-iterating it has “nothing to do with being afraid of the [open source] community.”

While Torvalds made some good points, I believe his post was a bit over the top, and his take on Sun’s contribution to open source computing, not entirely fair.

For instance, he suggests that ZFS – a file system in Sun’s OpenSolaris Unix OS that is generating a lot of buzz – is the only worthwhile Sun offering to the world of computing.

ZFS is undoubtedly a great tool, but surely there’s more – and it absolutely doesn’t help to discount or minimize other Sun contributions (some of which Schwartz lists in his riposte).

As a Toronto-based security consultant who blogs under the title The Lost Admin writes:

Sun has certainly had many great ideas and given considerably more to the world of computing. Because of Sun we have Java. Without Sun I doubt we would have OpenOffice or anything close to it (yes there is KOffice and it is coming along nicely but it still doesn’t compare to OpenOffice). What has IBM given back? What about HP? It seems to me that the only major UNIX vendor to give anything significant back to the Open Source community is Sun. It may not be GPL, but neither is the BSD license or the Apache license.

True enough. And not to recognize Sun’s valid contributions would erode the credibility of really valid criticisms one might make re. Sun and Open Source.

And some pertinent observations were made by a Canadian who is prominent in the open source community, Theo de Raadt, based in Calgary, AB.

I actually found de Raadt’s arguments more substantial and specific than those advanced by Torvalds.

De Raadt is project coordinator for OpenBSD – the freely redistributable operating system with an emphasis on security de Raadt co-created (in 1999) and OpenSSH (Open Secure Shell) that’s now incorporated into all Unix systems in addition to scores of other network enabled products.

OpenSSH is a set of computer programs providing encrypted communication sessions over a computer network using the SSH protocol. It is used by many to connect securely to and from Solaris (or Linux) machines.

In his response to Schwartz’s blog de Raadt noted that OpenBSD and OpenSSH iare “offered freely” to users, even without standard caveats found in the GPL or CDDL.

Yet, he says, when the OpenBSD project asks Sun for documentation on the chips used in the newer Sun machines – “chips Sun themselves designed, not via contractors” – the company drags its feet.

In my view, De Raadt offers far more forceful evidence that Sun is not playing fair than any of the arguments made by Torvalds.

With files from Elizabeth Montalbano, Computerworld

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