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By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-01-25 Print this article Print

An even more important question than what Sun is going to release to open source and when, according to industry rivals and analysts alike, is: Will Sun have a large enough open-source community to do anything effective with the operating system?

"If Sun open-sources Solaris, this would mean that Solaris and open would no longer be mutually exclusive concepts. An open-source version of Solaris would also be an alternative to Linux and in particular Red Hat Linux," said Stacey Quandt, senior business analyst with the Robert Frances Group.

"While at first blush this could easily be described as a marketing exercise for Sun, the reality is the open-sourcing of Solaris could be beneficial to IT executives if Sun is able to draw interest beyond the current Solaris installed base and new sources of Solaris support become available," added Quandt.

But "the challenge for Sun is whether it can create a vibrant open-source developer community that includes the technical and cultural attributes of Solaris engineering buttressed by participation from a broad number of developers outside of the current Solaris community," Quandt concluded.

"Providing Solaris source code under some recognized open-source license is one thing. Its quite another thing to build an active community around a specific code base," warned IDCs Kusnetzky.

Webbink agreed. "Its not about the license, its about the community," he said. "So how is Sun going to instantly attract hundreds or thousands of developers to Solaris when they have never had the opportunity to work with the source code before?

"Red Hat has experienced this before with some of the companies we have acquired," said Webbink. "It is much harder to build a community around pre-existing software than one might believe, and until such a community exists and then is making the bulk of the enhancements to the code base, the technology largely remains a Sun proprietary product.

"Its interesting that a company that has contributed so much to open-source projects like GNOME was willing to continue to milk its proprietary Solaris cash cow up to the point that it would no longer give milk. Now they want the community to step in and nurse the cow back to health," Webbink commented.

"Generally, we support open source and open standards, so, to the extent Suns move contributes positively to that, great," said Novell Inc. spokesperson Bruce Lowry.

But "Linux certainly has a broad and vibrant community around it, both in terms of developers as well as support from leading IHVs [independent hardware vendors] and ISVs [independent software vendors]," Lowry said. "It has taken a number of years to reach this stage. Sun will have to try to build this community from scratch. Its not clear that the bottom up approach that has worked so well for Linux will apply to a scenario in which one vendor is trying to promote a technology it has developed."

According to Goguen, though, Sun already has an Open Solaris community of more than 100 people and the company expects this groups membership to grow.

Still, its too early to tell what Suns attempt to open-source Solaris will mean, Kusnetzky cautioned. "At this point, there are different views on what it means. One group thinks that this move, taken by itself, would not be sufficient to change the overall market dynamics Sun faces. Another group thinks that this move might increase Suns opportunities. Well all have to wait and see," he said.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is editor at large for Ziff Davis Enterprise. Prior to becoming a technology journalist, Vaughan-Nichols worked at NASA and the Department of Defense on numerous major technological projects. Since then, he's focused on covering the technology and business issues that make a real difference to the people in the industry.

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