Sun Charts Its Future as Java Turns 10

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2005-05-10

Sun Charts Its Future as Java Turns 10

Sun Microsystems Java has just turned 10 years old. And it seems Sun is already planning for how to handle the difficulties of adolescence.

While there wasnt much directly said about Java at Suns Network Computing quarterly event in Washington, D.C., last week, Sun CEO Scott McNealy and Executive Vice President John Loiciano made it clear that Sun is getting its business model ready for Java—and much of the rest of the companys software portfolio—to be released into the open-source wilds.

While Sun hasnt exactly kept Java on a tight leash over the past decade, the company has been a very protective parent. But the degree of control Sun can exert over Java has been eroding for some time—especially as open-source implementations of Java start to gain traction. While Sun has not directly moved to open-source Java, it has not put up much of a fight about others doing so.

Open-source advocates have long sought to open-source Java. Click here to read more.

First there was Marc Fleurys JBoss, which completed J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) compatibility certification last July. Then came JOnAS, ObjectWebs open-source J2EE server, which Sun certified in February.

And the Apache Software Foundation continues development of Geronimo, a project that aims to create a fully certified J2EE "container" (the core element of a J2EE application server) with an Apache license—meaning it could be freely incorporated into any software project. While JBoss clearly has the current momentum in the open-source J2EE space, an Apache-licensed J2EE engine could spawn a thousand derivative projects that could claim J2EE compatibility on their own without having to go through Suns Compatibility Test Kit gateway.

Does J2EE matter? Click here to read why Oracles Ted Farrell says it does.

And while theres been plenty of background discussion about Sun and the Java Community Process putting J2SE (Java 2 Standard Edition)—the core of Java—into some form of open source, the ASF may beat Sun to the punch. A group within the ASF (including Geir Magnusson Jr., the chair of Apaches Jakarta Project, the umbrella for many of the ASFs Java efforts) is now exploring the development of a community-developed J2SE run time.

The project, code-named Harmony, got its kickoff in a proposal submitted to the ASF Incubator Project Management Committee on May 6. If approved (and it appears that Harmony has plenty of support), Apache will set a working group down the road toward a totally open implementation of J2SE 5.

So, once theres a certified, open-source, freely reusable and pluggable version of Java available, what does that mean to Suns Java licensing business? I asked Loiciano that question in a conversation we had at Suns Network Computing event.

"Its a question of, What is a brand worth to people?" he said. "You buy Coke and Pepsi for different reasons, but theyre essentially the same stuff. Theres a branded certified version that well stand behind, for enterprise, mission-critical applications."

Suns value proposition for Java, then, is that it will keep the Java standard from "forking"—breaking off into multiple, incompatible code bases, as Loiciano says Linux has. "The same [open source] foundation does not turn into compatibility," he said, pointing to incompatibilities between different distributions of Linux.

Next Page: Community development.

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At the same time, Sun executives have gone out of the way to promote the companys open-source street cred. At last weeks NC event—as at previous events—Sun CEO Scott McNealy invoked the name of Bill Joy, Suns co-founder, and a long line of open standards backed by the company to show how strong Suns community-based development ties are. "To use something of an Al Gore-ism," McNealy said to his Washington audience, "we invented community [development]."

McNealy stated again what Sun executives had said in January—that Solaris 10 would be open-sourced in its entirety at the end of the second quarter of 2005. Loiciano reiterated that OpenSolaris will be released "in the May/June time frame" during our conversation, and pointed to that as evidence of how serious the company is about moving most, if not all, of its software to some sort of open-source project.

Click here for more details on Suns OpenSolaris plans.

"Looking ahead, we are evaluating how much more and how fast we can move more of our code base to an open-source foundation," he said. "When people ask me whether Im going to take any specific [software] open source, I say, Well, we did it with Solaris 10, so what do you think?"

Theres a simple reason for Suns emphatic embrace of openness—software licensing, in the long term, isnt the key to the companys long-term business model. In fact, open standards are what Sun is counting on to help it build what McNealy sees as the companys future: computing resources provided as a commodity utility to network-connected customers.

"Electricity is a commodity," said McNealy, drawing an analogy between what he hopes will be Suns business and that of General Electric. "But the equipment that makes it isnt." In an echo of the Internet boom, McNealy hopes that his company will be the equipment provider to network and Web services providers as they build a grid of hosted applications and computing resources—like those built by Google, Amazon and eBay.

Sun Connection, the banner for Suns emerging networked services offerings, is just the first step Sun is taking toward a world where everything it sells is offered to at least some of its customers as a service. Patch and configuration management services are just the first step in connecting Sun customers to Suns server dial tone—whether Sun hosts it or sells its components wholesale to service providers.

So, Sun is embracing open source now for the same reasons IBM and HP have—because theres more money to be made in services than in software licenses. The difference is in the packaging: Suns vision of services, as McNealy puts it, is "any color, as long as its black"—driving the cost of services down through standardization, and leaving it to Sun partners (like the folks in the audience at the Washington event) to do the detailing.

With Suns future hitched to providing IT dial tone, Loiciano says that the trend will continue to be for Sun to offer software as free-to-use and/or open source to help drive adoption—and less on Sun charging for licenses. Whether thats a real business model or an attempt to put a good spin on the inevitable is still open to debate.

Sean Gallagher is senior editor of Ziff Davis Internets vertical enterprise sites.

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