Analysts: Suns Open Solaris Plans Face Problems

 
 
By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-01-25
 
 
 

Analysts: Suns Open Solaris Plans Face Problems


On Tuesday, Sun Microsystems Inc. will announce that it will be using its newly minted Common Development and Distribution License open-source license for its long-promised Open Solaris project. However, creating a developer community around such plans to open-source Solaris will not be easy—for many reasons—according to analysts and industry figures.

Sun has long promised that it would open-source Solaris, but it has yet to answer in detail how it will deal with questions about The SCO Group Inc.s Unix intellectual property claims.

"Its hard for me to understand this [Sun open-sourcing Solaris]," said Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs program vice president for system software, back in September. "While Sun prepaid their royalties for Unix a long time ago, they would still agree that it is a derivative work—it is Unix. The SCO Group is the current owner of Unix and is not at all likely to allow its intellectual property to be freely given away under any open-source license."

SCO spokesperson Blake Stowell added at the time: "All I can say is that Sun has the broadest rights of any Unix licensee while at the same time were confident that Sun knows and understands the terms of that Unix license."

Tom Goguen, Suns vice president of the operating platforms group, did tell eWEEKs Peter Galli that Sun does not have the legal permission to open-source some Solaris 10 source code. This is mostly third-party specifications and drivers, according to Goguen.

Even if the code is open, Suns CDDL is not compatible with the GNU GPL (General Public License). "Like the Mozilla Public License, the CDDL is not expected to be compatible with the GPL, since it contains requirements that are not in the GPL," said Claire Giordano, a member of Suns CDDL team.

The CDDL has other problems for open-source developers as well, according to Mark Webbink, Red Hat Inc.s associate general counsel. "Some of the license attributes that Sun trumpets actually have the potential of making the software not fully open," he said. "For example, by permitting a different license for the binaries, it will be possible for the binaries to have all of the attributes of proprietary code.

"Heres how this works. The source is made available under the CDDL, but the party building the binaries uses a proprietary compiler that is not readily available and then licenses the binary on a royalty-bearing basis," Webbink said. "Even though they make the source available under the CDDL, the end user would have no ability to replicate the binaries without obtaining a license to the proprietary compiler."

As its first small step to open-sourcing Solaris, Sun will be releasing Solaris DTrace technology. DTrace is a dynamic tracing framework for Solaris that provides an infrastructure to trace the operating system and user programs behavior. Sun, however, will not be releasing the compilers and libraries needed to build a functional program from it.

Next Page: Will Sun have a large enough open-source community?

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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.

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