Sun Insists Red Hat Linux Is Proprietary

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2004-05-26

Sun Insists Red Hat Linux Is Proprietary

Sun Microsystems Inc. President Jonathan Schwartz says that he knows proprietary when he sees it and that Red Hat Inc.s enterprise operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, is proprietary.

Following up on his earlier arguments that RHEL is proprietary, Schwartz said, "Availability of source code isnt what qualifies you as not proprietary—Suns definition of proprietary is behavior which defeats the customers ability to compete vendors against one another, or choose from among many compatible implementations. To me, J2EE [Java 2 Enterprise Edition] is an open standard—it enables substitution and competition among multiple, competing vendors. Just like Apache."

Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, said Schwartz is confusing the issue. "There is a perfectly good word for what Mr. Schwartz is describing. That word is anti-competitive, and he should use it rather than attempting to confuse open source with proprietary," he said.

"But open source is not equivalent to open standards," Schwartz said. "An open standard is one for which multiple implementations can be used to drive compatibility up and price/cost down. Thats what customers love. Some open source can be proprietary—if it defeats this competition and defeats interoperability by erecting barriers."

Again, Raymond disagreed. "The concept of open source erecting barriers is at best dizzyingly stupid and at worst a conscious setup for a snow job," he said. "I fear in this case we are seeing the latter."

Schwartz enumerated the ways in which Red Hat behaves in a proprietary way.

"One: They provide source code, not binary. The number of customers that have the ability to build their own source trees is vanishingly small—for the most part, this isnt what CIOs or IT execs want their folks doing. This erects a proprietary barrier."

Raymond couldnt disagree more. "So, in Mr. Schwartzs universe, the fact that I may have to type, configure; make; install is a bigger anti-competitive barrier than binaries I cant see inside? In other breaking news, war is peace and freedom is slavery. Mr. Schwartz has a lucrative career waiting at Orwells Ministry of Truth after Sun goes belly-up, something Im back to thinking it will do shortly with a mind like this at the helm."

Schwartz continued, "Two: Theyre promoting binary incompatibility at the RHEL level. ISVs and customers dont simply qualify to the kernel—they qualify to the distribution. To that end, Red Hats forked kernel+distribution disables ISVs from moving from one Linux vendor to another. RHEL is available only through Red Hat. This erects a proprietary barrier."

Here, Raymond said, "This would be fair enough if he hadnt changed the subject. See those words binary incompatibility? Hes talking about an issue that is orthogonal to open source, while giving the impression that he hasnt changed topics."

Next page: Schwartz: Why Java is better.

Page Two

Java is better, according to Schwartz, because "you can select from BEA, IBM, JBoss or Suns Java Application Server. Some closed source, others more open, but all based on a neutral, compatible standard, which enables competition and choice."

Raymond pointed out though, "Schwartz neglects to mention that because of the way the SCSL [Sun Community Source License] is worded, all these implementations legally exist solely at Suns pleasure. The SCSL claims ownership rights for Sun of any technology derived from the reference implementation or the standard. So, in Schwartzs world, a license which hangs the threat of a lawsuit over your head promotes competition more than source code that no one can take away from you."

Schwartz continued, "Three: They tether their systems to the Red Hat Network. Customers that want to retrieve information contained in Red Hats database cant— the system is not open to enable customers to move to another support providers network. This erects a proprietary barrier." And "Four: As their control increases, so does their price. If Red Hat was free, customers wouldnt have to pay—so clearly its not, or Red Hat wouldnt be so aggressively raising prices. Open source doesnt equate to free—witness that Red Hat also requires customers to pay for all servers on which Red Hat is running. Blessed by the FSF [Free Software Foundation] or not—customers know full well that Red Hat is far from free."

Here, Raymond doesnt disagree. "These would be respectable arguments if Schwartz werent trying to use them to confuse the open-source [issues]."

Schwartz concluded that when you put it all together, Red Hats approach is "quite obviously proprietary."

Raymond couldnt disagree more. He sees Schwartz as attacking Red Hat in specific, and Linux in general, because Sun is in trouble. "This is desperation talking. Sun sees its business crumbling because nobody wants to be in the proprietary trap anymore, so Schwartz has been given the unenviable job of persuading the public that open source is no better.

"This campaign of doublespeak will fail for at least two reasons. One: What open source means is simple and obvious—you get the source, you get to use it any way you like, you get to modify it, and you get to redistribute it. Theres no proprietary in there."

And, "Two: Sun isnt competing against a language label, but against an actual body of software. All the term open source did was free people to see that that software is a better value than Solaris. Now that the market has had five years to grasp this fact, even successfully muddying the water about the terminology wont save Sun. Shipping better products can do that."

Some Linux users, however, do see Red Hat, while not violating the letter of the open-source GPL law, violating its principles. Others, however, are perfectly happy with how Red Hat is conducting its business.

Dan Kusnetzky, IDC vice president for system software research, has other problems with Suns approach toward Red Hat, a company that is in theory Suns leading Linux partner. "Sun over the last four or five years has done the most wonderful things for the open-source community—OpenOffice, grid computing and tools—but then they announce things in ways that undercut their efforts. Were going to help Linux grow up to be Solaris doesnt work with the open-source community."

Worse still, "Sun has to make up its mind what its going to do. Since its actions and words dont line up, major end-user organizations will buy from different vendors. Red Hat has decided to freeze their open-source operating system so they can support it. This isnt any different from what Sun does except when Sun does it, its good and when Red Hat does it, its bad. This is similar to the approach that Sun uses with IBM. On one day, theyll complain about how IBM is bad because it has so many different operating systems and platforms, and the next day theyll say how great it is that Sun supports Solaris and Linux on SPARC, Intel and AMD."

And what does Red Hat have to say about all this? Red Hat spokesperson Leigh Day simply stated, "Open source and open standards eliminate the lock-in customers experience with proprietary platforms. Open standards, such as LSB [Linux Standard Base], create interoperable, secure, flexible environments for customers and ensure application compatibility.

"Red Hat continues to regard open source as the core of business and technical strategies."

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