Sun Open-Source Support Questioned

News Analysis: Sun's handling of the OpenDS project brings its commitment to open source into question.

Despite a broad overture to provide greater support for its open-source projects, Sun Microsystems is facing criticism for the handling of yet another open-source effort started by former Sun employees.

A former Sun engineer has accused the company of using strong-arm tactics to wrest away control of an open-source project known as OpenDS (Open Directory Service) and suggested the company's overall support for truly open, open-source technology might be in question.

However, Sun officials deny the claims and recently demonstrated that the company is indeed dedicated to supporting open-source projects. On Dec. 5, Sun announced a multi-year program called the Open Source Community Innovation Awards Program, which Sun officials said will foster innovation and recognize some of the most interesting initiatives within Sun-sponsored, open-source communities worldwide.

To participate in the program's first year, Sun has selected six communities: GlassFish, NetBeans, OpenJDK,, OpenSolaris and OpenSPARC. Awards are expected to total at least $1 million a year, Sun officials said.

However, in a Nov. 28 blog, Neil Wilson, a former engineer in the directory server group at Sun and an owner and committer to the open source OpenDS project, said Sun bullied him and a handful of colleagues into ceding control of OpenDS over to Sun. OpenDS is an open-source community project building a free, Java-based, next-generation directory service designed to address large deployments, to provide high performance, to be highly extensible, and to be easy to deploy, manage and monitor, according to the project description.

Wilson said he began working at Sun in October 2001 and was laid off from the company in September 2007, along with three other OpenDS project owners. Wilson said that despite being laid off by Sun, he and the other OpenDS project leaders planned to continue to be involved with the project and to share control of the effort they had contributed to extensively.


Click here to read more about Sun open-sourcing an enterprise toolset.

Yet, said Wilson: "On Nov. 14, 2007, a member of executive management within Sun's software division contacted one of the recently-laid-off OpenDS project owners and demanded that the owners approve a governance change that would grant Sun full control of the OpenDS project. During this call, we were threatened that if we did not make this change we could face immediate termination and loss of all severance benefits. The four former-Sun owners discussed this and decided that we could not in good conscience approve the requested change as we did not believe that it would be in the best interests of the project, but we were also not willing to risk the considerable financial loss that could result if Sun decided to make good on that threat."

Meanwhile, "we were ultimately compelled to resign our ownership and end our association with the project on Nov. 19, 2007," Wilson said.

He accused Sun of "hostile tactics" to gain control of the OpenDS project, but added: "This is most certainly not in the spirit of open source and open development that we tried to foster or that Sun claims to embody."

Moreover, Wilson said, "I believe and certainly hope that the public statements made by individuals like CEO Jonathan Schwartz and Chief Open Source Officer Simon Phipps are honest and that Sun truly does want to be a genuine, community-focused, open-source company, and I have no reason to believe that they were aware of or involved with any of what happened with OpenDS."

Sun was unable to provide a response for this story by the time it was published. However, in fairness to Sun, the company's primary spokesman on the issue, Phipps, has been traveling in Asia for a week, and Sun has promised eWEEK an upcoming interview with Phipps.

Michael Goulde, an analyst with Forrester Research, said the issue of whether "Wilson did this or that is not of interest to us. We're more wondering about the future of the OpenDS project and whether Sun is serious about allowing open-source communities to grow and thrive around Sun technology or whether Sun's desire to control the communities will stifle them."


Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk, agreed. "It's an unfortunate situation all around and is doing none of the parties involved any good," O'Grady said. "Based on the SVN [Subversion] histories that's available, it's a fact that the governance was changed, but as to who changed what, when and why, and who was consulted about the matter, it's a he said-she said situation."

"Those who have been enamored with Sun's announcements around open sourcing Java have been ignoring the painful fact that community governance matters," said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, who has tracked the OpenDS saga. "Sun has a long track record with many communities—Java/JCP, OpenOffice, OpenJDK and now OpenDS—of embracing the mantle of open source leader while exerting their corporate control. As a result, those projects are being run for the benefit of Sun's shareholders, not the open-source or free-software communities. Those involved forget that at their peril."

Michael Dolan, a Linux strategist at IBM, in a blog post, said: "The only reason anyone should be surprised by anything Sun does with OpenSolaris, OpenDS or any of the other Sun open-source projects it controls is because that person has fundamentally created an expectation that access to source code meant more than just that—and that is a flawed assumption."


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