Analysts Question Suns Open-Source Solaris Plans

Sun's plans to offer Solaris code to the open-source community leaves some analysts scratching their heads.

Sun Microsystems Inc. says that its going to open-source Solaris, but analysts and industry insiders arent sure how Sun will manage it or what such a move will mean for Sun.

Sun itself seems to be of two minds on the matter. On one hand, Sun says that is on track to deliver code to the open-source community. The Santa Clara, Calif., company is hoping the move helps turn around its lagging software business.

On the other hand, the company is also supporting Linux. John Loiacono, Suns executive vice president for software, told eWEEK in an earlier interview that "[t]he reason we have both Solaris and Linux is that I dont control the Linux [intellectual property], which limits my ability to innovate."

Such statements lead some analysts to believe that Sun needs to rethink its approach to open source. "The claim that not controlling Linux limits ones ability to innovate is a load of horse puckey," said Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative. "In open source, you always have that ability, up to and including forking the code base, if you dont like the way things are being run."

However, while Sun has paid more than $100 million over the years to gain broad rights to Unix, there are still limitations, said Blake Stowell, a spokesperson for The SCO Group Inc. "As with any Unix licensing agreement, certain restrictions apply regarding what can and cant be done with the Unix source code and derivatives of that code," he said.

Unlike the ongoing SCO-IBM case, where IBM denies that there is any Unix code in Linux, Stowell said, "Solaris is clearly a derivative of Unix and Sun knows and understands the terms of that Unix license. Were confident that Sun will continue to honor the terms of that license going forward."

Analysts are also questioning whether Sun will support Intel-compatible architectures in addition to SPARC, and which open-source license Sun will issue with the code. "If Sun releases only Solaris for SPARC with a peculiar open-source license thats not compatible with the GPL [General Public License], its not going to be a big deal. All youll get is the right to help Sun improve its software," said Gary Barnett, IT research director at Ovum Inc.

Stacey Quandt, senior business analyst with the Robert Frances Group, agreed that the license issue was critical. "The open-source license Sun chooses for Solaris will be key and will define its strategy," she said.

"Sun can pontificate on the number of current Solaris licenses, performance capabilities and total cost of ownership all it wants, but if Sun doesnt have a clear open-source license for Solaris that supports innovation and reciprocity, it will be meaningless, Quandt concluded.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about Suns long road to open-sourcing Solaris.

Barnett warned that it would be a bad idea for Sun to try to create its own open-source license. "Sun needs to be very careful. If they produce a license thats not in the sprit of the open-source community, they wont do themselves any favors at all."

The "open-source community would be far better off without another variation of an open-source license," he added. "Here, at Ovum, we already see clients struggling with too many open-source licenses as it is."

Still, he said, if "Sun gives it a more liberal license and makes Solaris open source on Intel, then I can see that having a significant impact on Suns hardware business. If youre a company considering spending several million on SPARC, and [there is] a cheap way to switch to Intel, youre certainly going to consider it."

He said he would be surprised if Sun were to make it easier to move away from SPARC.

Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software for research firm IDC, wondered what Sun is hoping to accomplish by open-sourcing Solaris. "Would offering Solaris under some sort of open-source license really make a difference?" he asked.

Kusnetzky suggests that "Sun is hoping that making source code available will cause a community as large, as diverse and as enthusiastic as that around Linux to gather around Solaris. Just offering source code is not enough to create such a community. Sun would need to do a great deal of work to make that happen."

His shortlist of what Sun needs to do to make open-source Solaris successful includes: creating special ISV programs to get software companies such as Oracle Corp., Sybase Inc., and IBM to join; creating special programs to get other hardware companies, such as Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Silicon Graphics Inc. to join; and convincing a large number of governmental organizations and developers to no longer see Solaris as proprietary. Kusnetzky sums this up as "a large task indeed."

Despite these hurdles, the Open Source Initiatives Raymond is cautiously optimistic about open-source Solaris. "Sun is trying to hack its way to a solution that harnesses the power of the open-source movement, rather than fighting it. Thats a good thing. Its [to be] expected there will be a bit of confusion along the way."

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