Oracle apparently shuts doors on OpenSolaris

According to a leaked memo, Oracle will release Solaris source code only after its versions of the OS ship, a move that cuts off the OpenSolaris project.

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Five years after Sun Microsystems began a bold effort to rejuvenate Solaris by attracting outside programming involvement, Oracle apparently is scrapping what remains of the OpenSolaris project.

Oracle acquired the Sun version of Unix in January, but has shown little of Sun's interest in building a vibrant external community of programmers around Solaris to match some of Linux's collaborative advantages. The OpenSolaris board has been left in limbo with no contact from the company for months. Even with no official communications, though, Oracle's inattention sent a strong indirect message that OpenSolaris wasn't on the company's priority list.

Now Steven Stallion, a programmer who worked on OpenSolaris for four years, published on Friday an Oracle memo that appears to lay out the company's new Solaris position. Oracle didn't respond to my question about the memo's authenticity, but it passes the sniff test for me, and it's another blow to OpenSolaris.

Sun released Solaris source code under an open-source license called the Community Development and Distribution License. That license will continue to be used, meaning at least some of Solaris will be openly available, but only as an afterthought rather than in a way that would let outside programmers actively shape the software as it's created, it appears.

"We will distribute updates to approved CDDL or other open source-licensed code following full releases of our enterprise Solaris operating system. In this manner, new technology innovations will show up in our releases before anywhere else. We will no longer distribute source code for the entirety of the Solaris operating system in real-time while it is developed, on a nightly basis," said the memo, written by Mike Shapiro, Bill Nesheim, Chris Armes. "We will not release any other binary distributions, such as nightly or bi-weekly builds of Solaris binaries, or an OpenSolaris 2010.05 or later distribution."

The move shows how dramatically Sun's products are being reshaped under the new ownership. Oracle is a large company accustomed to playing hardball and attuned to the profit priorities of a publicly traded company. Solaris, Sparc, and Java are becoming mere business assets to be sold rather than the mechanisms by which Sun tried to revolutionize the computing industry.

Open-source Solaris development isn't entirely over, however. One new project that some programmers hope will carry the OpenSolaris torch is Illumos, sponsored by a company called Nexenta that packages some OpenSolaris and Linux elements into a storage-specific software product. Illumos has drawn partnerships from a variety of OpenSolaris-related projects, including BeleniX and Schillix.

Illumos "can't be shut down or subverted by any corporate master," according to a presentation by Nexenta's Garrett D'Amore at the Illumos project launch earlier in August. "We want a collaborative and cooperative relationship with Oracle and other corporate partners. But we don't depend on it."

Illumos programmers are working on replacing the components of Solaris that never had been released as open-source software. Ultimately, they hope to do so in a way that maintains compatibility with Solaris, so that software for it runs on Illumos.

One argument for open-source development is that it makes life easier for technology partners--for example, those writing driver software that lets hardware communicate with an operating system. That, at least in theory, can create better software and a community of cooperating programmers.

But Oracle indicated the preferred mechanism for such cooperation will be through the sort of gated mechanism more common to proprietary software projects. In this case, it's the Oracle Technology Network that will be used to scrutinize Solaris source code and to accept any possible third-party contributions, according to the memo:

We will have a technology partner program to permit our industry partners full access to the in-development Solaris source code through the Oracle Technology Network (OTN). This will include both early access to code and binaries, as well as contributions to us where that is appropriate. All such partnerships will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but certainly our core, existing technology partnerships, such as the one with Intel, are examples of valued participation...

We will deliver technical design information, in the form of documentation, design documents, and source code descriptions, through our OTN presence for Solaris. We will no longer post advance technical descriptions of every single ARC [Architectural Review Committee] case by default, indicating what technical innovations might be present in future Solaris releases. We can at any time make a specific decision to post advance technical information for any project, when it serves a particular useful need to do so.

The news deepened the gloom on the OpenSolaris Governing Board mailing list. But it should be noted that OpenSolaris never achieved anything like the broad programmer support of Linux, which included not just numerous volunteers but numerous companies as well.

Although Sun had hoped to create a more vibrant developer environment, many customers just consumed the bits and ran their servers, never even glancing at the source code, as indeed many do with Linux as well.

For those in the Solaris realm, Oracle's management may not be such a bad thing, even if it means Solaris is reverting to its less glamorous earlier state of just another version of Unix competing with IBM's AIX and Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX.

That's because, despite departures of notable engineers such as DTrace co-inventor Bryan Cantrill, Oracle plans to hire more Solaris engineers.

"We are increasing investment in Solaris, including hiring operating system expertise from throughout the industry, as a sign of our commitment," the memo said. "Solaris is not something we outsource to others, it is not the assembly of someone else's technology, and it is not a sustaining-only product...Our goal is simply to make [Solaris 11] the best and most important release of Solaris ever."