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New Sun open source plan raises control issue

Sun Microsystems wants to play in the open source world, but it's bucking a trend by inking its own open source license instead of the model used by Linux and favored by programmers.

NEW YORK--Sun Microsystems wants to play in the open source world, but on its own terms.

The company tomorrow will move its software operation further into the open source realm, whereby a program's instructions can be viewed and modified freely, rather than guarded jealously like the crown jewels. At the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here, Sun will announce plans to freely distribute the source code for some of its important networking software.

But the company is bucking a trend by inking its own open source license instead of the model used by Linux and favored by programmers and open source advocates.

Sun plans to release the latest version of Network File System, or NFS, under a new license called the Sun Industry Standard Source License, sources familiar with the deal said. NFS is software developed by Sun for sharing files over a network. In addition, Sun will back the University of Michigan to promote a Linux version of NFS. Sun officials were not available for comment.

The move is the latest chapter in Sun's attempts to benefit from the embrace of the open source model without relinquishing control over how programmers use the software. Joining the open source movement offers not only good publicity for Sun, but also the potential help of numerous volunteer programmers to further product development. Terms of Sun's new NFS source license have not yet been disclosed. But if Sun's history with earlier licenses is a guide, the company isn't likely to gain the goodwill of the open source community without ceding more control over its software.

Other computer industry companies are moving away from custom-made open source licenses, which are the legal documents that define how software may be shared. But Sun, one of the few big computer companies to completely eschew the trend toward support Microsoft's hugely popular Windows operating system, rarely is afraid of marching to a different drummer. Given the company's successful Internet server hardware business, it can afford to go it alone, analysts say.

The open source process allows numerous individuals and companies to participate in a collective programming effort such as that which has created Linux, a low-cost clone of Unix, a competitor to Microsoft Windows and the most noted success of the open source world.

Several companies have chosen to release their own software under an open source license instead of closely guarding the code, using the argument that opening up their software will make it more popular with programmers and customers. And increasingly, the Gnu General Public License under which Linux is released is the popular choice.

The GPL, originally written by Free Software Foundation leader Richard Stallman, allows software developed by one company to be used by another. For example, in the case of Linux, Red Hat's RPM installation and update software was released under the GPL and is used by competitor Caldera Systems, among other makers.

Sun Microsystems, which prefers to maintain control over its own technology, has shunned the GPL even as other companies seem to be converging on the GPL for releasing their software.

Sun has devised a variety of other quasi-open source licenses for releasing its software. The first was the Community Source License, which was booed by open source fans who objected to the control Sun would retain and the limits placed on redistribution of modified software. Sun also has said it will release the source code of its Solaris operating system under a new license that also permits changes but still requires a different license for incorporating those changes in shipping products.

Sun plans to announce the news at the Linux expo, a show that has grown to fill the large Jacob Javits Center in New York. Sun last week said more of its software would be released under a variety of licenses.

Other firms have embraced the GPL for their open source plans. For example, e-commerce software from OpenSales and Akopia both are released under the GPL. SGI has said it will release its XFS file system--currently expected midway through this year--under the GPL. Hewlett-Packard's automatic deal-making e-speak software is under the GPL. And Creative Labs released sound card drivers under the GPL.

Longtime GPL supporter Red Hat believes the license is the best to choose when a company is hoping to harness the talent of open-source programmers without making them feel like they're being used.

"I think it's a clear trend. The GPL has been the most successful license at spawning a large community of development," said Paul McNamara, general manager of Red Hat's enterprise business unit. "I think the GPL has struck that proper balance in terms of providing a level of freedom to the developers while preserving the future of the openness of the code they're developing," McNamara said.