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Sun considers GPL 3 license for Solaris

But chances of cooperation between Solaris and Linux are clouded because Linux will remain under GPL 2.

Sun Microsystems is considering a dual-licensing move that could raise tantalizing possibilities of open-source cooperation between Linux and Sun's Solaris operating system, but legal issues complicate the possibility.

The server and software company is considering releasing Solaris under the forthcoming version 3 of the General Public License in addition to the Community Development and Distribution License that currently governs the Unix variant, Sun President Jonathan Schwartz said in his blog Friday.

"We want to do what we can to drive more efficiency and cross-pollination between Linux and OpenSolaris," Schwartz said. "Why recreate the wheel with technologies like DTrace and ZFS--or GRUB and Xen?" (DTrace and ZFS are Solaris technologies for sophisticated performance analysis and file storage, respectively; GRUB and Xen, technologies for booting computers and running multiple operating systems, were first developed for use alongside Linux, but Sun is building them into Solaris.)

But there are legal barriers that could curtail sharing between different open-source software realms. Linux kernel project leader Linus Torvalds has said Linux will stay under the current version 2 of the GPL. That means that if Solaris is released under version 3, it's not necessarily the case that software from one project could be incorporated into the other.

"If the two licenses have differing terms, there may be a conflict between the two when you try to move back and forth," said Brian Ferguson, an intellectual-property attorney and BlackBerry customer at McDermott, Will & Emery. "If we start fracturing off more and more with different licenses, it becomes more of a legal landmine for everyone."

Schwartz publishes his musings on a public blog--and encourages his subordinates to do the same--in an attempt to restore the luster, relevance and, ultimately, business strength of his Santa Clara, Calif.-based company. Putting Solaris back in customers' minds is a key part of that blogging effort, but Sun is employing other methods as well to regain ground Solaris lost to Linux in recent years. Sun now is emulating two factors in Linux's success by making Solaris open-source software and bringing it to computers using x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.

Cross-pollination could be helpful for both operating systems. Linux could get some Solaris features--multithreading software, for example--while Solaris could benefit from Linux's relatively rich support for peripheral devices that plug into computers.

Torvalds oversees the Linux kernel, which is at the heart of the open-source operating system generally called Linux. But many other components of the operating system under other programmers' control, including the GNOME user interface, are governed by the GPL and are outside Torvalds' jurisdiction.

Schwartz has criticized the GPL, arguing that its provisions make it difficult to mingle it with proprietary software projects. But he acknowledged in his blog that some Sun customers prefer it and said the GPL is the leading contender for the open-source license for its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor.

"We've yet to pick the open-source license under which the core intellectual property behind our multithreaded Niagara systems will ship," Schwartz said, "although we're biasing to GPL."

HP backing Sun's Solaris?
Also in his blog, Schwartz said HP is backing Solaris 10 for use on its ProLiant line of x86 servers. "HP has joined ranks with IBM to support Solaris on their x64 platforms," leaving Dell the only top server maker without "a committed Solaris support plan," Schwartz said.

"They're going to provide full support for Solaris on their servers," Larry Singer, Sun's strategic insight officer, said in an interview Thursday. When customers have a problem, they'll be able to call HP for support, though it's not clear who ultimately will pick up the phone and fix the problem, he said.

But HP denies that there's been any change in its level of enthusiasm for Solaris, saying customers will have to contact Sun for operating-system support. Although HP still provides some certifications that Solaris works on some of its x86 servers, the reason for it is to lure Solaris x86 customers away from Sun toward HP and Linux.

"Enabling 64-bit Solaris 10 on Opteron-based ProLiant servers is an extension of HP's Sun Attack program--a way to provide a solution for customers who are interested in moving from Sun/Solaris to an industry-standard HP solution," HP said in a statement.

But Singer was more enthusiastic about the relationship with HP. The Silicon Valley rivals have had "ongoing discussions for quite some time (about) synergies between us. This is a very important first step," Singer said. "We just announced the 4 millionth registered license of Solaris, and a huge percentage of them are in his installed base. HP is astute about how they satisfy that demand."

Singer said HP has become more supportive of Solaris 10 because of the arrival of Chief Executive Mark Hurd, "a pragmatic, operational guy (who cares) less about religion and ideology," Singer said.

HP has long offered some basic Solaris support on some server configurations, but the company doesn't promote it. And the degree of support pales in comparison to what it has offered for Windows or Linux.

Sun offers Solaris 10 for free, charging $120 to $360 per processor per year for various ranges of support.

Sun did manage to extract a Solaris endorsement from IBM. Big Blue is certifying Solaris for its BladeCenter servers, though that work isn't quite done. "Solaris 10 works on BladeCenter today, but we are planning for IBM ServerProven operating-system support to be completed in the next month," spokesman John Crowe said.

However, IBM's Solaris enthusiasm isn't unbounded. In an interview this month, Susan Whitney, the company's top x86 server executive, said customers are only using Solaris x86 in unusual circumstances in which "it's not cost-justified...to migrate it" to Linux on Intel.