Open-source clan in spat with Sun

The OpenBSD project leader accuses Sun Microsystems of hindering development of the open-source software for its newer computers. Sun is scrambling to cooperate in response.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors | Semiconductors | Web browsers | Quantum computing | Supercomputers | AI | 3D printing | Drones | Computer science | Physics | Programming | Materials science | USB | UWB | Android | Digital photography | Science Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
5 min read
A leading OpenBSD programmer has accused Sun Microsystems of hindering development of the open-source software for its newer computers, causing Sun to scramble to cooperate with the project in response.

OpenBSD project leader Theo de Raadt said he's been trying for a year to obtain low-level details from Sun about its UltraSparc III chip. Without it, OpenBSD programmers have been unable to boot their operating system on newer Sun systems.

Sun has now promised to give OpenBSD the same information it provided to higher-profile, open-source projects such as Linux. "Sun has committed to working with OpenBSD to...ensure they are extended the same information as other open-source communities," the company said in a statement.

The tussle illustrates the sometimes awkward interaction between the free-wheeling, open-source world and the more staid corporate realm. While companies such as Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard have been trying to tap into the vitality and products of the open-source world--which allows anybody to modify and redistribute its shared software--cultural and legal barriers persist.

"There's no one you can talk to. Everybody stonewalls you," de Raadt said of Sun in an interview.

De Raadt escalated his efforts last week in a posting to an OpenBSD e-mail list, requesting that programmers send the Sun executive responsible requests to release the necessary information. The strong-arm tactic has worked in the past to get companies such as Adaptec and QLogic to share information, he said.

But Sun didn't put its open-source community liaison officer, Danese Cooper, in touch with de Raadt until after CNET News.com informed the company of his dissatisfaction. Cooper is "already well-known in the open-source software community," Sun representatives said. But the company acknowledged it needs to improve its work with open-source groups, saying the task would be addressed "within the next few weeks."

Cooper has been responsive and is pressing the OpenBSD case within Sun, said de Raadt, but he's reserving judgment until he gets what he needs. "I'm not jaded, but I don't accept that reality has changed until the documentation has arrived," he said.

De Raadt has a history of not mincing words or shunning controversy. He's refused to back down in a trademark fight with SSH Communications Security over the OpenSSH name and, he rejected a software utility when its author explicitly forbade others from changing the program.

OpenBSD, like FreeBSD and NetBSD, is an open-source version of Unix that stemmed from work at the University of California at Berkeley. OpenBSD programmers also develop OpenSSH, widely used software that controls Unix computers over a network and uses encryption technology to protect information such as passwords.

Sun's open stance
As an illustration of how deeply open-source software has penetrated the traditional computing realm, Sun adopted a version of the OpenSSH product in its own systems.

In what's largely a marketing strategy against rivals Microsoft and IBM, Sun touts its openness. As examples, the company says it has no hidden interfaces to its Solaris operating system and trumpets that it supports royalty-free standards; that it shares the control of Java with many other companies; that it has released several important software projects as open source; and that it promises no nonstandard extensions will prevent customers from being able to substitute another company's software for Sun's.

This claim to openness rankles de Raadt. "If Sun says they are open, they need to start acting it," he said in his Open BSD posting last week.

However, Sun has taken the lead in several open-source projects. For example, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has released software for better encryption in Web site transactions, in addition to introducing its OpenOffice competitor to Microsoft Office, its NFS file-sharing software, its Jxta peer-to-peer experimental software and its Grid Engine calculation software.

The company's relations with the open-source community haven't always been rosy, though--open-source advocates were displeased with Sun's decision to show the source code but not share the control of its Java software. More recently, it took months for Sun and the Apache Software Foundation open-source group to hammer out an agreement on working together.

But for his part, de Raadt believes other companies have been more helpful to OpenBSD programmers--Advanced Micro Devices, for example, has been eagerly soliciting open-source programmers' support to try to help the prospects of its coming 64-bit Opteron chip, code-named Hammer, which competes against Intel's Itanium line. "We have documentation for Hammer, and Hammer isn't even shipping yet," he said.

UltraSparc nitty-gritty
As for Sun's UltraSparc III chip, OpenBSD needs details on how it uses high-speed cache memory and regular main memory, de Raadt said.

"There are some low-level cache and memory management unit interactions that seem to be very different from the way it used to be on the older UltraSparc I and II. We run on old (UltraSparc) I and II machines," he said.

David Miller, a Red Hat employee in charge of the UltraSparc III version of Linux, received documentation on the processor after signing a nondisclosure agreement with Sun. Still, he said in an e-mail interview, it wasn't simple: To deduce Sun hardware bugs the company didn't tell him about, Miller had to decode Sun's upgrades to Solaris.

Miller believes that it's "obvious" how the UltraSparc III works after looking at the UltraSparc III version of Linux. But the OpenBSD programmers have tried that strategy to no avail, de Raadt said.

OpenBSD on UltraSparc III isn't a mere curiosity. De Raadt is particularly interested in UltraSparc III features that are well-suited to OpenBSD's emphasis on security--for example, memory protections that make computers less vulnerable to buffer overflow attacks.

And there are customers interested in an OpenBSD version for UltraSparc III machines. University of Alberta's Bob Beck said he is forced to buy out-of-date UltraSparc II-based E450 servers instead of newer UltraSparc III-based V880 machines for the university's SunSITE software exchange.

"I want to run OpenBSD on (UltraSparc III systems), because I can do stuff with it for routing, security and traffic control that I cannot do even with a $100,000 Cisco box," Becker said in an e-mail interview.