Sun begins open-source Solaris era

Company posts more than 5 million lines of source code for the operating system's heart in an effort to regain lost ground.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Sun Microsystems has released Solaris as open-source software, a move that's central to the company's plan to regain lost relevance and fend off rivals Red Hat, IBM and Microsoft.

The company on Tuesday posted more than 5 million lines of source code for the heart of the operating system--its kernel and networking code--at the OpenSolaris Web site. However, some source code components, such as installation and some administration tools, will arrive later.

If all goes according to Sun's plan, Solaris won't just be a product of the roughly 1,000 programmers inside the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company. "The work inside the firewall will begin to happen outside the firewall," said Tom Goguen, Solaris' marketing chief.

Solaris is a widely used version of Unix that gained prominence during the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s. But its star has fallen as that of Linux, an open-source rival that's similar in many ways to Unix, has risen.

Linux, IBM and Red Hat have been instrumental in elevating Linux. At the same time, Microsoft's Windows continues to grow in use. Like Linux, Windows is at home on mainstream servers using x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, models Sun has only recently incorporated.

By making Solaris open-source, Sun hopes to engage developers, including students who will become tomorrow's computer administrators and buyers. Having more developers means having more users, more partnerships with software companies, and, eventually, even more developers.

But competing with Linux is tough. Though Linux is not as mature in many regards, Solaris work is concentrated at one company, whereas Linux has a fully fledged community of open-source programmers. Participants come not just from universities and Linux sellers such as Red Hat and Novell, but also from server sellers IBM and Hewlett-Packard, chipmaker Intel, and database maker Oracle.

Sharing power with outside programmers will be the crucial test Sun must pass, said Quandt Analytics analyst Stacey Quandt.

"The real challenge for Sun is: They have top computer scientists. Will it be possible for someone outside that organization to contribute a patch and not have that patch rewritten by someone more experienced at Sun?" Quandt said.

And OpenSolaris isn't doomed as an open-source project simply because it has been Sun's proprietary, in-house project. IBM succeeded in building a vibrant open-source community around the Eclipse programming tools, which began life as IBM's own proprietary software, Quandt said.

Though Sun missed its 2004 deadline, it has taken some OpenSolaris measures. It released a component called DTrace in January that enabled detailed performance analysis; attracted 150 outside programmers to an OpenSolaris pilot program; and established a five-person community advisory board, two of whom are from Sun.

Target audience: coders
Sun often draws attention to its products through showy launch events--it's had more than one for its current version 10 of Solaris, for example--but this time the company is trying to tailor its messages for open-source programmers, not purchasing executives. It's shunning news releases and executive presentations in favor of developer tools and fact sheets from the Solaris developers themselves.

Sun plans to publish extensive documentation to let programmers build the operating system from scratch and understand its inner workings. It's even put together sample bugs to fix, the kinds a new Sun hire would be assigned to repair, so programmers "can get their feet wet and get productive," said Claire Giordano, director of OpenSolaris marketing.

The company also posted a road map detailing some follow-on plans.

For programming tools, developers will have their choice of two compilers. (A compiler is the software that translates source code into the binaries a computer actually runs.) Sun has been working to make sure Solaris can be built with GCC--the compiler most widely used in the open-source realm--but Sun also will make its own compiler available for free use.

Programmers who want to submit software to OpenSolaris will have to sign a contributor agreement. That agreement requires that they permit Sun to become joint copyright owner, Giordano said.

OpenSolaris also comes with intellectual property rights not found in Linux. (Some Linux distributors, though, including IBM, Red Hat and now Nokia, have pledged not to sue if they find Linux infringes their patents.)

By releasing Solaris under the Community Development and Distribution License, "there is a patent commons created," Goguen said. "Some 1,700 or so patents that we have today on Solaris technology gets included as part of that patent commons."

If a programmer takes a piece of OpenSolaris code out of OpenSolaris and incorporates it into another project, that programmer will get a blanket patent grant, he said. OpenSolaris or other CDDL code may be used in proprietary projects or in open-source projects covered by CDDL and several other licenses, including BSD and Mozilla licenses, Goguen said.

The reason Sun held up release of the installation and administration tools is because the company is reviewing it line by line to make sure it doesn't infringe anybody else's copyrights, Giordano said.