Sun faces open-source swarm

As JavaOne gets under way, the company is seeing the center of Java move away from the Sun-controlled standards process.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
6 min read
Sun Microsystems' top brass will grab the limelight at this week's JavaOne conference. But in many respects, Sun is no longer the guiding light for technology it invented.

Developers and vendors report that programmers are increasingly turning to open-source projects for Java tools, forcing software providers to change with the times.


What's new:
Java vendors Sun, BEA Systems and Oracle plan to announce boosted involvement in open-source projects at JavaOne, underscoring the growing influence of open-source in the software industry.

Bottom line:
Some open-source Java tools for corporate development are becoming de facto standards, moving the center of Java away from the Sun-controlled standards process.

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Following the recent open-source release of its OpenSolaris operating system, Sun is expected to formally announce two open-source projects around its Java server software, both using Sun's Common Development and Distribution License, or CDDL. GlassFish will be a code-sharing project for Sun's Java System Application Server Platform Edition 9, which will start on Monday. Another, called the Sun Java Enterprise Service Bus, is slated to start in the next few months, according to Sun.

Other established players are pushing further into the open-source model as well. BEA Systems plans to detail its support for the Spring and Struts open-source frameworks inside its WebLogic Workshop development tool and Java application server.

Oracle is expected to make its JDeveloper development tool available for free on Tuesday and become a "core contributor" to the Apache MyFaces open-source project for Web development.

Open-source Java projects benefit commercial providers because they can foster a rapid development process and get tools into developers' hands for free. That leads to potential follow-on sales of servers and software to run Java applications.

But Sun remains an outside challenger to established Java vendors and open-source alternatives, such as JBoss, according to analysts. And the emergence of de facto standards from open-source world is pushing the center of Java development outside the Sun-controlled Java standards process.

"The convoluted way that Sun has managed the whole process has cost them a great deal with their reputation in the developer community," said Dana Gardner, an analyst at Yankee Group. "It has to do with the original sin of holding on to Java too long."

Sun critics for years have asked that the company make Java an open-source project because it would invite a more vibrant development community around it.

The company has steadfastly stuck to the position that it needs to maintain stewardship over Java in order to maintain compatibility across different systems.

Warming to open-source
Sun has taken several steps to re-create many of the advantages of an open-source development process without creating an open-source project around the Java language and desktop software.

Earlier this year, the company changed the terms for Java licensees and the development process of Mustang edition of the Java 2 Standard Edition--the desktop version of Java--to allow people to view the code as it's being built. Sun is expected at JavaOne to provide an update to Mustang, an update meant to simplify Java programming and improve security, which is due in the middle of next year.

"They are really bringing more good will with developers and made a big step with Mustang. But many developers still feel that Sun is too controlling."
--Matthew Schmidt, VP of technology, Javalobby

The improvements planned with Mustang and the more transparent process of building desktop Java applications have gone a long way toward improving Sun's relations with developers, said Matthew Schmidt, vice president of technology at Javalobby.

"They are really bringing more good will with developers and made a big step with Mustang," Schmidt said. "But many developers still feel that Sun is too controlling."

With GlassFish and its integration server open-source project, Sun intends to continue that process of being open, allowing developers to see the products as they are developed and interact with Sun engineers.

"The way software is going to be developed is going to be in much broader communities which you can participate in a much deeper

level than you could in the past," said Joe Keller, vice president of marketing for Java Web services and tools. "The community models are much richer."

Sun has said it intends to open-source its entire Java server suite, Java Enterprise System. Keller said the company will evaluate the appropriateness of the open-source model with each product.

But as established Java providers, such as Sun, IBM and BEA, try to embrace open-source development, a great deal of activity is already well under way.

"I think we're going to be the player in Web services."
--Scott McNealy, CEO, Sun Microsystems

Open-source Java developer products include everything from integrated development environments (IDE) to "frameworks," or tool add-ons that speed up programming for Java applications. Vendors of all stripes are trying to tap into the appeal of open-source development processes, which allow programmers to download software for free and inspect the code.

Many developers are also looking at alternative languages altogether, including scripting languages and open-source combinations such as the so-called LAMP stack .

Oracle's vice president of product marketing for application server and developer tools, Rick Schultz, said that there is a clear desire among developers for free tooling. And the open-source development process has proven effective for quickly creating products based on standards defined in the Java Community Process (JCP).

"We're supportive of the JCP as a body for proposing and standardizing APIs (application programming interfaces) that make their way into Java platform. At the same time, free technologies and open-source projects can still innovate in parallel to it," Schultz said.

BEA's decision to support Apache's Struts and Spring?two frameworks to ease development of server-side Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) applications?is because they have become de facto standards, said Mark Carges, the chief technology officer of BEA.

The company expects that developers will use open-source development frameworks and application servers during the development process, but choose BEA's WebLogic application server for large-scale deployments, which demand more robust features and management tools, Carges said.

"We're finding that outside the JCP, specifically in open source, there has been a tremendous amount of innovations around these frameworks and clearly developers are using them," said Carges. "Things are moving beyond just J2EE."

Many open-source products commonly used in the marketplace are influencing the JCP, such as the Enterprise Java Beans 3.0 specification, which is nearing completion, noted Carges.

Can Sun harness open source?
Among some people, the efficacy of open-source projects has amplified long-standing complaints that the JCP is not nimble enough to outpace Microsoft's development efforts and bring enhancements to the market quickly.

"Sun is losing momentum. They have been in the driver's seat. Because of the slow (JCP) process, people are frustrated," said Fima Katz, president and CEO of Exadel, which sells tools and services for Java open-source products. "It's not the only reason, but it's because open source can deliver faster and better."

Sun's increasing focus on software sales is putting the company at odds with other Java vendors that help drive standards, noted Yankee's Gardner. "Just a few years ago, they were a hardware company."

In terms of revenue, Sun's own Java software business still lags behind those of market leaders, IBM, BEA Systems and Oracle, according to market researchers. Sun's strategy to provide standards-based, low-cost Java server software suites also faces competition from open-source products already in the market and popular with developers.

Sun's strategy is to appeal to developers with low-cost, standards-based Java middleware and tools in the hope that those programmers' choices will lead to purchases of JES suite for building Web services applications.

"I think we have a good chance of breaking through a half a million subscribers with our Web services stack at some very unique pricing models. I think we're going to be the player in Web services," said Sun CEO Scott McNealy.

JBoss president and CEO Marc Fleury said that companies need a large number, or "critical mass," of developers and customers to be profitable with an open-source business model. "When every body starts talking about open source, it starts smelling of desperation," he said.

Still, Sun's software picture is improving, although the company's fortunes are largely tied to its servers, said Mark Stahlman, an analyst at Caris and Company.

"There have been a steady increase of software-only deals and so I think with the Solaris 10 rollout this spring, in combination with steady improvements quarter by quarter in software, they're definitely on the right track," Stahlman said.