Sun warms to open-source server software

Even as it takes first step toward open-source Solaris, firm says it's considering a similar move with its server software product.

Stephen Shankland
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Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes 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.
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4 min read
Even as Sun Microsystems took its first step to make its Solaris operating system open-source software, the company said it's considering a similar move with its server software product.

Sun is considering making its Java Enterprise System server software open-source, John Loiacono, Sun's executive vice president of software, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "It's something we're looking at closely right now. It's absolutely in our interest to go pursue that."

As expected, Sun launched its OpenSolaris.org Web site Tuesday, released its Dynamic Tracing component of the upcoming Solaris 10 as open-source software, and announced that more than 1,600 patents will be available for unfettered use--a leapfrog over IBM, which two weeks ago offered use of 500 patents to open-source programmers.

"Sun is hoping to regain that position and image and reputation as being the biggest friend of community development and open source," Chief Executive Scott McNealy said. "With respect to Solaris and OpenSolaris, we've done everything that was expected and even more."

Sun's open-source Solaris move is widely seen as a response to competitive pressure from open-source Linux, which has attracted thousands of volunteer and paid developers. For server software, IBM, Microsoft, BEA Systems and others provide plenty of competitors for Sun's JES, which is used for tasks such as hosting Web pages, managing e-mail, tracking passwords and running Java business software.

Sun already has made aggressive moves to lure customers that have preferred those rivals' products. Most notable is the per-employee pricing under which Sun lets a customer use as much of the software as desired as long as it pays Sun $100 per year for each employee in the organization. The pricing can mean big savings over competing products.

Making JES open-source software "certainly would make sense given the way they've been going," said Summit Strategies analyst Dwight Davis. "They've been increasingly lowering the cost, to the point of free in some instances, and offering compelling licensing terms."

So far, Sun's moves haven't damaged rivals' dominance, but Sun is responding. Sun President Jonathan Schwartz said earlier this month that the company is looking at selling the JES software for departments or other employee subsets, not just for entire companies.

The departmental pricing "does address one of the major problems with the corporationwide employee-based model," Davis said. "If you have 20,000 employees and 100 users, it doesn't make sense. But if all 100 are in the finance department, under the new scheme, so much the better."

Don't expect an open-source JES anytime soon. Loiacono said Sun doesn't want to overwhelm open-source programmers.

Software ascendant
Sun makes most of its revenue selling powerful networked computers called servers, but since Schwartz was promoted from software chief to the No. 2 position last April, software has been gaining prominence at Sun.

Making Solaris open-source software is another part of that effort. Sun hopes to restore its position among programmers "in dorm rooms and laboratories," Loiacono said. Those programmers today often gravitate to Linux.

"It's a way to get some attention, a way to potentially re-engage some developers," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "This was a really clever thing for Sun to do. It's hard to come up with a major downside to this."

There are practical reasons for OpenSolaris, Loiacono added. "One of the stigmas we've had is we have been labeled as being closed and proprietary. This is meant to take that on head-on," Loiacono said.

Microsoft makes billions of dollars each quarter with proprietary software, but Sun wants to project a different image. "Large enterprises don't want to get locked into a single vendor," McNealy said. Sun's general philosophy of openness is aimed at reassuring those customers.

The first step
Sun released a Solaris component called Dynamic Tracing, or DTrace, that lets experts find software bottlenecks. The 90,000 lines of DTrace code will be joined by the remaining 9 million or 10 million lines of Solaris code in the second quarter of 2004, Sun said.

"Now we're probably the No. 1 donator of lines of code of any organization anywhere on the planet," McNealy said.

Sun will release OpenSolaris under the Community Development and Distribution License, or CDDL, a variant of the Mozilla Public License. The license lets anyone see, change and distribute the software, provided any changes that are distributed are published.

Unlike the General Public License, or GPL, that governs Linux, software governed by the CDDL may be mixed with proprietary software without requiring that proprietary software to be released as open-source software.

And Sun elaborated on its promise not to attack when open-source programmers use Solaris patents.

"By releasing OpenSolaris...under the CDDL, the open-source community will immediately gain access to 1,600 active Sun patents for all aspects of operating system technologies that encompass features ranging from kernel technology and file systems to network management," Sun said in a statement.

The patented technology may be freely used in Linux, Sun said. However, intermingling Linux and OpenSolaris itself from one project to another isn't likely because of incompatibilities in the CDDL and GPL. "It is likely that files released under the CDDL will not be able to be combined with files released under the GPL to create a larger program," Sun said when it introduced the CDDL.

When Sun patent applications related to OpenSolaris are approved--and several hundred are in the pipeline--those also will be released for free use, Sun said. Sun will list the patents as the software using them is opened.

Linux seller Red Hat and other open-source advocates have objected to software patents. And a Hewlett-Packard executive has warned that Microsoft planned to use its patents to attack open-source software.