Category Archives: Sun

Sun’s OpenSolaris community fracas: not just a name thing

While I was at Sun last week I was following the discussion in the OpenSolaris community about the naming and repositioning exercise which saw a Project Indiana become the official OpenSolaris distribution. Some of the external members most deeply involved in OpenSolaris were immensely frustrated not by the decision itself, but by the way it was made and announced, with little consultation of those who were supposedly governing OpenSolaris. It was exactly this issue which provoked Ben Rockwood’s post which I quoted in a blog post on 15th February and again in The Guardian. Unfortunately I didn’t see Roy Fielding’s post resigning from the OpenSolaris community until later, otherwise I would likely have quoted him as well:

This well is poisoned; the company has consumed its own future and any pretense that the projects will ever govern themselves (as opposed to being governed by whatever pointy-haired boss is hiding behind the scenes) is now a joke. Sun should move on, dissolve the charter that it currently ignores, and adopt the governing style of MySQL. That company doesn’t pretend to let their community participate in decisions, and yet they still manage to satisfy most of their users.

On 14th February I spoke to Rich Green, Sun’s Executive Vice President, Software, and asked him to clarify the changes to OpenSolaris:

This is one of those classic “what’s in a name” things. OpenSolaris is a community, is a source code base, and is the distro from Sun Microsystems. We’re going to put a lot of energy into it, not only in terms of the quality of the technology, but the business model around it, very much akin to other open source programs focusing on subscriptions and support, but that open source base is out there for other distros to be derived, and we encourage them. There was a naming complexion change, but the feedback from the community was mostly, not uniformly, it never is uniformly: thank you, for clarifying what we all expected you to do. Thanks for putting your name and brand behind a distribution of the source code base which is out there. And thank you for moving it out into the open so others can do the same. So that’s where we are, that’s where we’ll stay. The reaction has been generally, never uniformly, very positive.

I didn’t realise at the time that “not uniformly” included the resignation of such a prominent member of OpenSolaris – Fielding’s post is dated just after midnight on the previous evening. However, Green is correct in saying that many see the decision itself as sensible, which makes this whole fracas rather unnecessary. Fielding makes further comment here.

Of course this is not really a naming thing, it is about how Sun relates to the community it is building around its open source projects, and to which it attaches huge importance. I lost count of how many times CEO Jonathan Schwartz and others used the community word to describe how it would create new business opportunities and monetize its open source efforts. Quite possibly Sun misjudged the impact of the way this particular decision was made, but in a way that is the point; it is a failure of relationship, and suggests that Sun wants to maintain tight control of its software even though it has made the decision to make it free and open source. I asked Schwartz about this but did not get a particularly illuminating response.

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Sun’s Jonathan Schwartz makes the case for free and open source software

I interviewed Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz last week, and wrote it up for Guardian Technology. By the way, the picture is much better in the print edition.

Sun is gambling on open source – not only open source, but free software. This is possibly easier for Sun that it would be for, say, Microsoft or Oracle, because Sun, like Apple, is a hardware company. You can therefore think of the software as an overhead for selling the hardware. It is not without risk though – most of the software (including its Solaris operating system) runs on commodity x86 hardware as well as on Sun’s SPARC processors.

Not everything we discussed made it into the Guardian piece. I put it to Schwartz that Sun has historically done a poor job of monetizing the software it gives away. For example, it made Java the most popular programming language in the world, with huge enterprise adoption, yet until recently the company was posting losses. I then asked whether he considered that the fundamental open source model – give away the software, make money on support and services – was the future for the whole industry, rather than just for Sun and a few others?

I think first of all our strategy is to build the broadest global communities we can, and then from those communities to identify the opportunities to make money by building datacenters and by building the technologies that go into those datacenters. Software, systems, services, and microelectronics. So right now, in responding to the question is that the future of the industry, right now if you’d like a free Microsoft-office compatible Office suite, you could go to, download it, as roughly 100 million people have done in the past couple of years, and you’d have to pay nothing. Or, you could go to your local retailer and pay for the latest proprietary office suite. So if you were a betting man, and you looked at 3.3 billion people online today, where do you think the majority of them will acquire their office productivity suites? They’ll probably acquire the free ones, by definition those will be the most popular.

Now the same thing would apply to search. If you wanted to be in the search business can you imagine trying to run a search portal today, charging customers 50 cents per search? You’d probably have no takers. So, if you want to be the broadest supplier of volume technology into the marketplace, the only acceptable price tag is free.

We are in fact interested in pursuing the broadest global developer community possible, for whom the only acceptable price is free. So I think, if you’re going to try to compete against our virtualization products, our office productivity products, our network infrastructure products, you have to come to the table with a free product. Absent a free product, you won’t even be considered by the majority of the marketplace. So right now I believe we stand alone in having evolved our business model to actually monetize that community. That’s exactly what we’re doing, every day. So when people ask, when will you monetize those free software downloads, again, we had 7% operating margin last quarter. It’s not going to be a single line item, it’s going to be the whole company’s market opportunity expanding. So I feel very comfortable that this is not only the direction for Sun, and it’s a great direction, it’s the direction for the industry. The move towards free software is unstoppable. Not simply in your home, but at your workplace.

Note that it helps to consider this in a global context, not just the traditional highly developed locations like Europe or the USA.

Is he right? The world’s biggest and most profitable tech companies are not built on open source. IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Google, for example. All these companies flirt with open source, even make real and meaningful contributions, but they keep their prize jewels proprietary.

Bottom line: Schwartz may well be right, but he’s not right yet. Still, follow the trend. Free software continues to improve; the proprietary vendors are giving away more of their stuff; the cloud is growing in importance relative to the desktop; and tough economic times are likely in tech’s most profitable markets. I doubt Sun will be the only company to change its business model.

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Images of Sun

I’ve posted a few snaps and comments from Sun’s Global Media Summit, including an exciting pic of the apparently eco-friendly Santa Clara datacenter. Exciting? You be the judge. I’ve not put the pics directly on this blog as they can be a nuisance if you are subscribing and have a slow connection.

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