Sun reflections: open source but not open development?

I’m at the airport following two days of Sun’s Global Media Summit. I’ll be writing up various pieces on this, but in the meantime here are some quick reflections.

In the first dot com boom Sun could do no wrong; its servers were lapped up by every company with an internet presence. In the ensuing years it failed to sustain its momentum and began posting losses. It created Java, which transformed enterprise computing, but somehow others (IBM,Oracle,BEA) seemed to profit from Java more than Sun itself.

Sun has recovered. We were told repeatedly that it has posted profits for several consecutive quarters; its margins are good and its focus is now on growth. It has bold plans for its Solaris operating system. It wants to transform Java into something that will rival Flash and Silverlight as well as doing valuable but dull work on application servers. It still believes in thin clients. It can supply eco-friendly datacenters that offer money savings as well as a reduced carbon footprint.

Above all, Sun is engaged in a fascinating experiment around open source. Most of its software is both free and open source, including of course its big recent acquisition, MySQL. Sun is a company with 4,000 more-or-less unfettered bloggers, talks a lot about community, and wants to be considered just as much an open source company as, say, Red Hat or indeed MySQL.

Has Sun figured out how to do open source and remain profitable? It says it has; though part of its argument is that even free software users need hardware. And if there was one thing I learned this week it is the extent to which Sun is a hardware company. Another journalist said that the one word which sums up Sun is “Datacenter.” We heard a lot about the “Niagara” 64-thread processor; the “Thumper” storage server; and the “Blackbox” datacenter-in-a-container; and we were given a tour of one of Sun’s own datacenters in Santa Clara.

Nevertheless, Sun is serious about open source, though it is early days and the company has not worked out all the implications. Some feel that Sun wants to retain a degree of control that makes Linux-like freedom and diversity impossible. Here’s Ben Rockwood, an external member of the governing board of Open Solaris:

…we have open source but we don’t have open development. Sun has done an admirable job with releasing code, but Sun’s track history in the arena of open development efforts with the free software community has been abysmal. Many engineers inside of Sun “get it” (look at IPS, or almost anything Dr. Stephen Hahn is involved in, just beautiful) but somewhere in that middle-management there is a disconnect.

If Simon Phipps and others like him have their way the community will be “rebooted” from what most of us envisioned, an open development effort in which Nevada [Solaris 11] is developed as a community effort, to a glorified support infrastructure in which the “community” is really just a bunch of bi-standers with no real involvement. The later case is apparently closer to the MySQL model, which I refer to as “glass house development”, that is, you can look in at whats going on but you’re not part of the action.

These tensions and its whole open source experiment will make Sun a fascinating company to watch.

Sun is also serious about eco-friendly computing. In the context of global warming, this is smart business as well as a compelling argument for concepts like thin clients (Sun Ray) and more efficient datacenters.

Conclusions? None yet. This is a company in transition. That said, I’ve come away thinking that its lean years have left it as well prepared as anyone for the coming economic uncertainty.

How Sun will profit from MySQL

Following my earlier post, I was invited to ask Sun what was the business model behind the MySQL acquisition. We’ve just finished a Q&A session with Sun’s CEO and president Jonathan Schwartz. I didn’t ask the question because it turned out that I didn’t need to; it was core to the theme.

So what is the answer? It is not straightforward. First off, Schwartz acknowledges that most users of MySQL do not pay for it now, and will not do so in the future. That said, there is money in global support agreements, especially as MySQL and other open source software migrates from start-ups and hobbyists into the Enterprise. That’s answer number one.

He observes though that although only a small minority of users pay for MySQL, they all need hardware on which to run it. So answer number two is that Sun can sell hardware to MySQL users.

The obvious rejoinder is that Sun didn’t need to buy MySQL in order to sell hardware to MySQL users. Now, this is where it gets interesting. There is value in owning the brand. Apparently one of the reasons MySQL allowed itself to be purchased by Sun was to benefit from a much larger sales team and infrastructure, and clearly that team will be offering MySQL plus Sun hardware, so it can improve its share of what we might call the MySQL hardware business.

I’m still not done. Schwartz talked repeatedly about software as community, even saying at one point that Sun could be considered a media company. In response to a tricky question about how Sun had not apparently driven many sales as a result of the huge Java community, Schwartz talked about the mobile phone market. He said that mobile networks do not aim to make money from selling handsets; rather, they will subsidise them in order to gain subscribers. Once they have the subscribers, they work out how to get revenue from them.

Schwartz sees products like MySQL, Java and Open Office in this light. Each download, to him, is a subscriber whom he is “capturing into the community.” Like the mobile networks, Sun will then work out how to profit from that subscriber. So that’s answer number three.

He answers a question about how many “Blackbox” mobile datacenters Sun expects to sell in a similar manner. Most of Sun’s Enterprise customers, he says, are interested in talking to Sun about Blackbox. Most of them will not buy a Blackbox, but as a result of that conversation they will buy something from Sun. Therefore, he does not care about Blackbox sales as such; it is a way of creating a conversation, and the conversation is what counts.

One can only conclude that Sun does not actually know what is the business model behind the MySQL acquisition. It has an almost religious belief that the huge community of MySQL customers, even those who do not pay, will become a source of revenue.

I noticed that Schwartz failed really to answer the point about the poor job Sun has done so far in monetizing the Java community.

Naive, or brilliant? Perhaps both.

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Doing Web 2.0

What ever Web 2.0 is, I reckon Danny Bradbury is doing it:

In fact, I’m finding online applications replacing Microsoft’s products almost entirely. I write my articles in Zoho Writer and mail those to editors straight from the browser, so that I don’t have to worry about synchronising Word docs between machines. I’m managing my article deadlines and my newsletter schedule using Zoho Sheet. I only use Office, quietly grumbling under my breath, for one client which demands that I fiddle about with Word styles to accomodate its content management system.

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Sun’s Media Summit

I’m at Sun’s Media Summit in San Francisco for a couple of days. It follows an analyst week, which prompted this great post from James Governor: Strong Leaders, Strange Bedfellows and The Art of War by Sun Two. Here’s a sample:

Jonathan [Schwartz] is quiet, understated and concentrates on running the business, rather than running down the competition. He may not have the raw charisma of his predecessor Scott McNealy but in my opinion he is a just as strong, if not a stronger character.  His decision to shell out a billion dollars MySQL also shows he is extremely ballsy – Wall Street is finally coming round to the idea of Sun as a going concern rather than a basket case, and what does Jonathan do? He goes and buys a little company from Sweden that builds an open source database which pretty much no one actually pays for.

So what would you ask Sun? Let me know, and if you’re quick I’ll try and get the question in.

Tim Bray marks 10 years of XML, weighs into Microsoft

Sun’s Tim Bray, XML luminary, marks 10 years since XML 1.0 became a W3C recommendation (10th Feb 1998) with a post on his blog: a history of the people behind XML which he explains was written ten years ago.

Microsoft played an important role in the popularity of XML. I believe the company saw it as a counterweight to Java. Java was about application portability; XML was about data portability and application communication. With XML, Microsoft could do .NET and still live in a Java world.

Back in 1997 there were fireworks at the W3C when Bray, who was co-editing the XML specification with C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen, joined Netscape as a consultant. Microsoft was worried, I guess because at the time Netscape was a big rival and Microsoft thought XML might be somehow twisted to give Netscape some advantage – a puzzling idea, in hindsight, but there it is. Anyway, Microsoft insisted that Bray be removed as co-editor; Bray protested and eventually a deal was struck which put Microsoft’s Jean Paoli alongside Bray and Sperberg-McQueen as XML co-editors.

Maybe this incident explains Bray’s hostility towards the company:

Some of the people in this story are companies. Ned is Netscape and Mick is Microsoft … Mick is a domineering, ruthless, greedy, egotistical, self-centered, paranoid bastard. Whether or not he’s actually a crook is, as they say, currently the subject of litigation; but he’s not good company or a good friend. The ruthlessness and greed would not be so irritating (we swim, after all, in late-capitalist waters) were they not accompanied, at all times, by Mick’s claim to speak not in his own interest, but selflessly on behalf of his millions of customers, whose needs only he understands. Thus, anyone who disagrees is conspiring against the interests of the world’s computer users.

Perhaps in his position I would feel the same way. But is Microsoft innately more evil than other companies? I’m not convinced, though note another of Bray’s comments:

This isn’t about technology any more, and certainly not people, it’s business. The Internet business, for all the visionary rhetoric, has to do with nothing but money and power and executive ego.

Again, a little too extreme for me, but only a little. Interesting to reflect on in the context of, say, the OOXML vs ODF debate.

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A Word 2007 annoyance: disappearing vertical scroll bar

This is odd. A couple of times in the last week Microsoft Word has decided I no longer require a vertical scroll bar. The only way I know to turn it back on is to go into Word options, Advanced, and check the option Show vertical scroll bar.

But how is it getting unchecked? My first assumption was that I must have inadvertently pressed an obscure key combination that toggles the vertical scroll bar, but I can’t find any such shortcut. A bug?

By the way, did you know you can get a complete list of Word commands and shortcuts? Click the Developer ribbon, then Macros, then select Word commands from the Macros in drop-down list. Select the macro ListCommands, then click Run. Word will offer you a document containing either Current Keyboard Settings, or All Commands. The All Commands list is 46 pages long, and contains roughly 2000 commands, none of which hides the vertical scroll bar.

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Hyper-V in Server 2008 RTM doesn’t like non-US locales

Hyper-V is Microsoft’s whizzy new virtual server manager, which uses new virtualization features in recent Intel and AMD processors to support more efficient virtual machines. Intel’s extensions are called Intel Virtualization Technology (Intel-VT), formerly code-named Vanderpool, while AMD’s extensions are called AMD Virtualization (AMD-V), formerly code-named Pacifica. Here’s what Intel says:

How does Intel Virtualization Technology eliminate the gaps in current virtualization solutions?
Three ways. First, the technology provides a new, higher privilege ring for the VMM. This allows guest OSs and applications to run in the rings they were designed for, while ensuring the VMM has privileged control over platform resources. It eliminates many potential conflicts, simplifies VMM requirements, and improves compatibility with unmodified legacy OSs. Second, handoffs between the VMM and guest OSs are supported in hardware. This reduces the need for complex, compute-intensive software transitions. Third, processor state information is retained for the VMM and for each guest OS in dedicated address spaces. This helps to accelerate transitions and ensure the integrity of the process.

Hyper-V is a good reason to use Server 2008 x64 (it is not supported on x86), but it is not done yet. Microsoft has shipped a beta of Hyper-V in the release build of Server 2008, and is promising a full release within 180 days from now. It is not something to use casually – Paul Thurrott quotes Microsoft’s Bryon Surace as saying:

Conceptually, it jacks up the OS and slides in the Hypervisor underneath. So we clearly don’t want that installed by default on servers that won’t be running Virtualization.

So don’t even think about using it for real just yet. When it does get finished, Microsoft recommends using Server Core rather than the full Server 2008 as the host OS. However, Hyper-V is interesting to developers as well as admins, so I wanted to take a look. Unfortunately, after I added the Hyper-V role to the server, the Virtual Machine Management Service failed to start, presenting the gloriously obscure message:

The service changed to an unexpected state.

This problem has been mentioned by others. Apparently the fix is simple but extreme: re-install Server 2008 using the English (United States) locale. Can’t you just change the locale in your existing installation? It didn’t work for me, and Microsoft’s Ben Armstrong says, “It is not sufficient to change the locale after OS installation.”

Once Hyper-V is installed, you can change the locale to what you want and it will still work, though I don’t know if this is supported.

Annoying. Yes, it is mentioned in the release notes – but what if Hyper-V beta had required you to set a non-US locale at install time. Do you think Microsoft would have flagged this problem more prominently?

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Vista SP1 shares same core as Server 2008

I attended a Server 2008 briefing yesterday and it was mentioned that Vista SP1 and Server 2008 share the same core. This is why Server 2008 declares itself as being Service Pack 1 even on its initial release. This isn’t news but I thought it worth a post since I’m not sure that the close relationship between Vista and Server 2008 is all that well known. If Server 2008 wins a decent reputation, which I suspect it will, then it may even help Vista’s tarnished image a little.

When Windows 2003 came out, some enthusiasts ran it as a desktop OS, because it ran better than XP and application compatibility was pretty good. There won’t be any point in doing this with Server 2008. Same code.

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Vista SP1 impatience is an opportunity for malware

The unofficial Windows Vista Forums have posted a download link for the final release Windows Vista Service Pack 1. No doubt there are many others. The post includes a health warning:

We must strongly note that using this file may violate the End User License Agreement from Microsoft.

but adds:

Given that some people are indeed having major technical problems and “bugs” with Windows Vista, we have made the decision to offer this download without malicious intent, strictly for the purposes of open technical support and community assistance for legitimate Windows Vista customers. We have not received authorization to distribute this file, but at the same time have received no request not to do so. This file will become unavailable should any request be made by Microsoft or any owner of this content to do so.

The downloads are digitally signed, so I should think they are the real thing but of course cannot guarantee it.

The real question: what was Microsoft thinking when it announced that the service pack was done, but said that users would not get it until mid-March?

In mid-March, we will release Windows Vista SP1 to Windows Update (in English, French, Spanish, German and Japanese) and to the download center on

If for some reason Microsoft did not want its users to benefit from the service pack until mid-March, it had a simple solution: don’t announce it until then. Too late now.

Then again, why does Microsoft want to defer this release for over a month? It is putting users at risk, because they will resort to unofficial downloads like the one above, and that’s an opportunity for malware.

Microsoft: put SP1 up for download now and solve this utterly predictable problem.


I should add that Microsoft did give a reason for postponing the SP1 release. It relates to what Microsoft describes as small number of device drivers which “do not follow our guidelines for driver installation”. Apparently this can result in non-working drivers, though users can fix the problem by reinstalling them. Mike Nash adds:

While we know that most customers who update from Windows Vista to SP1 will NOT be affected, our approach is to improve the experience for all our customers.  To do this, we will begin making SP1 available through Windows Update in mid-March, giving us time to work with some of our hardware partners to make adjustments to the installation process for the affected drivers.  As SP1 gets delivered through Windows Update, we will only offer it to PCs that we detect don’t have any of the affected device drivers installed.  We’re taking the next month or so to continue our work of identifying as many of these devices as possible.

The point here is that getting SP1 through Windows Update is not quite the same as downloading and running the large single file. If you go through Windows Update, you get a differential download and more intelligence about what is actually downloaded.

I still don’t get it. If there is a problem with the device driver installation, is SP1 really done? Further, what is to stop Microsoft offering the update for manual download with appropriate health warnings? Better than all these unofficial downloads, I would have thought.

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