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Open Sourcing Ahead for Solaris

Sun Microsystems' plan to open source parts of Solaris is being met with cheers and jeers by analysts.

Newly appointed company COO Jonathan Schwartz, and executive vice president of software, John Loiacono, confirmed Sun's long-rumored intentions to open source its enterprise-class operating system.

The executives also said they would consider opening up its next-generation Java Desktop interface (code-named Looking Glass).

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company was extremely light on details and did not provide a roadmap, beyond mentioning that it is "in the development phase." Officials also said they are committed to working with customers, partners and developers in the areas of open source and standards-based technology.

Schwartz likened the idea of opening up the Solaris operating system to the company's stewardship approach to Java. The popular programming language is also proprietary but is controlled by a governing body (Java Community Process) and can be modified even by Sun's rivals such as IBM and BEA.

"You need only to look at what we've done with Java to understand how Sun views the incorporating community feedback," Schwartz said during the company's quarterly update meeting in Shanghai Wednesday. "Java could not exist if only Sun is supporting it. It exists with [the support of] hundreds and thousands of partners. We need to now take the model with Java and bring it to Solaris."

Schwartz pointed out that Sun is nearly giving its hardware and software for free as it moves toward a subscription-based model for its Java Enterprise System (JES) and Java Desktop System. Still, he said Sun would stand firmly on Solaris as one of its five pillars: Java, Solaris, JES, N1, and SPARC.

"In 1993, Wall Street investors asked Sun to drop Solaris because there was a new technology called the Chicago project that they said would blow us away...Chicago turned out to be Windows NT," Schwartz said in Shanghai Wednesday. "We have an operating system that runs on every Xeon, every Athlon, every Opteron, and every SPARC-based system."

Schwartz's comments were slightly different than his boss's comments about the issue. Asked about both opening Solaris or Java to the same processes as Linux, Sun CEO Scott McNealy told reporters earlier in the day Wednesday that he would be more than happy to oblige if all of his competitors did the same.

Analysts immediately chimed in on some of the challenges that Sun would face in the open source community.

"On a practical level, Sun would have to figure out how they will open source it, under what organization and what licensing model," Shawn Willett, principal analyst with Current Analysis, told internetnews.com. "That would make a big difference if it is accepted as a true open source product. If Sun retains too much control, that would turn off some open source advocates and possible converts to Solaris. Sun would face a bigger challenge in figuring out how to price this, and price its other products so they can make a sustainable profit. It could be that support contracts will make this a minor issue, but it is also true that third parties could bundle an open source Solaris with cheap hardware and basically eat into Sun's business. Again, it depends on Sun's definition of open source (and open distribution)."

Still others like Michael Dortch, principal business analyst with Robert Frances Group, postulate that opening up Solaris would be just what Sun needs to stave off competition from not only IBM, HP and Dell but also enterprise Linux distributors like Red Hat and Novell.

"A fully-featured Open Source Solaris platform could be a powerful foundation for robust, 'enterprise-class' solutions, both interoperable and highly competitive with more expensive proprietary alternatives," Dortch told internetnews.com. "The market potential for such solutions and related services could be compelling for developers and for Sun, resulting in a wide range of powerful, economical choices for IT executives."

But Stacey Quandt, principal analyst of Quandt Analytics, said even if Sun is capable in resolving the issue of licenses to third-party code in an effort to open source Solaris, there are still gating issues against success such as customers choosing to stay the course with Solaris rather than migrate to Linux.

"First, this comes three years too late due to the significant adoption of Linux," Quandt told internetnews.com. "Linux on Intel is a volume market while the contributions [to] the Linux 2.6 kernel make Linux a 64-bit alternative to Unix. Many customers in financial services migrated away from Sun because of the cost of underutilized Solaris/SPARC systems. Even more important is the inability of Sun to adequately address the issue of freedom of lock-in from a single vendor," she said.

"Most Linux customers appreciate the ability to choose from multiple Linux distributions and take back control from lock-in to a single IT vendor. A further issue is how will Sun work with customers to integrate patches and changes back to the Solaris kernel. If customers make changes to the Solaris kernel will they end up having to support these changes? If so, will Solaris customers truly care if it is available as an open source operating system?"

Loiacono's reply is that the next generation of Solaris (Solaris 10) will allow users to run Linux applications right out of the box and that Solaris is less expensive than Red Hat. Schwartz also pointed out that Sun's revised partnership with Fujitsu is just the first step in an effort to widen Solaris development beyond Sun's doors.

Sun's plans to make Solaris open source follow the recent announcement by Computer Associates to contribute its Ingres database software to the open source community.

Robert Frances Group's Dortch suggests Sun could similarly spur development of multiple open source server application stacks, each built upon a foundation that is open, standards-based, and interoperable with incumbent IT resources.

"Increased open source activity by leading enterprise IT solution vendors beyond putting Linux on product check lists could foment significant changes in how enterprise applications are delivered, priced, purchased, and supported," he said.