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Simon Phipps, Chief Open Source Officer, Sun

Simon Phipps From one perspective, Sun has been engaged in a dramatic turnaround in recent years by opening up its Solaris operating system and now the Java language.

From another perspective, Sun's current open source track is the continuation of a two-decades-old legacy of being one of the leading open source contributors on the planet.

Sitting at the helm of Sun open source initiatives is Simon Phipps, the company's chief open source officer. In a wide ranging interview with internetnews.com Phipps discussed the challenges, opportunities and the myth about open source at Sun.

Q: There are lots of things going on with open source at Sun. What is your specific goal with open source? Do you have a particular mandate that you're trying to achieve in 2007?

I believe we're in the middle of a transition in society that is being caused by the popularization of the Internet. It is shifting society from a hub-and-spoke topology to a mesh topology.

When I look at Sun, its past, current and future business, it struck me that it was very important for Sun to prepare for the mesh topology for what Jonathan Schwartz calls the participation age. Instead of taking what is given to you and all the information being given out from the hub to the grateful spokes, what actually happens is people participate across the mesh.

My job is to transition Sun to a systems business that reflects the mesh nature of society. The software part has to use mesh approaches to software development in order to deliver value.

What we're incrementally doing is looking over our entire software portfolio and switching over to the open source model for development. We're right in the middle of that transition at the moment.

Sun has always been a community-based software developer. The underlying principle of collaborative development is pretty natural for Sun; the modern expression being the increasingly well-defined open source approach is the new departure.

Q: Opening up code is one thing and collaboration is another. Are you going to standardize the version-control mechanism that Sun uses to help facilitate true collaboration? Will there be a type of JCP (Java Community Process) initiative?

I believe that the whole open source cycle is predicated on licensing and governance. When I'm explaining to people what open source is I explain that it is the flow of code out of a code commons into a creative work by a developer, and that flow is controlled by the license. The developer then has to contribute changes back, and that is controlled by the governance.

Governance includes things like selection of version-control systems, and more importantly what is key are the working practices that surround the version-control system. No responsible open source project has an open version-control system so that anyone can commit code. Someone has to make rules about who can commit and what they can commit.

I don't see the JCP as something that is related to open source that's a standards process. I don't believe that open source as a development methodology and as a participation environment is in some way a replacement for standards.

I believe that the greatest freedom for the greatest numbers is produced by open source implementation of standards. We need both sound standards bodies that have responsible intellectual property policy and that have accessible contribution mechanisms. We also need transparent developer-led open source communities to lead the implementation of those standards.

Q: OpenSolaris technologies such as Dtrace and ZFS are now finding their way into other BSD distributions. Is that part of the plan to become an innovation leader for all the BSDs?

It's definitely something that I wanted to happen. I wanted to bring innovation to the Free and Open Source software world.

I'm very keen for people to work on the technologies that are in OpenSolaris and innovate around them. When it comes to things like Dtrace and ZFS I hope people will join with the OpenSolaris community in order to incorporate them into the various BSDs.

Open source is not a one-way street. We all win when we co-develop the technologies that we depend upon when each of us contributes our innovations.

I'm hoping the BSDs will pick up our technologies and implement them and then contribute back their innovations and improvements. That's why we're doing it. To increase the pace of innovation through collaborative development.

Q: What is the biggest myth or misconception about what Sun does or doesn't do with open source?

I was amazed when I started this job to hear people saying that Sun was somewhat hostile to open source. I still pick that up occasionally.

Sun has consistently been contributing to Free and Open Source Software for decades. I'm very keen to chase away misconceptions of hostility.

People also need to be aware that Sun is a pragmatic player in Free and Open Source Software. We're not going to get religious about a particular language or technology direction. Having said that, one is always proud about what one has created.

It is natural for us in particular to favor Solaris and Java. Our emphasis on those things does not mean we are opposed to or hostile to other technologies

Another myth is that we are doing something different than others; we're actually using all of the same tools and technologies as people that are using a Linux or BSD kernel.

Q: What is the biggest challenge that you face in your role at Sun?

One of the biggest challenges I face throughout is helping people to understand that working with community and Free and Open Source Software is not orthogonal to profitability. It is possible to be profitable and be responsible, as well.

Opening up software to a community does not mean that we are giving it away. It actually means that we are sharing with others in innovating and being successful.

Open source is not your corporate gift to society while you make profit elsewhere. I believe that open source lies at the heart of our business and is the engine for profitability, not an apology for it.

Getting people to get on board with that is a challenge. Lots of people have misunderstood open source as getting free stuff and never paying anyone for anything, and it's just not like that.