Open Source

Both sides come out swinging in the open source battle

The open source debate rages on with Novell and Microsoft taking center stage with new announcements. Tim Landgrave examines what each side has to say and what it means to be truly open source.

By Tim Landgrave

In the last few weeks, some announcements from major vendors have given CIOs a reason to reexamine their strategies regarding the open source movement. In one announcement, a networking “has been” announced its intention to enter the emerging application services market by tying its systems to open source products. The other announcement—from the antithesis of open source, Microsoft—either makes it look like the company most committed to open source or the most committed to killing it. Let’s look at these announcements in detail and how they could affect the market perception of open source software.

The “new” Novell
Not to be left out of the ABM (Anything But Microsoft) crowd, Novell used its recent Brainshare conference to formally announce its open source strategy. It not only includes bundling some key open source products with software for its commercial products, but also a plan to entice open source developers to use Novell software by creating an incentive plan. During the late 80s and early 90s, Novell had a seemingly insurmountable lead in the race to become the de facto standard for server operating systems. But, as the market—including Microsoft—recognized the shift away from file services and toward application services, Novell’s lead in the file services space became the proverbial albatross that kept it from moving away from its cash cow. After losing market share, developer interest, and most of its VAR channel, Novell is counting on the market’s interest in open source to give it an opportunity to become a major application server player.

When NetWare 6.5 ships this summer, it will include two key open source products: the MySQL database and the Apache Web server. This version will also include the SilverStream 1.3 J2EE application server that Novell acquired when it purchased the company in 2002. By creating an out-of-the-box integrated application server suite, Novell hopes to encourage developers to choose its platform as the development and deployment platform for J2EE-based business applications. It's also providing enhanced online support in the form of its new Novell Forge site.

Of course, the big play here isn’t to get people hooked on the suite of products—there are plenty of competing suites with tighter integration and more features. But, cozying up to the open source market should provide Novell with an opportunity to sell its other security, deployment, and directory products to new customers. It should also help it avoid defections from the Novell platform to either competing open source players or the Microsoft .NET platform. Novell’s biggest problem in executing this strategy is its lack of an integrated development product. Given that most of the other development platforms vendors (Borland, IBM, Sun, Oracle) also provide their own integrated J2EE application servers, databases, and Web servers, Novell will have to rely on independent development tool vendors to help it drive acceptance of the Novell application services platform.

Microsoft’s new “open source” position
Don’t ask open source advocates what they think about Microsoft, unless you have the time to hear the 15-minute, highly-volatile answer. The open source advocates believe companies can only participate in the open source market if they're willing to give away some of their IP rights in exchange for letting the market help them “improve” their software. In fact, they’ve been very successful at getting governments to consider either banning the use of proprietary software or requiring proprietary software vendors to open their source code for inspection. Microsoft has opted for the latter.

In an attempt to minimize some of the heat from foreign governments regarding access to source code, Microsoft reached an agreement with China—the world’s biggest software pirate—for access to Windows source code. Although the access is only in a clean-room environment and doesn’t include the right to modify the code, it does answer the major objection raised by open source advocates, “If I can’t see the code, how do I know what it’s doing or how to interact with it?” Microsoft’s willingness to share access to code but not allow customer modifications will appease some governments, but not all of them. But Microsoft’s new policy regarding the use of its Windows CE source code may signal more changes coming from Redmond.

Hardware vendors and OEMs building solutions based on the Windows CE platform can register for a new program that gives them the ability to obtain, modify, and use the source code for the Windows CE platform. This code has been available to the academic community under similar licensing provisions for the last year, but this is the first time that Microsoft has licensed operating systems source code for commercial users for any platform. Of course, it comes with a catch. Any modifications made to the code have to be licensed back—free of charge—to Microsoft. And Microsoft has agreed not to incorporate any new feature licensed back to it in the core Windows CE OS for a minimum of six months, allowing the company to recoup its investment. This arrangement isn’t that dissimilar from the license agreement for Linux except that the benefits of opening up the source go through a single company first rather than initially going directly to the whole community. Either way, the enhancements get to the community at large.

Who’s really promoting open source?
Although most ABMers will praise Novell’s decision to support open source products and decry Microsoft’s “feeble attempts” to open up its products, I think there’s one aspect of the open source debate that most people are missing. Microsoft is making a genuine effort to allow people to get a look at the inner workings of a product in which it's invested significant sums of development money. I don’t see that same commitment from the alleged “open source” players. I must have missed the announcement from Novell showing off its NetWare source code or IBM giving people rights to peruse its DB/2 source code. Have you seen a source code license for Sun Solaris or Oracle’s namesake database? Of course you haven’t, because you can’t get it.

Each of the “open source” parasites is happy to ride on the backs of the millions of developers around the world who worked to create products like Linux, MySQL, and Apache but not nearly as willing to open up their own products to either help these same developers learn about their inner workings or help to enhance them. With all this lip service about openness, it seems that each of the companies playing in open source is basically in it to get a free operating system (Linux) or access to free application software (Apache or MySQL) that helps them sell their proprietary products without having to invest significant money for their own R&D. Perhaps we need to find a word other than “open” to describe this market segment.


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