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Stephen Shankland


SAN FRANCISCO–Sun Microsystems is planning the bold move of releasing the source code of its Solaris operating system, but those eager for details of the plan may have to wait until early 2005.

The server and software company has planned to release its new version of the Unix operating system by the end of the year–source code and all–and will give Solaris center stage at a Nov. 15 product launch announcement.

Sun will release pricing details at the event, said Glenn Weinberg, vice president of Sun’s operating platforms group. But other details will be conspicuously absent. The company won’t release the software itself or its open-source licensing details until weeks later.

Weinberg wouldn’t commit on Tuesday to saying that Solaris 10 itself and details of the open-source plan will be out by the end of the year. “It’ll be really close,” Weinberg said at a meeting here with reporters.

The primary reason for adding the scheduling leeway: Sun still is settling details of the open-source plan, said Weinberg and Sun President Jonathan Schwartz. Sun is engaged in discussions with open-source representatives at the Open Source Initiative and elsewhere about the best way to cooperate with the collaborative programming movement, Schwartz said.

Schwartz said Sun is asking open-source developers, “What’s the right way to interact with you, to build a high-integrity relationship with you?”

The success or failure of Solaris will have a major bearing on Sun’s future. The company is trying to spread Solaris from servers that use Sun’s UltraSparc processors to more widely used models that run on x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. On those machines, Solaris faces major competition from Linux and Windows. Sun also wants Solaris to be a foundation for its higher-level server software, the Java Enterprise System.

Unable to resist a jab at rival Red Hat, Schwartz suggested that the top Linux seller has run roughshod over the open-source community: “Many of them feel like they’ve been marginalized with Red Hat. That’s a hijacking we want to ensure we don’t promote.”

Red Hat, which has criticized Sun for not making its Java software open-source software, sees things differently. “Where the community might feel marginalized is when proprietary companies attempt to adopt the term ‘open source’ purely for marketing value,” the company said in a statement. “This belittles the long heritage of open collaboration and the hard work that has gone into making Linux one of the world’s most innovative, defining technologies.”

Sun’s open-source move will move the debate to more pragmatic grounds, Schwartz predicted.

“It will really give developers and end users an opportunity to take a step back and say–rhetoric aside, politics aside–let’s compare these products. We’ll have an Open Source Initiative-approved license, just like Red Hat. It will run on every x86 server, just like Red Hat. We will have prices for 5-by-12 and 7-by-24 support, except our license terms will be a lot more generous,” Schwartz said.

Sun will sell Solaris under a variety of pricing schemes, ranging from a right-to-use license that comes with free support to a free license and the option of paid support, Schwartz said.

Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, has had only unofficial communications with Sun representatives so far. “They have not formally consulted us yet,” he said.

OpenSolaris, the open-source version of Solaris, won’t give the operating system Linux’s status, Raymond predicted. “The most likely effect is they shore up loyalty in existing customer base, but I don’t see them winning new seats. I’m a bit skeptical about their prospects for gaining any market share, but I’m glad they’re here.”

Another skeptic is Bruce Perens, a prominent open-source advocate, who said Sun’s track record isn’t good. Sun released the source code of OpenOffice, an alternative to Microsoft Office, but built only a “miniscule” programming community around the project, he said.

And, Perens added, it’s too late for open-source Solaris to make a difference. “If they had done it five years ago, everyone might be running OpenSolaris, but at this point Linux is a very advanced operating system,” Perens said.

Schwartz said Sun hasn’t ruled out releasing Solaris under the General Public License (GPL), the license that governs Linux. That would mean that elements of Solaris could theoretically be adopted in Linux, or vice-versa, though integration of core features could prove technologically difficult.

Programmers are sure to scrutinize the source code once it’s available, Raymond said.

“Once it’s open source, if there’s any valuable technology in it, open-source guys will descend on it like a swarm of ants and carry away anything interesting.”

–Eric Raymond, president,
Open Source Initiative

“Once it’s open source, if there’s any valuable technology in it, open-source guys will descend on it like a swarm of ants and carry away anything interesting,” he said.

The licensing terms will give outsiders enough control that the open-source version of Solaris could conceivably diverge from the direction Sun wants to go, Weinberg said. “We can’t say which direction the community is going to take things,” he said. “Obviously we want to keep the differences to an absolute minimum.”

The differences between the Sun and open-source versions of Solaris will be comparable to the differences between Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux and the free but unsupported Fedora Core version, Schwartz said: Only the former will come with support and certification.

OpenSolaris will include all major features coming with Solaris 10: performance improvements, the Dtrace feature for teasing out computer performance details, N1 Grid Containers for splitting a server into independent machines, and predictive self-healing abilities.

Sun has gradually released many of these features in preview versions of Solaris 10 in recent months.

Some minor Solaris components won’t be released, Weinberg said. Drivers, which let the operating system communicate with specific hardware devices, often include other companies’ intellectual property. Such drivers won’t be released, he said.

There will be one major component that won’t arrive in the first version of Solaris 10: Janus, which lets Linux applications run unmodified on x86 Solaris. That feature likely will arrive in the first quarterly update of Solaris 10 and initially will run programs certified for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Weinberg said.

However, Sun won’t yet pledge that those applications will run on Solaris. “We’re not willing to make that guarantee, but we’re looking at that,” Weinberg said.