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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

Sun Microsystems is about to take the next step in its plan to refurbish the reputation of its Solaris operating system in the eyes of a small but crucial group: programmers.

The company is expected to start sharing some source code of the Unix version and to detail its OpenSolaris plan on Tuesday, moves it hopes will help build an active programming community around the software.

Developers are a key link in a growth cycle that connects students, new projects, customer purchasing and software-partner support. And developers could help Sun amplify its effort to expand Solaris from its niche on computers using Sun’s own Sparc processors to the vastly larger market of machines using x86 processors such as Intel’s Pentium and Advanced Micro Devices’ Opteron.

Solaris remains a popular version of Unix, and its widespread use in the dot-com boom helped Sun fend off an assault by Microsoft’s Windows. But Linux–which can be downloaded for free and is an easy switch from Unix–poses a different threat altogether. It’s widely used among computing students who can take it apart and rebuild it to see how it works–and those are the people who later turn into the system administrators who will be tapped to set up their employers’ new server farm.

“Sun is clearly trying to recapture mind share with developers that in some cases are looking more toward Linux as a reference platform for new application development,” said Meta Group analyst Brian Richardson.

Linux leader Linus Torvalds and others believe Sun has its work cut out for it. Take the example of Brian Gilman, president of Panther Informatics, which helps clients deal with computing systems for biotechnology tasks such as drug discovery.

“I just hired a cheap kid to do stuff for me. He’s from MIT, so he’s supposed to know everything. They’re getting trained on Linux,” Gilman said.

To see the magnitude of the challenge Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun faces, though, you don’t have to look farther than Red Hat, the top Linux seller.

Its core Red Hat Enterprise Linux product is built with the help of countless outside programmers in a broad and deep open-source community, and the company itself contributes to numerous open-source programs. Yet Red Hat still is struggling to build its own programming community, called Fedora.

“If Red Hat is having trouble developing any kind of community around their (Linux) distribution, what opportunity is Sun going have?” asked Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

But Sun President and chief agitator Jonathan Schwartz is unflagging in his efforts. And he makes it clear the fundamental motivation is Sun’s bottom line through reaching new customers.

“To the extent we’re positioning Sun to start growing new customers, all such opportunities start, at some point, through a conversation. Typically with a developer,” Schwartz said in his blog this month.

Red Hat, for one, is skeptical. “It’s hard getting people to follow the banner. They’ve got to prove that there’s significant value there,” said Greg Dekoenigsberg, Red Hat’s community relations manager.

Sun has its own rebuttals to Red Hat. For one thing, Solaris x86 will be free to those who just want the software and security fixes, a contrast to Red Hat’s current practice with its premium Linux version.

Sun’s open-source BSD roots
Open-source operating systems aren’t totally alien to Sun. Unix got its start at AT&T, but Sun co-founder Bill Joy was instrumental in an open-source variant developed at the University of California at Berkeley. For half the company’s history, Sun used this BSD version of Unix in a product called SunOS.

In the 1990s, Sun switched from SunOS to Solaris, which was based instead on the Unix software Sun licensed from AT&T.

One of the curiosities of the technology world is that the company that ended up with those AT&T Unix contracts is the SCO Group, which alleges in lawsuits against IBM and others that proprietary Unix technology was moved into Linux against the terms of those contracts.

So how is it Sun is permitted to open source Unix outright while IBM is sued for more than $5 billion in damages? Sun is mum on particulars, but it has said it licensed additional rights in a 2003 deal in which it paid SCO $9.3 million.

Though SCO’s suits are about breach of contract and copyright violation, they have raised the prospect of litigation against the freewheeling Linux realm. Thus one perk Sun is offering: It won’t sue open-source developers for using its Solaris-related patents in open-source software, and it will provide legal protection for Solaris developers and customers even after it becomes open-source software.

Sources familiar with Sun’s plans expect it to release Solaris under the control of the Common Development and Distribution License. Earlier in January, the CDDL earned official open-source license status–not a great surprise, given that it was derived from the existing Mozilla Public License.

The CDDL prevents Sun from sharing code with Linux and vice versa, but there are other areas where Sun can profit from existing open-source software. For example, an upcoming version of Solaris x86 likely will use GRUB–the Grand Unified Bootloader software that Linux uses to let people select which operating system they’d like to use when they turn on their computers. Others have made sure Mozilla, OpenOffice and other applications are available.

Self-inflicted Solaris x86 wounds
When it comes to the task of building a new development community, Sun, in part, has itself to blame. In 2002, when the company was in the midst of a three-year run of declining revenues, it tried to cut development expenses by putting its x86 version on ice. Even at that time, Sun didn’t sell x86 servers, and the x86 version of Solaris was a second-class citizen. When Sun boasted of its focused energies–how it put all the wood behind one arrowhead–it meant the best foundation for Solaris was its UltraSparc servers.

“The last time I used it, the Intel version sucked,” Gilman said.

And a month after it all but scrapped Solaris x86, Chief Executive Scott McNealy donned a penguin suit to show the company’s newfound support for Linux.

It’s good he took that suit off. Sun still sells Linux–75 percent to 80 percent of its x86 servers shipped with it rather than Solaris in Sun’s most recent quarter–but now its energies are focused on Solaris. Linux is best run through Janus, a feature due to arrive in a coming Solaris x86 update to let it run Red Hat Linux programs unchanged.

One reason for the resurgent Solaris commitment: Sun wants its own technology to be in as much of what people buy as possible. Executives deride operating system companies for their reliance on hardware companies, deride Dell for its reliance on operating system companies, and deride IBM and Hewlett-Packard for not bringing their versions of Unix to x86 chips. Controlling more hardware and software means Sun can use profits in one area to fund competitive pricing in another.

One person delighted with the Solaris x86 situation is Alan DuBoff, a member of the “Secret Six” who helped reverse Sun’s near-cancellation of Solaris x86 in 2002. He’s seen abundant evidence that Sun has grown serious about Solaris x86 since the company hired him in 2003.

“It’s always been a problem inside Sun to have people run Solaris on x86. Now everybody in engineering runs it. Everybody is working on Opteron systems,” DuBoff said.

Luring outside programmers
And Sun has been wooing dozens of programmers and others involved in the open-source realm to join the OpenSolaris pilot program. It’s had some successes with programmers such as Pieter Van den Abeele, who’s involved with one of the most developer-oriented versions of Linux, Gentoo. Gentoo relies on software called Portage that downloads software packages or even builds them from scratch out of source code; a Solaris version called Portaris is under development.

“I am pleased to announce that Gentoo is considering integrating OpenSolaris support into the machine-readable knowledge base we call Portage,” Van den Abeele said in his blog this month. “Gentoo/OpenSolaris is born.”

And some programmers outside Sun already are primed. One pioneer has been Masayuki Murayama, who has written drivers for 13 network cards. “I’m working on getting those inside the distribution so people won’t have to download them,” DuBoff said. He’s already cleared the way with Sun’s legal staff.

Another is Philip Brown, who like DuBoff was a Secret Six member. He’s written several driverrs needed to let Solaris x86 communicate with specific devices such as Wacom graphics tablets.

Although Brown doesn’t expect Sun to pick up his software, he does let people use it freely, and he would like to see some of what Sun likely hopes to foster with open-source community. “Ideally, I would be able to exchange source code with others who wish to contribute to Solaris,” he said in an e-mail interview, though he said he’s not particular whether that’s done through an open process or restrictive nondisclosure agreements.

Can Sun open up?
A developer who’s more guarded about Sun’s OpenSolaris prospects is Garett D’Amore, a former Sun employee who now works for Unix laptop maker Tadpole Computer and who’s written Solaris drivers.

“Open Solaris is going to be a real test, I think, because frankly, in all of my previous experiences with Sun–both inside Sun and outside–the Solaris engineering group has a huge NIH (not invented here) factor,” D’Amore said. “I’ve seen perfectly good, working products killed when they tried to integrate into Solaris only because they originated from somewhere outside of the Solaris engineering team.”

Not that Linux is without blemish, though. “Anyone who spends very much time in the Linux kernel may find themselves coming away with the feeling that it feels like it was developed by 10,000 developers, all of whom speak different languages,” which isn’t far from the truth, D’Amore said.

Whether OpenSolaris succeeds is now up to Sun, and what it copies and avoids in Linux will be crucial.

“Making OpenSolaris follow the development model of Linux won’t serve anyone,” D’Amore said. “If it is not done carefully, it will be worse than leaving it closed.”