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Can Sun Really Open Source Solaris?

Can Sun Really Open Source Solaris?

Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's new president and latest loose cannon, a volume kind of guy, said at a press conference in Shanghai the other day at a SunNetwork Conference, that Sun was going to open source Solaris.

"I don't want to say when that will happen," Sun acknowledges he said, "but make no mistake, we will open source Solaris."

According to the clip morgue here, Sun has been kicking the idea around since late 1998, but that doesn't mean the notion had reached any kind of, um, maturity before Jonathan opened his mouth.

Being president, however, evidently makes any whim one may have turn into an instance corporate initiative and Sun, while recovering its composure, now says that it is open source-bound. Other than that, Sun wasn't prepared to answer any other questions.

See, none of the key issues have been resolved. Little things like, um, whether Solaris can legally be open sourced in the first place and what Jonathan means when he says open source and what SCO's reaction's gonna be.

Such niceties await Jonathan's return from the Orient although, if Sun is going to take the bit in its teeth, then it would like to open source the upcoming Solaris 10, due at the end of the year, because it thinks it's got some drop-dead widgetry in the major rev that will make Red Hat's life a misery - almost all of Red Hat's paying accounts being rustled Sun accounts and Red Hat being the open source horse to beat.

Sun would open source both the Sparc and x86 versions of Solaris, it said.

Back when Sun first kicked around the open source idea, it whistled up its lawyers and set them to combing through the third-party IP and branding rights resident in Solaris. And as it turned out, the legal sweep discovered that there was a significant amount of orphaned code in Solaris - stuff that apparently had no father or mother and no way to trace its pedigree.

It was sort of like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin. It wasn't born. It just appeared.

The discovery put a stick between the spokes of Sun's wheel. Sun's lawyers didn't want the company to open source third-party code without authorization in case its mommy decided to turn up later demanding a packet in child support.

So Sun shelved its open source notions and repaired to a halfway-house, research-style approach to the situation called the Foundation Source program. It made Solaris 8 code available to people who wanted to look at it but it wasn't all source code. The parts without clear parentage were made available only in binary.

Then in the summer of 2001 Sun thought better of the whole idea and tried to quash the program for some reason only to be met by a wall of screams from customers that persuaded it to change its mind again. Currently access is on a case-by-case basis.

Since then the complexion of the open source situation has gotten more pockmarked because Solaris now contains even more of other people's code and because of SCO's IP claims and its loathing for the GPL.

Sun and SCO are friendly; money and licenses have passed between them; and SCO regards Sun, which bought out the rights to the Solaris source code from Novell in 1994 for $82.5 million, as having the "broadest rights of any Unix licensee in existence."

But now that Jonathan has opened Pandora's box, SCO said, "We will be keeping a close eye on their Unix contract to be sure that they are staying within the bounds of that contract." It also mumbled something about Sun CEO "Scott McNealy not wanting to find himself in the same position as [IBM CEO] Sam Palmisano" - in other words, at the receiving end of a multibillion lawsuit that down-on-its-luck Sun can ill-afford.

Then there's the little matter of what Jonathan really means when he says he's going to open source Solaris.

Based on some of Jonathan's allusions to Java in Shanghai - "We need to now take the model with Java and bring it to Solaris," he is reported to have said - people suspect that he's got something akin to the Java Community Process (JCP) in mind, which, let's face, would prove about as popular with the open source crowd as a pimple on a first date.

Heck, the JCP hasn't even been popular with members of the JCP largely because Sun's interpretation of stewardship bears a close resemblance to Teutonic authoritarianism, with Sun in control. And like its previously expressed fears of Java fragmenting - an excuse it used to keep a tight rein on the Java technology - remember how Sun reacted to IBM's open letter calling on it to open source Java? - it's now worrying about open source splintering Solaris.

Sun will not only have to bring community opinion into some kid of harmony over how to open source Solaris, it's also got to get the diffuse range of internal opinions into some kind of line. It's faced with figuring out whether open source and open standards are the same thing (Jonathan says not), what the license model is going to be, what level of free use it's going to offer, whether to segment the market into commercial, private and academic and how to make money in the process. This could take a while.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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