Open Solaris: Licensed To Ill?

Can Sun sell its open-source vision for Solaris 10 to the developers who will play a major role deciding whether it succeeds or fails?

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

January 21, 2005

2 Min Read

Last week, I shared my Linux and open-source predictions for 2005. Now one of my predictions is already on the chopping block: It looks likely (but still not certain) that Sun Microsystems will begin the process of open-sourcing Solaris by the end off this month.

Yet as Sun prepares to unleash its "Linux Killer" on the open-source world, more people are wondering the same thing: Who cares?

I don't mean to dismiss Solaris. By all accounts, Sun's Solaris 10 update is an outstanding product and a solid piece of software engineering. Turning Solaris loose on the open-source world certainly could, in theory, give Linux quite a run for its money--especially within large businesses where Linux is still fighting an uphill battle to establish its credibility.

In practice, however, this is where another one of my Sun predictions might hold water. Even if the company gets open-source Solaris off the ground, it won't fly unless the company wins the trust and support of a large developer community. This could become a huge problem for Sun, partially due to the company's own mistakes dealing with the open-source community but also due to forces largely beyond the company's control.

The process of selecting an open-source license for Solaris illustrates both of these forces at work. Last month, Sun submitted a new license to the Open Source Initiative: the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL), a variant of the Mozilla Public License. The OSI is already moving the CDDL through its approval process; while Sun has not officially linked the CDDL to Solaris, there's no doubt this is where the process is headed.

Among some open-source developers, anything short of a GPL-type license might as well be a Microsoft EULA--and Sun is already in trouble with this bunch. I personally find GPL zealots increasingly tiresome; like most ideologues, they don't respond well to honest differences of opinion. The CDDL, whatever problems it might have, falls well within the spectrum of existing open-source software licenses, and Sun itself has a long history of successful open-source collaboration.

Still, Sun faces a difficult task here: Solaris won't succeed unless it attracts a much larger body of open-source developers, and most of them will have to come from the Linux community. The CDDL may protect Sun's interests in Solaris, but what does it say about the company's willingness to give developers both an economic and (just as important, I think) a creative stake in Solaris' future?

Sun claims Solaris is technologically superior to Linux--I won't argue that point, because in the long run it's irrelevant. If the company can't build a community with its own, equally significant stakes in the future of Solaris, then it won't build a community at all. And for all of Sun's past open-source contributions, I have yet to see any evidence that the company really understands or accepts this concept.

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