Sun Bets On Open-Source Middleware For Turnaround

Still, license issues could delay availability of Java components

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 2, 2005

3 Min Read

Seeing robust demand for the open-source version of its Solaris operating system, Sun took the next step last week by offering its entire Java Enterprise System middleware, Sun N1 Management software, and Java developer tools as open-source products.

Sun, which has a sketchy history of selling packaged software, is gambling that big-company customers will adopt the software for critical tasks and sign up for service and support contracts. "Volume wins in the marketplace. We will be driving for volume first and foremost," said Sun president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz in announcing the move.

With 3.4 million copies of open-source Solaris downloaded since June, Sun executives say they think they're on the right track. The company could use a boost: It lost $123 million in its recently completed first quarter.

The Java Enterprise System includes Sun's Directory Server and Identity Management Server software, as well as application integration software Sun acquired when it bought SeeBeyond Technology Corp. in June for $387 million. Sun will make those products, as well as the N1 Management and developer tools, available under the same common development and distribution license it uses to distribute open-source Solaris. That permits commercial products to be developed using the open-source software.

But it may be some time before all components of what Sun is calling the Solaris Enterprise System are available as open-source code. Sun first will make selected pieces of the system available for free, followed by offering the source code in 2006. Software marketing VP Tom Goguen warned last week that it could "take us a couple of years to make all this technology available."

Goguen acknowledged that Sun hadn't even finished researching whether license agreements with other companies permit the SeeBeyond product line to be distributed as open-source software. "We're going through that exercise today," he said. Sun spent four years resolving licensing issues around Solaris before making it open source. "I don't expect it will take that long with SeeBeyond," he added.

"It's a smart, bold, and risky, move," says Marc Fleury, CEO of JBoss Inc., whose JBoss open-source application server is the model Sun executives repeatedly invoke when discussing their strategy. JBoss has thrived in the low end of the application server market and is making inroads against BEA Systems, IBM, and Oracle for enterprise-class deals. But Fleury is skeptical that Sun's move would quickly reverse its fortunes.

Nevertheless, the scope of the announcement, quite possibly the broadest range of middleware and integration software to go open source, is impressive. The SeeBeyond software, including its adapters and connectors for legacy systems, provides technology not available in the open-source arena, RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady says.

Red Hat, IBM's Gluecode unit, and JBoss with its JBoss Enterprise Middleware are all bidding to assemble integrated middleware lines that will compete with Sun's offering. This week, JBoss is expected to unveil the acquisition of technology rights to a high-volume transaction manager from Arjuna Technologies Ltd. and will offer it with its JBoss application server.

That shows how rapidly the middleware stack is transitioning to open-source products. Sun's move could provide IT managers with an attractive alternative to for-a-fee products from BEA, IBM, and Oracle. But with lingering licensing issues and a hazy timetable for source-code availability, the big question is how quickly Sun can deliver on its promises.

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