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Sun Opens Up

Sun's taking a part-open, part-commercial approach to Solaris and Java

For years, Sun Microsystems was synonymous with "open" computing. It was Sun's Solaris operating system, more than others, that was based on open industry standards, a point CEO Scott McNealy made almost every time he opened his mouth back in the '90s. But in the new world of software, "open" refers to publicly available code, as in open source, and Sun's a latecomer, not a leader. McNealy and crew are anxious to change that--if only millions of customers and developers will join them.

Sun launched its Linux counterstrategy earlier this month with the release of OpenSolaris, a version of Solaris 10 that gives everyone from Joe Developer to Microsoft's chief software architect hands-on access to the operating system's kernel, libraries, and commands.

'We've got to make some money, somewhere, somehow,' McNealy says.

"We've got to make some money, somewhere, somehow," McNealy says.

Photo by Jeffery Newbury
Next up: Java. This week at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco, Sun will reveal that its Java application server, a key component in scaling up application operations, will be made available under its own open-source license, the Common Development and Distribution License. It's the first Sun middleware to go public, and it probably won't be the last. "Sun is a huge believer in open source," McNealy says. "It's all very consistent with what we've been doing with open-source kernels and TCP/IP since the 1980s."

JavaOne marks a special occasion for Sun's prodigious programming language. It was 10 years ago that Sun introduced Java, a component programming language known for its ability to create applications that are easily ported from one computing environment to another. In effect, it was the first programming language to be network-minded, just as the Internet came along. And Java has been the kind of success that puts it on a "history of computing" time line, achieving the largest developer following in the shortest period of any computer language. Sun boasts 4.5 million programmers registered on its Java developers Web site.

"We use it everywhere," says Spryos Kattou, E-business architect at ACE Aviation Holdings subsidiary Aeroplan, a supplier of loyalty-management programs and Air Canada's frequent-flier plan. "Close to all our future development will be done in Java."

But Java is getting pressed from two directions. Microsoft has cemented its .Net programming environment for Windows as a popular alternative on the commercial side, while a slew of open-source tools and languages for Internet computing is making inroads among developers who like their public license model. With names like XML, Ajax, PHP, and Lamp, they're more about building services and moving content around--the basis of E-commerce--than programming elegance inside the enterprise.

"On the innovation side, there's a lot more to the world now than just Java 2 Enterprise Edition," says Rod Smith, VP of emerging technology at IBM, which sells Java tools and middleware but competes with Sun. "There are more innovative ways that Java could be used, but there's no dialogue going on with Sun about that." Smith points to the Lamp stack of open-source code, which includes PHP, Perl, and Python, as the new language of Internet computing.

Additions to Java are made through complicated API sets that connect outside technologies to it. That has proven a reliable way to build out the Java environment, but it's cumbersome and has allowed Microsoft, over which Java once had a clear lead, to catch up.

McNealy faces a challenge to expand Sun's developer and customer bases via the open-source push, while simultaneously increasing revenue. In a recent interview on Sun's campus, McNealy insisted that's doable. OpenSolaris shouldn't cannibalize other sales, he said, because Sun doesn't have much of a base of software-only customers anyway. Business customers who use Solaris generally do so under commercial licenses that involve computer hardware and support services, too. "Our strategy is to create very large communities," he says. "You can't monetize a small community."

There are reasons for McNealy to be hopeful. About 1.7 million copies of a free version of Solaris that's been available since February have been downloaded. About three-quarters of those were destined for computers with x86 processors, promising evidence of a future beyond Sun's own Sparc chips.

Yet it's hard to predict where Sun's open-source play is leading. About those million-plus OpenSolaris downloads, McNealy admits, "We don't know what they're doing with it."

Some customers say they aren't sure how they'll benefit. "Open-source Solaris? We're not sure what that's about. What's their market strategy?" asks Kyle Forster, software architect for the state of North Dakota, which is gradually replacing Solaris servers in its data center with Linux servers. The state runs some Java-based applications, but Forster isn't sold on open Java either: "We like vendor support. It's not like we're going to go in there and start changing the code base ourselves."

The trick for McNealy will be to change minds--and convert no-cost public versions of Solaris and Java into not only a sustainable business model, but one that grows. In the 10 years since Java's initial release, Sun is a changed company and a smaller one, having shrunk from 43,500 employees to just under 32,000. The hope within Sun is that open-source versions of Solaris and Java middleware will rekindle interest in the company's underlying technologies and that, as more developers build upon them, revenue opportunities will follow. Says McNealy bluntly, "We've got to make some money, somewhere, somehow."

Sun knows something about how this works. More than 10 years ago, the company released its TCP/IP networking stack and Network File System into the public domain, and both became de facto standards in the Unix operating system. But with Linux, the Apache Web server, and other programming languages as alternatives to Sun's own offerings, Sun surrendered its pioneer status.

Making Solaris and part of Sun's middleware open source shows that Sun wants to continue being known as an "open" company, even as the definition of what that means changes. "What they did at one time was open by the standards of the time, but what once was open really became proprietary," observes Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "I think they're really trying to reassert themselves into that open developer community."

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