Sun Hopes Solaris Hasn't Missed The Open-Source Boat

The company is playing catch-up to Linux but counting on Solaris' reputation and customer base to build a buzz around the open-source project.

June 14, 2005

5 Min Read
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Most Sun Microsystems customers aren't going to start tinkering with the code in Solaris, even though the company on Tuesday published the operating system as an open-source project. But the move might still help Sun keep its flagship operating system relevant if it can speed development beyond what Sun can provide, and even give it some much-needed cachet.

Sun called Tuesday "opening day" for its OpenSolaris project, publishing the operating-system kernel, system libraries, and commands for its Solaris 10 operating system. It also launched a Web site,, where users and developers can download code, discuss the project, and access a bug database.

The move will be good news for customers if it brings growing developer support for Solaris and an expanding the number of applications that run on the operating system. "This allows us to get into new markets or back into markets where we've lost traction over the past few years," Glenn Weinberg, Sun's VP of software engineering, said Tuesday at the OpenSolaris launch press conference.

This aggressive attitude appears to be just what Sun needs after spending the past few years losing data-center market share and mindshare to hardware competitors such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM and operating-system competitors such as Red Hat and SuSE Linux. "If the world is more receptive to OpenSolaris, maybe that swings the pendulum in favor of Solaris," says Steven Rubinow, chief technology officer for Archipelago Holdings Inc., an electronic stock-exchange company that's in the midst of a merger with the New York Stock Exchange. Since 2002, Archipelago has run Solaris on about 100 production, testing, and quality-assurance servers. Many of these servers run the company's trading system, as well as a business-intelligence and analytics application from SAS Institute Inc.

But the question lingers whether Sun is too late to stay in the race with the open-source Linux operating system. Large companies have for years run Linux on x86-based servers to get the look and feel of Unix while using cheaper hardware. Solaris 10, introduced in November, is tuned to run on x86 microprocessors, a capability that Sun was late to prioritize, causing the company to lose ground to Linux. In fact, Archipelago implemented a number of Linux servers before the availability of Solaris 10. "We could run Solaris 10 on the same servers we run Linux on today," he says. "Solaris 10 was not generally available at the time, so we went with a product that was already known in the marketplace." Archipelago runs Solaris 10 on a number of servers in its testing environment and plans to roll them out to the production environment once the company's IT staff has enough experience with the operating system.Sun is counting on the quality of its technology and its core customer base to create buzz around the OpenSolaris project. The company says it has distributed 1.7 million licenses for Solaris 10 since it became available and that more than 1 million of those licenses were to run the operating system on x86 based systems--the rest were for platforms running the company's RISC-based Sparc processors.

Sun on Tuesday issued a road map to give customers and potential developers an idea of where it plans to take OpenSolaris over the next year. Sun plans within three months to offer additional Solaris operating-system and networking capabilities. It will offer its community of developers binary redistribution rights for additional Solaris components and allow the community to participate in code reviews. And Sun promises by the end of the year to make its code-review processes more transparent to the OpenSolaris community and offer Web-site support for community-created projects.

OpenSolaris test suites are expected by the end of March, as are workflow tools for managing bug and patch submissions and updates, self-service testing capabilities, and a build/test farm. During that timeframe, the company plans to allow external participants on the community's review committees. By this time next year, Sun will make available its installer and Solaris administrative tools, as well as improved workflow tools updated to reflect evolved development processes and a unit test repository.

Sun is licensing OpenSolaris based on the Common Development and Distribution License, or CDDL, an Open Source Initiative-approved open-source license based on the Mozilla Public License. "This allows people to do whatever they want with the code they've developed," Weinberg said.

It's unclear how difficult it will be for outsiders to contribute code to OpenSolaris that will find its way into future releases of the operating system. In many cases, contributors will deal directly with Sun programmers who authored different pieces of the operating system when they communicate via, Tim Marsland, Sun's chief technology officer of software, said Tuesday. Weinberg added, "People may perceive a certain intimidation factor, but the design is to open things up and broaden it out beyond the authors of the code."Sun's OpenSolaris pilot program began in September with 145 external participants. In January, the company made its Dynamic Trace, or DTrace, feature available as the first component through its OpenSolaris project. DTrace is a key feature of the Solaris 10 operating system and is a performance-analysis tool that tells developers how to optimize their applications for maximum performance.

In April, Sun selected five people for its OpenSolaris Community Advisory Board, including Roy Fielding, chief scientist at Day Software Holding AG. Fielding was part of the original Apache development team and remains part of the Apache Software Foundation, managers of the Apache Web server open-source project. Sun also named Simon Phipps, Sun's chief technology evangelist, and Casper Dik, a senior systems engineer at Sun. Two members elected by the OpenSolaris pilot community were Al Hopper, engineer consultant of Logical Approach, a supply-chain consulting firm; and Rich Teer, an independent Solaris consultant and author of the book Solaris Systems Programming (Prentice Hall, 2004). The board was created to govern policies for OpenSolaris, such as establishing procedures for managing development projects. The board also will oversee how soon OpenSolaris innovations are added to Sun's commercial version of Solaris, and vice versa.

For most business customers, that transition will be the most closely watched. At Archipelago, IT pros will welcome any innovations open-source developers bring, but they won't be diving into Solaris source code. Says Rubinow, "We rely on Sun to provide a shrink-wrapped OS to us."

In January, Sun said it would maintain on staff more than 1,000 developers who will contribute to the open-source project as well as the in-house-branded Solaris and post OpenSolaris code and commentary to the Web site.

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