OpenSolaris: Sun’s move is gutsy, but is it too late ?

David Berlind over at ZDNet has published an excellent note regarding Sun "open sourcing" Solaris 10: Will Sun’s 1600 patents suck the life out of Linux?. It is a thoughful complement to this CNET piece, that goes into more details on the background of the decision.

Sun has been struggling since the end of the bubble with an ever declining market share (and mindshare), and many had "buried" the company (even if it still has over $3B in cash on the balance sheet) because of its reliance on a proprietary version of Unix, and a proprietary chip design. The lack of support for cheap Intel boxes has always been a major issue for ISVs that, in an ideal world, would have wanted to run their Solaris applications on low cost servers. I am discounting the x86 version of Solaris that Sun released in the mid 90’s because it was too expensive, slow and lacked a proper ecosystem (tools, drivers, etc.).

I should mention that I have been a big fan of Sun hardware and OS since the late 80’s when the startup I had the priviledge to be involved with, Effix Systems, led the adoption of Sun workstations in trading floors in Europe, in the late 80’s. We were amongst the first to port our applications to Solaris 2.0 when it was still in alpha stage, because we had won a major trading floor on Wall Street, and the CIO of the bank wanted to deploy on the new OS, and not the old, well proven, SunOS. Even though it was ugly, we had a great experience working with Sun labs to get patch and fixes to deliver and deploy (more or less) on schedule. And heck, at that time, even Scott McNealy was calling us to make sure that everything was going smoothly (and then he dropped a bomb on us when, a couple of years later, he abandoned Xview in favor of Motif without any real migration path, but that’s another story).

Back to the subject, Solaris has always been a very good O/S, bit heavy – or one could say feature rich, but certainly one that scales well on the high end. So will we get the best of both worlds ? A great O/S, at a great price point, with the open source community behind it ? For one thing, it could help solving the perceived issue that Solaris is not as good on PC architectures as on Sun boxes. Also, CIOs might be quite keen to understand how real Sun’s indemnification and them throwing in their 1600 patents will be. But if the fine print in the license does not introduce too many rinkles and limitations (see GrokLaw‘s thread for more on that very topic), it might well be a turning point for Sun if (big if) they become a viable and respected alternative to a Red Hat or Suse distro in the LAMP world (SAMP anyone ?).

Berlind’s last paragraph summarizes the situation quite well:

What this means in the bigger picture is that all of those developers who are risking patent or copyright infringement by participating in largely unindemnified open source operating system projects such as Linux can pursue their passions in the OpenSolaris community without the threat of a legal sledgehammer swinging randomly around their heads. Whether or not OpenSolaris will be like a big vacuum that sucks the developers right out of the Linux community remains to be seen. But, if I were a Linux developer, right about now the grass would be looking awfully green on the other side of the fence. Is it too good to be true?

Private message: Duncan, do you remember that Sun briefing in 2001, where we suggested that they should open source Solaris ? Was not such a stupid idea after all.