Sun's open source strategy treads well-worn path

Sun's open source strategy continues hardware legacy.

Peel back the covers of Sun Microsystems open source software announcements at JavaOne this week and you'll find a company taking a new tack on an old strategy: Sell more hardware.

Those who've been following Sun's recent spate of open source goodwill said they see it as another ploy to do what the vendor has traditionally done best, and think Sun may be warming up to the idea that it may never have a financially successful software business.

"Sun is not a software company--it's got to be a part of an overall approach," said John Rymer, a vice president for Forrester Research. "Software [for Sun] has always been a way to sell systems -- servers and storage."

"At the end of the day, you've got to make a buck," said Mark Driver, vice president and research analyst with Gartner, of Sun's aim to drive hardware sales by open sourcing more of their software offerings. "Open sourcing creates a kind of commoditizing effect on software."

However, ask a Sun executive whether the company is giving up the fight against Microsoft and IBM to provide a full application infrastructure stack, and you'll get a different story.

While John Loiacono, Sun's software executive vice president, will admit that Sun is and never was trying to be just a software company, he won't admit that Sun is backing down from selling a comprehensive software package that is on par with competitors' offerings.

"Everyone wants to say if you were a stand-alone software business, how much money would you make?" Loiacono said. "As the owner of software, I'm not trying to be a software company. I'm a systems company. My definition of a system is the whole stack. My value is when I put that whole thing together."

This week at the show Sun added two new open source projects to a growing list.

The first was Project GlassFish, which releases Sun's Java Application Server Platform Edition under Sun's Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL), the license it created to release Solaris to the open source community. Sun also unveiled an open source enterprise service business based on the Java Business Integration (JBI) standard.

Sun began its latest open source kick about a year ago when it first unveiled it would open source its proprietary operating system, Solaris. The reason? Linux was eating Solaris for lunch, and Sun's crown jewel of an operating system was losing mindshare among the all-important developer community.

Even Loiacono admitted that a couple of years ago, Solaris development had all but stalled. As soon as Sun revealed it was thinking of open sourcing Solaris -- a project that went live two weeks ago -- that all changed, he said.

"We had lost the discussion a few years ago," Loiacono said. "I couldn't talk to anyone about operating systems. The moment I said I'm going to open source Solaris, the dialogue started."

Rymer said Sun had to start open sourcing more facets of its technology, in particular Solaris, because that's what its developer community wanted the company to do.

"We were telling them a couple of years ago as far as we could tell, the open source developers work in Java, and they had a lot of affinity with Sun," he said. "[We told Sun], 'If that's where the developers are going, you have to go there. You don't get to choose this.'"

To its credit, Sun finally started getting the message. But some think Sun's open source kick is too little, too late for Sun to pick up the revenue it has lost over the years not only to Linux, but also to competitive Java software vendors such as BEA Systems, IBM and JBoss.

Particularly in regards to the application server, Sun has been far behind in market share to IBM, BEA and Oracle for years. And even those companies have felt competitive pressure from the open source application server JBoss, which has between five million and six million downloads to date, according to JBoss Inc. founder and chief executive officer Marc Fleury.

Indeed, some developers attending JavaOne said that since they already use JBoss, and were not fazed by the GlassFish announcement, and probably won't use Sun's application server just because it's open source.

"Why would I switch to something else?" said Dejan Pavin, a developer and architect from Select Technology, an application development company in Slovenia.

That's the kind of thing that is music to the ears to Fleury, who made a big show of snoring -- literally -- when asked what he thought of Sun's Project GlassFish.

"It's irrelevant," Fleury said. "Open source as a default strategy will never work."

To be fair, Sun's plan to open source an enterprise services bus gives the vendor the chance to be ahead of the game for once in a key software area, Driver said.

"Everyone agrees this is the next big thing in middleware, and there is no established incumbent yet," Driver said. "[Sun] can jump in and create mindshare."

But overall observers are taking a wait-and-see approach to whether Sun's open source strategy will be the key to emerging from the financial rut the company has been in since 2001, the last year in which they made an annual profit.

"I give Sun credit for at least trying and doing some innovative and risky stuff," Rymer said. "We'll see how it all plays out."

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