Sun Microsystems, whose software business has long lagged behind competitors', last week extended its list of open-source offerings to include all of its core software products.
Analysts said the move, which makes its middleware, management and Java development tools free to use, is yet another indication that such infrastructure software is becoming a commodity.
The new effort follows Sun's decision last year to offer its Solaris operating system as an open-source technology.
Sun officials acknowledged that the latest move won't cut software prices for most corporate users, who will still pay current prices for service and support. For instance, users of the company's Java Enterprise System middleware stack will pay US$140 per employee annually for the entire product suite - the same as today's enterprise license price tag.
Nonetheless, some users do expect to benefit from the open-source principles.
Daniel Grim, executive director of network and systems at the University of Delaware in Newark, said that just after Sun's announcement, his developers discovered that they didn't need a software key to enable use of the new release of Sun's Studio 11 tool.
Typically, the school has to wait weeks or even months for new product keys. "So that is pretty useful," said Grim.
He also said Sun's earlier move to open the Solaris source code has already given his IT department early access to new Sun technologies, like the ZFS file system that will be included in Solaris 10 next year. Such early access lets his IT staff begin testing before the technology is released as part of the operating system.
But Sun officials said the latest open-source effort is first aimed at winning developer support and encouraging them to adapt Sun technology in new ways, rather than attracting the attention of IT managers. "These are folks that don't necessarily have access to a lot of money, but they certainly have the ability to move the landscape," said Sun President Jonathan Schwartz last week.
Once developers come on board, Sun hopes they can convince IT managers of the value of Sun software, he said.
As the OpenSolaris effort shows, however, the development community moves slowly. To date, most of the OpenSolaris community development work has been on bug fixes and minor updates.
Even so, Sun officials said there is significant open-source community development work in progress that may or may not bear fruit. The projects include porting Solaris to IBM 's PowerPC chip and porting DTrace, an application performance tool in Solaris 10, to FreeBSD, an x86-compatible operating system.
Although some 9,000 non-Sun employees are involved in OpenSolaris.org, and thousands of messages are being posted on mailing lists, development boils down to the efforts of the determined few.
For instance, Devon O'Dell, a systems engineer at iXsystems Inc. in San Jose, is working on donated equipment on his own time to port DTrace to FreeBSD. O'Dell said that the project will take a year or more to complete but that a corporate sponsor could help reduce development time to six months.
Rich Teer, a Unix consultant in Kelowna, British Columbia, is working on an open-source Solaris project affecting its terminal session. The project is getting his "spare time," but Teer said he expects to complete it in January.
Analysts aren't predicting how Sun's open-source strategy will fare but some believe it could make it easier for users to adopt Sun's products.
Software with high costs and closed source code are more difficult to distribute, said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk in Denver. Products with low barriers of entry, such as open-source, "have fewer obstacles between them and developers."
Tony Baer, principal at onStrategies in New York, added that Sun had little to lose in making the move, given its limited success in selling middleware technologies.