Sun goes half open source with Solaris

Boston (October 1, 1999) -- Sun Microsystems Inc. has decided to make publicly available the source code of one of its crown jewels -- the Solaris operating system -- under what it calls a "community-source license," a company official said today.

Sun's goal is to mimic the success of the open source Linux operating system, which benefits from enhancements suggested by volunteer programmers around the world. Sun also will allow programmers to download the source code and make any changes in Solaris as long as bugs are reported back to the company.

However, anybody downloading the software for commercial use will have to pay a licensing fee, Sun representatives confirmed. Linux is free for commercial as well as private use, but developers must make public all changes they make to the source code.

A Sun spokesperson in the company's U.K. office confirmed the contents of the report from the Wall Street Journal.

At least one analyst sees Sun's move more as a marketing tactic than a major change towards more openness.

"Sun really hasn't gone to an open source model. Sun still owns the copyright," said Dan Kusnetzky, analyst at International Data Corp. (IDC), a market research firm based in Framingham, MA. Kusnetzky also presumes that Sun somehow will own whatever is contributed.

Sun executives did not want to comment on that issue or any other on this matter. Instead the company's public relations agency referred to Sun's Web pages on community-source licenses.

This type of license is described as a combination of proprietary licensing, typically an execution-only-license, and open source licensing, which allows execution and access to source code with the right to improve and extend the source code (see more at

Sun already has Java and Jini elements licensed in that way to several companies in order to speed innovation and development, according to the Web site. The licensees are not required to give up intellectual property rights, but the "license does require, that any programming interfaces which extend the platform or infrastructure be open and specified."

According to Kusnetzky, Sun hopes that the very talented open source programmers will apply their expertise to Solaris. However, he sees no reason why anybody should do that.

"What would they get out of it? Only Sun stands to gain. The company would get technology it couldn't get in any other way," said Kusnetzky.

The developers may gain knowledge, though: Linux, which is built leaning heavily on the Unix architecture, lacks several important features, Kusnetzky said. But he warned developers against trying to learn from the Solaris code when it is made publically available. They might be smitten by Sun's way of writing its proprietary software.

"Once they touch this stuff, they may find it difficult to do what they have been doing," he said. Also, they may have difficulties in getting their code copyrighted and protected under GNU General Public License covering open source code, Kusnetzky added.

According to Sun's PR agency, several issues remain to be solved before Sun makes the Solaris open for community-source licensing.

Sun, however, may go all the way in the future and make Solaris available as open source software, according to the Wall Street Journal, which quoted Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer saying that Sun only sees an "upside" in making all of the Solaris code available.

The first beta versions of the forthcoming Solaris 8 began shipping on Sept. 24, and Sun said the final product will be available early next year.

Sun's Solaris, running on its own SPARC chips and on Intel Corp.'s chips, held 22.2 percent of the Unix market in 1998, according to IDC. Santa Cruz Operation Inc. is the leader with 39.8 percent, the only one ahead of Sun. IBM Corp. is third with 13.7; Hewlett-Packard fourth with 11.4 percent.

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