What Sun was trying to do with Open Solaris

I was recently checking to see what, if any follow-up there had been from Sun’s ham-handed handling of the Open Solaris Trademark, and I ran across this very interesting comment from John Plocher’s Candidate Statement for the Open Solaris Governing Board:

“I also think there was a misunderstanding about what Sun desired when it launched the community (in part) to encourage developers to adopt and use Solaris. My take is that, while there *is* value in getting more kernel, driver and utility developers contributing to and porting the (open) Solaris operating system, there is significantly *more* value in having a whole undivided ecosystem based on a compatible set of distributions, where application developers, university students, custom distro builders and users are all able to take advantage of each other’s work.

Put these two things together, and you can see Sun’s predicament. Sun *wanted* a community that empowered application developers, but *got* a community aimed squarely at kernel hackers. Whether you see this as the “kernel.org -vs- Ubuntu” fight, or the “fully open -vs- MySQL model” argument, in my opinion, it all is simply a reflection of the above mismatched expectations.”

So that explains why it’s take three long years to try to get basic open source development tools (such as putting Open Solaris source code in a distributed SCM located outside of the Sun firewall) for Open Solaris. It was never was Sun’s intention to try to promote a kernel engineering community, or at least, it was certainly not a high priority for them to do so. This can be shown by the fact that as of this writing they still are using the incredibly clunky requester/sponsor system for getting patches into Solaris; setting up a git or mercurial server is not rocket science. This lack explains why Linus gets more contributions while brushing his teeth than Open Solaris gets in a week.

So if you run into a Sun salescritter or a Sun CEO claiming that OpenSolaris is just like Linux, it’s not. Fundamentally, Open Solaris has been released under a Open Source license, but it is not an Open Source development community. Maybe it will be someday, as some Sun executives have claimed, but it’s definitely not a priority by Sun; if it was, it would have been done before now. And why not? After all, they are getting all of the marketing benefit of claiming that Solaris is “just like Linux”, without having to deal with any of the messy costs of working with an outside community. As a tactical measure, astroturfing is certainly a valid marketing trick. But after three years, the excuse of “just you wait a little longer, we’re just trying to figure this open source community stuff out”, is starting to wear a little thin.

Furthermore, if (as John Ploncher claims) this was about “empowering application programmers”, why was it that Sun’s first act was to trumpet how wonderful it was to release the Solaris source code under a Open Source license? This only seems to make sense if the Open Solaris initiative was really a cynical marketing tactic to try to save Solaris from being viewed as irrelevant. If that was Sun’s intention, I think it is fair to say that from a marketing point of view, the tactic has been at least partially successful — although as John has admitted, the goal of creating a full community with application developers, university students, and so on, hasn’t materialized for Open Solaris. Sun has the dream; the Linux community is living it.

However, from business standpoint, I wonder if Sun will really be able to sustain their Solaris engineering team if they will really be doing all of the work themselves, and outside contributions continue at the rate of 0.6 patches per day. After all, the margins when you are selling low-cost AMD servers are much lower than when you are selling über-expensive SPARC servers. With Linux, we have a major advantage in that kernel improvements are coming from multiple companies in the ecosystem, instead of being paid for by a single company. And given that 70-80% of Sun’s AMD servers are running Linux, not Solaris, it’s not clear how Sun justifies their Solaris engineering costs to their shareholders. Furthermore, if Solaris on x86_64 were to actually take off, there’s nothing to stop competitors from selling Solaris support — except the competitors won’t have to pay the engineering costs to maintain and improve Solaris, so they would be able to provide the support much more cheaply than Sun could. So while Sun’s marketing tactics have kept Solaris alive in some verticals, I have to question how successful Sun will be in the long-term.

Update: I’ve posted a reply to Brian Aker’s comments as a follow up that would probably be interesting to those folks who are interested in the ideas found in this essay.

Update^2: John Plocher’s name is spelled with an ‘h’, which I had omitted. My deep apologies to him for getting his name wrong. I’ve fixed it in the post.