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When Solaris 10 is released late this year, Sun Microsystems Inc. will be culminating years of development work on the operating system, as well as launching a major open-source initiative to go with it.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company is on track to deliver on a new strategy, conceived some six years ago, of developing and selling Solaris but also offering the code to the open-source community, Sun executives told eWEEK in interviews last week.

Sun’s goal is to use the open-sourcing of Solaris to drive a turnaround of the company’s software business, which has lost mind share, if not market share, in the Linux and Windows crossfire. Sun wants to foster a better internal software development process, work more closely with the community and then be able to drive innovation outside its own walls, increasing Solaris’ penetration and pushing it into new markets, executives said.

But Sun still has to clear a few hurdles before opening Solaris by year’s end. The company has to ensure that it has the legal permissions necessary to make each line of code available, including the Unix kernel on which it’s based. This onerous process could ultimately delay the release of the open-source program when Solaris 10 is ready to ship commercially, which is scheduled for December, officials said.

Click here for eWEEK Labs’ early look at Solaris 10.

If it isn’t ready, it wouldn’t be the first delay in the battle to open Solaris.

Sun considered the possibility of opening Solaris in 1998, but that move was met with such resistance internally and was fraught with so many legal and technical difficulties that the idea was shelved. It was resuscitated around 2000 with the Solaris 8 Foundation Source Program, but while that made the source code more accessible under certain conditions, it was a far cry from true open source.

Then, about a year ago, the idea was brought up again by a Sun braintrust including Jonathan Schwartz, now Sun’s president and chief operating officer; John Loiacono, now Sun’s executive vice president for software; Glenn Weinberg, vice president of Sun’s Operating Platforms Group; and Tim Marsland, Sun’s chief technology officer for the Operating Platforms Group.

Along the way, they had to fight layers of resistance—even from inside their company. “When I brought the matter up with the Solaris kernel engineering team a year or so ago, their response was, ‘What? How are you going to do that and protect our intellectual property?’” Loiacono told eWEEK last week.

But after the team explained its vision and got people involved in the dialogue, the engineers became eager to see their code made open, he said.

Click here to read the full interview with Loiacono.

Many Sun partners and customers are now welcoming the move toward openness. Ben Williams, vice president of Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s enterprise and server workstation business, said Sun’s embrace of open source strengthened its partnership with the company. AMD, of Sunnyvale, Calif., also views Solaris as a key component of its overall Opteron chip-set strategy.

Matthew Leeds, vice president of operations with Gracenote LLC, of Emeryville, Calif., runs Solaris on both x86 and SPARC hardware and on Linux. Gracenote, which supplies information about music and digital media to third parties such as Apple Computer Inc. and RealNetworks Inc., has more than 30 million users a month.

“We are a 24-by-7 service that deals with lots of continuous transactions, so we have to be up all the time. We looked at Linux first, but after lots and lots of heavy digging, we found that the threading library in Linux was just not up to the task for our volume database,” Leeds said. By contrast, Solaris proved essential in that middle-tier volume transactional database of some 20 Solaris x86 boxes. Opening the platform gives him new flexibility, Leeds said.

Next page: Satisfying the open-source community.

Sun officials are aware that to satisfy the open-source community, Sun will have to make Solaris completely open and available, unlike the mixed bag it has created with Java, and assure users that Sun will continue to provide a supported, backward-compatible, value-added distribution.

“There are technical issues, legal issues and cultural issues that have to be resolved around this,” Loiacono said. “We have had to work hard on the technical issues, like what can and cannot be open-sourced, how it will be structured and whether we have the intellectual property rights across the board.”

Sun’s Weinberg said that Solaris has had many contributors over the years and that almost all their contributions have been licensed by the company. “We have had to work through hundreds of agreements we have had with different companies on different parts of the code, and either arrange for the licenses to be taken care of or for us to rewrite the code so that we can open it. We are well down on the list of those,” he said.

A developer who requested anonymity said he does not see how Sun can open-source the Unix kernel that currently resides in Solaris without violating The SCO Group Inc.’s rights to Unix. SCO, based in Lindon, Utah, owns the rights to Unix.

“We believe we have the appropriate intellectual property licensing rights to open-source Solaris. We believe we stand on a very solid legal foundation,” Loiacono said.

Also critical to the release of Solaris’ code is the open-source license Sun will issue with the code. While that has yet to be decided, officials caution that the license that is chosen may not necessarily facilitate the easy adoption of the Solaris source code into a GPL (GNU General Public License) environment, which Sun officials see as very prescriptive.

Sun executives said they will still provide an added-value, commercial, Sun-supported and Sun-compatible Solaris distribution for customers that is similar to The Fedora Project, Red Hat Inc.’s free, community-supported Linux distribution.

“That’s the kind of model we are looking at for Solaris. Open Solaris must have a commonly referred to and understood licensing model that is approved by the Open Source Initiative. The bottom line is that we are looking at options that address many of the things that customers have concerns with, such as the viral effect of using a GPL-based license where nothing else can touch it,” Loiacono said.

Longtime Solaris user Thomas Nau, head of the Communication and Information Center’s Infrastructure Department at the University of Ulm, in Germany, supports Sun’s approach, saying he agrees that current open-source licenses have drawbacks for intellectual property or religious reasons. “I have a feeling that these community and research license models cannot reflect the needs of most companies, and the GPL, in particular, can become a legal problem,” Nau said.

Sun’s Weinberg said Sun is still working on putting the necessary community processes in place to deal with the issues around an open-source Solaris. “We are going to try and build the community organically and not just throw the doors open for anybody to contribute from Day One,” he said. Gracenote’s Leeds, for instance, wants Sun to follow the Linux model, where only a few people evaluate the inclusion of code additions and improvements to the kernel.

For Loiacono, the Solaris open-source initiative is about creating a community that will participate in the growth and development of Solaris and Java. “We want to leverage the community involvement,” Loiacono said. “That is the whole point.”

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