Monday, December 11, 2006

Sun shines a light on open source

Among the reasons Sun has been out of favour with Wall Street for years is the company's inability to fully profit from its clever inventions, notably those in software.

With the company now pursuing another turnaround, the nub of Sun's software gameplan can be boiled down to two words: open source.

The company has open sourced its Solaris Unix operating system, and chief executive Jonathan Schwartz — a software man himself — said Sun intends to eventually open source its entire software product line, even the Java programming package, something outsiders have long urged Sun to do.

The idea is to steal share from entrenched software providers by using the disruptive potential of open source business models, where software is available for free and vendors charge for support services.

Rich Green, executive vice president of software at Sun, is tasked with making that plan a profitable reality. In May, he returned to the Sun after two years at a start-up and said he found a company that has shed its "religious biases".

Speaking with ZDNet UK's sister site, CNET, Green said Sun will open source Java "pretty quickly", and he described how the company aims to compete under the Darwinian rules of the software industry.

Q: Your primary mission right now is to speed Sun's transition to open source. Where are you in that process?

A: When Jonathan (Schwartz) called and offered the opportunity to return, it just seemed to me that the company I could return to was in a much different place than the company I had left two years before. It is now being led by an individual (Schwartz) who has a strong software bias, there were many advancements in terms of the open sourcing of Solaris, the success of the NetBeans developer community, the advancement of Sparc architecture to the CMT (chip multithreading) technology, the realisation that the world is not Sparc-only, and shipping X64 machines.

It just seemed to me like a company that had dramatically reduced its religious biases and been focused more as a business — and, in fact, a progressive business — on the current hardware-software-services lifestyle.

The knock on Sun for many years is that it is a hardware company — all it wants to do is sell more servers. Are you telling me that Sun has gotten a new religion and software is the lead?

Well, these are shades of gray. I think historically our dramatic skew was towards hardware-only, and now I think it's a much greater balance. You know, we're a big company and we can afford to do numerous things well. So I'm not going to sit here and say, "We're going to software instead of hardware". But what I am going to say is that we're going to run software as a significant peer component of Sun's business, certainly use it to positively affect our system sales.

(We are) an entity whose charter is to go forward and compete aggressively in the industry with, I think, a pretty rich and capable stack of software at the run-time level and a set of powerful development tools. It's a much different perspective than it used to be.

You've said that Solaris is the centrepiece of the software strategy. Why is that? I think a lot of people might argue that Java has the stronger attachment, or brand association, with Sun as Solaris.

I actually think you're right. It's hard; it would be hard to choose which is more important than the other. I will note though that in today's world, there is a lot of competition at the operating system platform level alone and so it's not as if Java is more or less relevant, it's orthogonal.

Everybody has always recognised the technical prowess or capability of Solaris. I think the accessibility... in the open Solaris program has allowed people to more viscerally appreciate it because they can see the code, they can use it, they can add to it, it's a different world.

Why does providing code lead to more sales?

It's not only having the code or not... People don't buy things until they have obtained it, analysed it, tried it out, manipulated it and maybe built software on top of it. So there is a shift (in software acquisition) from pre-analysis to post-analysis. It brings three audiences (developers, systems administrators and CIOs) into the mainstream of the analysis cycle because they go get it.

Whether they are reading the sources or just trying out some projects, they can do it at their pace with no intervention or interaction from Sun required. Then when it's time to go big, they give us a call. It's a much different model for Sun and for any other entities engaged in open source than the prior model of monetisation at acquisition.

One of the first big announcements from Sun after you joined was that the company intends to open source Java. Summarise what you think you'll achieve by doing that. Also, could you address compatibility, which we've been told has been the thing that has historically held Sun back?

I want to separate out the buzz in the industry from the reality, which is, by and large, that most individuals have full open source access to the technology. That said, the means of licensing…