Open(ing) Source Options

Over the years, various groups have called for Microsoft to make available Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 source code. Not in this lifetime, is the usual response.

Microsoft’s resistance to license, share, or otherwise make source code available are some of the factors that helped give free operating systems -- such as Linux and BSD -- and the open source community a leg up in the world. Is it practical to open up proprietary operating systems in this manner? Consider what Sun Microsystems is doing.

Sun recently decided to try to take advantage of the Linux effect. As part of its launch of Solaris 8 in late January, Sun announced it was offering Solaris 8 -- in both Intel and SPARC versions -- free to users of systems with eight or fewer processors.

Solaris 8 will be available in both source and binary form, with the binaries available late February and the source code available during the second quarter of this year.

While the company had not yet released the official license for this program as I write this, it did release a series of questions and answers to the analyst community that provide enough detail on the program to see what is good and bad. Some of the key points are listed below.

* Solaris 8 is available for free download, but must be appropriately licensed for use. Sun will also offer a package that includes CDs and documentation for $75.

* Sun decided that eight-way SMP systems are the limit that can take advantage of this free Solaris 8 license. Yes, it's a limit but it encompasses essentially all of the Intel world and a good chunk of Sun’s SPARC customer base.

* Terms of use for the source code and executable binaries differ. Sun’s intent appears to be to keep use of the source code limited to research and development, as well as educational purposes -- but not deployment. Unaltered binaries are easily licensed for production use.

* Sun plans to make it impossible, from a licensing perspective, for altered versions of Solaris 8 to get loose. Sun specifically disallows the right to compile unaltered Solaris 8 source code into executable code. Altered code can be complied, but Sun requires additional licensing prior to using it for internal purposes.

* Individuals tinkering with the source code are not allowed to share alterations directly. They can share source code with other Solaris 8 source code licensees by going through Sun.

* Support of altered code in production use is an issue Sun plans to carefully control.

* Intellectual property rights will be clearly articulated so Sun’s existing property is protected from misuse.

For Sun, this represents a bold move with potential upside, but also a serious possible downside.

It’s interesting to note this is not a struggling company grasping at straws to reverse its declining fortunes. In the past year, Sun has seen revenue growth of 22 to 26 percent each quarter over the year before. In 1999, Solaris/SPARC shipments were up over 19 percent compared with 1998.

The upside for Sun is this move will reduce the number of users on older versions of Solaris, lowering its support burden. Furthermore, Sun has provided incentive for SPARC clone users to upgrade. In return, Sun gets current contact information, that could lead to new equipment sales.

There are many possible negatives, but a decline in operating system revenue is not among the more serious ones.

Despite confidentiality agreements, it’s likely competitors will find a way to get their hands on Solaris 8 source code. Even worse, if someone with malicious intent gets a hold of the source they use it to probe for vulnerabilities.

The long-term upside -- capturing some of the open source community’s development energy -- is less certain. While providing a foundation to build on, Sun is making sure it remains in control of Solaris 8. Unlike Linux development, an individual or group can modify the operating system and return it back to the open source community -- where the modified version will either flourish or die -- changes to Solaris can only be consumed internally or offered back to Sun. The most likely candidates to leverage this program are ISPs and other self-supporting and technically astute organizations that have the resources and motivation to improve on generic Solaris for their own use.

The lessons to be learned here is that, suggesting Microsoft make its source code available is far less practical when real world issues are considered. --Al Gillen is research manager for server Infrastructure software at International Data Corp. (www.idc.com) and former editor-in-chief of ENT. Contact him at agillen@idc.com.