Solaris Free-for-All

Will one small step for open source result in a giant leap for Sun Microsystems' Solaris 8?

A popular radio commercial notes how the word "free" has been attached to all sorts of things in the past: "free" lunches, "free" thinking, even "free" love. Yet, of late, we have become equally accustomed to seeing "free" come in more qualified contexts. "Free"--but void where prohibited by law. "Free"--but only while supplies last.

So it is perhaps little surprise that the latest "free" offering from Sun Microsystems--namely, the "free" that has recently been appended to its Solaris 8 operating system--also comes with a few qualifications of its own.

Sun Microsystems, Inc., in an apparent bid to fend of challenges from the left (Linux) and the right (Windows 2000), has elected to take one small step toward both open source and the philosophy of free software by offering Solaris 8 for the low, low cost of $75, according to early reports from CNET and others. Solaris 8 is slated to be unveiled today in New York City, where there is also a suspicion that the source code for Solaris 8 will also be revealed.

According to these reports, the $75 fee covers the cost of applications bundled with the OS, and not a fee for the operating system itself. Bundled applications reportedly include Sendmail and Apache Web server software, as well as a "research and development only" copy of the Oracle 8i database. One highly anticipated new feature of Solaris 8 is directory software that will make it easier for system administrators to keep tabs on all the components of the network, from computers to printers to other servers.

Additionally, versions of Solaris 8 available later in the year are expected to pull a page from the Linux text of late: clustering. Clustering servers allows for workload-sharing and works as an on-the-fly backup in case any given server in the cluster breaks down. While Linux servers are not the only ones to take advantage of clustering (Windows NT works with two machines and Windows 2000 will reportedly cluster up to four), the fact that the rise of Linux came as clustering techniques were being refined has certainly helped up the ante for those in a server marketplace that has become considerably more competitive with the arrival of Linux.

Solaris 8 represents not only Sun Microsystems' latest defense of its Internet server turf, but also an attempt to pluck some of the most central tenets of the Linux phenomenon for its own ends. While Sun Microsystems' president Ed Zander has been quoted as saying that Sun will never replace its Solaris OS with Linux--occasionally going so far as to suggest that many companies are chasing after Linux with the same simplistic devotion that they showed in wooing Windows in years past--it is clear that Sun Microsystems has learned that, at least to some degree, if you can't beat them, steal a few pages from their playbook.

It is telling that one of the solutions Sun CEO Scott McNealy sees for dealing with the Microsoft monopoly is not so much breaking the company into "Baby Bills", but to make the corporation open up its application program interfaces (API) and offer them for free. Having gone head to head against Windows NT and found themselves winning the higher, if smaller, territory on their side of a server DMZ, Sun Microsystems seems to suspect that by quickly changing the terms of the conflict--in essence, trying to force Microsoft to fight on the very unfamiliar terrain of open source codes and free software--it stands a better chance of gaining ground.

Following this reasoning, Sun's move to open Solaris 8 and to offer it for next to nothing (Solaris 7 costs just under $700 for commercial users), also helps lessen a bit of Linux's steam. While Microsoft certainly has more to "lose" than Linux companies do by a free and open Solaris 8, some in the Linux community resent what they see as Sun's "watering down" of what it means to open source a technology. Solaris users are expected to be able to change aspects of the source code, but the code itself will not be released under the same GNU General Public License as Linux, nor (allegedly) even under the significantly more restrictive Sun Community Source License. In addition, restrictions on commercial use of any changes to the Solaris code are also anticipated.

Sun Microsystems' opening and "freeing" of Solaris 8 also has the company singing the new plainsong of "services," in response to those who wonder where the new earnings will come from if the company offers one of its favorite sons gratis. But the lowered costs of Solaris 8 will not prevent those making Solaris 8 applications from having to pay fees to Sun and, unless Solaris 8 is a sizeable enough hit to attract new customers from the "server appliance" marketplace, Sun may find itself offering support for a dedicated, but dwindling set of clients. The server appliance market is characterized less by the sort of heavy-duty, all-around servers Sun has traditionally provided, and more the sort of specialty servers geared toward more limited, and specific, functions.

And this is where Sun's borrowing from the Linux book may run into more difficulties. A great many server appliances run, or are perfectly suited for running, on Linux. Linux's size-for-strength qualities are among the most appealing for those running server appliances, and the "boutique" nature of these servers makes access to the source code essential. While there may be advantages to having what Sun Microsystems has called a "stable set of code," as opposed to local system administrators having to deal with source code changes on their own, this language runs suspiciously counter to the reasons why Sun and many others have advocated for open sourcing code in the first place.

email: david@ssc.com

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