Sun's Open-Source Solaris

Posted by: Steve Hamm on January 28, 2005

Sun’s move to open-source the version of its Solaris operating system that runs on Intel and AMD chips is a no-lose proposition, and it might even help Sun out a bit. But it’s no game-changer.

After months of signling that this shift was coming, Sun CEO Scott McNealy announced the change on Tuesday, Jan. 25. “Solaris 10 is the best operating system on the planet, bar none,” said McNealy. “Now we’re open-sourcing it, so that takes another barrier to innovation out”

The move hands over access to the source code for Solaris 10 to all comers--as long as they agree contribute their improvements back to the Open Solaris community. Sun also offered up free access to 1600 Solaris patents, so participants don't have to be worried about being sued for infringement. The move doesn't threaten Sun's revenue stream since corporate customers typically want commercial versions of operating systems, complete with on-going support. This gesture benefits Sun because it helps cement its relationships with current Solaris developers and customers--who value being able to understand and tinker with their operating system source code.

Sun has been losing business at a rapid rate over the last few years as customers shift to Windows or Linux for the price advantages. It launched a counterattack by pushing server computers that run on cheaper Intel and AMD chips, but it hasn't really been working the way Sun hoped. Analysts estimate that about 65% of the servers it ships running Intel's and AMD's x86 processors are powered by Linux rather than Solaris. Making Solaris Open source may help out a little bit, but analysts say one thing that's holding back Solaris-on-X86 chips is that it isn't as good as the version of Solaris that runs on Sun's Sparc processor. Open-sourcing the operating system doesn't fix that.

Sun is trying other guerilla marketing techniques to help lift Solaris. For instance, President Jonathan Schwartz on his blog penned an open letter to IBM CEO Sam Palmisano calling on him to create versions of IBM's DB2 database program and its WebSphere products to run on Solaris. He says mutual customers of both companies are requesting it. It's extremely unlikely that IBM will comply, of course. Why help a rival when he's down?

Sun's recovery--if it comes--will be based on innovation and lower prices, a tough combination since innovation costs money. Open-sourcing Solaris barely moves the needle.

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