Sun to make Solaris code available

Sun will make its Solaris OS source code available under a 'community-source license.'

By David P. Hamilton
WSJ Interactive Edition

October 1, 1999

Sun Microsystems Inc., in a major shift, plans to begin making the source code of its Solaris operating system freely available to the public in an attempt to parallel the success of the popular Linux operating system.

Sun (Nasdaq:SUN) doesn't intend to simply give away Solaris, its version of Unix that the company runs on its entire line of computer servers and workstations. But the Palo Alto, Calif., computer maker does plan to make the Solaris source code -- the computer instructions that set out exactly how the program works -- available under its "community-source license," said Greg Papadopoulos, the company's chief technology officer.

"It's done, it's over, we're doing it," Papadopoulos said of the internal debate within Sun over the plan. "What's left is the physics of getting it out there."

Pay for commercial use

Under Sun's community-source license, programmers around the world will be free to download the Solaris source code and to make any changes they desire, so long as they provide open "interfaces" to the software and report bugs back to Sun and other programmers. Developers will also be allowed to use Solaris for free in noncommercial applications, but will owe Sun licensing fees if they incorporate it into commercial products.

By contrast, Linux and similar "open source" software is available free of charge to anyone who wants it -- including for commercial use, although users are required to make public any changes to the source code.

Sun is hoping that by simply having the source code available, programmers will trust the software more since they will be able to see its inner workings. Sun also expects that other software programmers outside the company will come up with ways to perhaps even improve Solaris.

The move to open up Solaris amounts to an attempt to ensconce Sun's operating system, which it has long described as one of its crown jewels, as the Unix operating system of choice for Internet sites and corporate data centers.

Sun has been a vigorous proponent of its community-source licenses, which it has used to promote its Java and Jini software technologies, as well as its major microprocessor designs.

Avoid free-for-alls

Sun hopes community-source licensing can help it avoid the free-for-all spirit that characterizes -- some would say, energizes -- the Linux programming community. In particular, Sun officials remain concerned that Linux-style open-source agreements could fragment Solaris into a host of incompatible operating systems.

"At the end of the day, the issue is how you allow innovation, but also have a reasonable process by which the community sticks together on the core as it evolves," said Anil Gadre, general manager of Sun's Solaris division.

Opening up the Solaris source code is also a pre-emptive strike against Microsoft Corp., which plans to launch its Windows 2000 operating system for high-end corporate and Internet computing later this year. Microsoft officials have spoken vaguely about the possibility of making the Windows source code publicly available, but many in the industry remain skeptical that the software giant truly means it.

Sun hasn't yet worked out the timing of the community-source release of Solaris, which is likely to phase in over a long period of time. Several issues remain to be resolved, including how Sun handles parts of the Solaris code that contain intellectual property licensed from third parties.

Gadre, however, confirmed that Sun plans to eventually make the entire code base of Solaris available. "There's nothing we are scared of in that space," he said. "We only see it as an upside opportunity."

On the Nasdaq Stock Market Thursday, Sun shares closed at $93, up $1.4375, or 1.6 percent.

Copyright 1999