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Linux Today Feature: IBM on 'Open Source' Solaris: Get Real!

Jan 29, 2000, 02:27 (16 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Wolley)

by John Wolley, Linux Today Silicon Valley correspondent

From a phone conversation with Miles Barel, IBM's program director for Unix marketing

SAN JOSE, California, January 28, 2000 - Several months after the first stories surfaced that Sun was planning to 'open up' Solaris 8, the details were finally announced this past Wednesday. Those details began leaking a week earlier, so reaction to Sun's move has been coming in steadily over the past week. There seems to be a fairly broad consensus that Sun is attempting to head off erosion of its server market share, from Windows 2000 at the high end and from Linux on the low end (CNET 1/00, ZDNet 1/00). Opinion as to the impact on Linux is divided, with Bruce Perens believing, "This will be a tremendous shot in the arm for Linux", and IBM calling it "an effort to distract the Linux community" (both quotes from Red Herring 1/00).

IBM is a Sun competitor that's going after Sun's market--high end, low end, and middle--with its RS6000 product line (Linux Today 9/99) and recently expanded support for Linux across its entire server product line (CNET 1/00, PC Week 1/00, Red Herring 1/00). We asked Miles Barel, IBM's program director for Unix marketing, to comment on the Sun's new licensing and pricing strategy for Solaris 8.

Sun's agenda is anything but open
As many others have noted since Sun's announcement (see Related stories below), Barel thinks Sun's Solaris 8 program is anything but open. "My guess is that if you order it [the source code], you won't get the whole system--you wouldn't be able to compile your own working operating system", said Barel.

Why?--the third-party code in Solaris that Sun has licensed but does not own. Sun may have gotten around this by negotiating agreements with the owners of those pieces of code, and that may be what has shaped the licensing terms that led Sun to avoid the use of the term 'open' in their big announcement (Red Herring 1/00)--the $75 'media charge' and the requirements that (a) changes made in the source must maintain compatibility with the 'standard' Solaris version and (b) can only be redistributed via an agreement with Sun that 'may involve royalties' (SRO 1/00).

In Barel's view, "open source is about the industry driving the development of industry standards". Elaborating on 'the industry', Barel indicated that he was using the term much the way that open source people use the term 'the open source community', or 'the Linux community', in the broadest sense: In addition to the open source developers, he's including users, commercial vendors, and anyone else who wants to actively participate.

What Sun is doing is more like riding on the popularity of the open source concept in order to promote what essentially remains its own proprietary, tightly controlled standard. Barel stressed that the Solaris source code is 'free', neither in the sense of 'free beer' nor in the sense of 'free code'.

IBM considered open sourcing AIX
Barel said that IBM had given serious consideration to the idea of open sourcing its proprietary Unix code, AIX. "IBM looked at all the trade-offs involved in making AIX code available and concluded that it would just confuse the market." Barel believes this is exactly what will happen as a result of Sun's opening up Solaris. He even goes so far as suspecting that this may be precisely Sun's objective, in hopes of slowing the growth of Linux at Sun's expense. The 'Lintel value proposition'--the combination of the license-free Linux OS with relatively cheap Intel PCs--is generally considered to be as much of a threat to Sun's low-end hardware market as it is to Microsoft's OS sales.

Instead IBM chose to give AIX code to Linux
IBM concluded that a far better strategy than open sourcing AIX would be to contribute key parts of the AIX code to the Linux development team (PC Week 1/00, VNUnet 1/00). Which parts? "We'll work with the Linux kernel development team to determine exactly which parts they can really use," said Barel. IBM will leave it to the Linux kernel team to make the announcements about which parts of IBM's offer they decide to accept and their timeframe for implementation. "We don't want to raise false expectations" by giving out more details now.

Where will IBM draw the line?
Assuming that IBM were offering the Linux kernel team anything they wanted from the AIX code (which isn't exactly what anyone at IBM has said)--wouldn't that let Linux leapfrog ahead to parity with AIX? Not in Barel's opinion. "The maturity of an operating system [like AIX] takes many years to develop." The Linux team wants to continue to develop Linux, not turn it into 'open AIX'. By allowing the Linux team to borrow pieces of AIX code that they can easily integrate into Linux, and by supporting the Trillian project to port Linux to Intel's 64-bit chips, IBM can promote the development of a more robust Linux that they can support on their server line. Linux development will be greatly accelerated, but meanwhile AIX development will continue as well.

Sun, Linux, and IBM
Barel observes that "Sun has consistently said over the past few years that they're only interested in one thing, and that's Solaris on Sparc." According to Barel, IBM long ago learned that 'one size fits all' doesn't work, and sees that as even more true today. To IBM, 'e-business' is a huge collection of components running on different platforms. IBM's big strength, the major value that it offers its customers in the internet age, is their skills at "putting all the pieces together and making it work".

IBM is firmly committed to Linux as a cornerstone of their internet and e-business strategy, reiterated Barel. "We believe that Linux is the future of the internet. The internet has been based on open technology. Linux is one of the core technologies that will drive the future evolution of the 'net." From IBM's perspective, "It's in everyone's interest to promote Linux."

BTW: AIX had the 'new' Solaris features 2-3 years ago
While we were talking about the Linux aspects of the Solaris 8 announcement, Barel was quick to point out that most of the new features appearing in Solaris 8 had been added to AIX two or three years ago--for example:

  • Hot upgrades--the ability to upgrade the operating system without shutting down the computer
  • IP version 6--the 'next generation' internet protocol
  • Clustering up to eight systems--AIX has supported clustering of up to 32 systems for some time

Related stories--Sun's Solaris 8 strategy:
IT-Analysis.com: Sun To Move Solaris Closer to Linux Model (Jan 28, 2000)
osOpinion: Is Sun Missing The Point? (Jan 28, 2000)
Red Herring: Solaris is "free," but not open (Jan 27, 2000)
SRO: Free Solaris?, There's got to be a catch. And there is. (Jan 27, 2000)
Linux Journal: Solaris Free-for-All (Jan 27, 2000)
InternetWeek: Sun To Offer Solaris, Source Code Free (Jan 26, 2000)
CNET News.com: Sun slashes Solaris prices, opens code in marketing move (Jan 26, 2000)
CNET News.com: Sun's revised Solaris defends against Linux, Windows 2000 (Jan 24, 2000)
ZDNet: Sun fights Linux, WinNT with 'free Solaris' (Jan 25, 2000)

Related stories--IBM supporting Linux, challenging Sun: 
VNU NET: IBM making good progress on open source plan (Jan 26, 2000)
CNET News.com: IBM exec touts Linux as key to Net evolution (Jan 26, 2000)
Red Herring: IBM wants to kick Sun butt (Jan 25, 2000)
SRO: IBM Steals Sun's Java Thunder (Jan 24, 2000)
ComputerWorld: IBM has big plans for Linux (Jan 12, 2000)
CNET News.com: IBM boosts Linux on servers (Jan 10, 2000)
PC Week: IBM plans major expansion of Linux efforts (Jan 10, 2000)
IBM Leverages Linux in Sun Challenge (Sep 14, 1999)