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Monday, 26 May 2008 21:22

OpenSolaris: nice try, pity about the licence

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Why would anyone try to introduce an operating system into the existing glut unless it pays off in spades? What can a new entrant give us that the multitude of Linux distributions, the Mac OSX and old, hoary Windows hasn't?

Sun Microsystems apparently thinks it has a lot to offer - else the so-called Project Indiana would not have been set up to churn out "a binary distribution of an operating system built out of the OpenSolaris source code."

The OpenSolaris community was set up three years ago with the stated intention of being an open development group that would not be under Sun's control. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it is now abundantly clear that Sun is just using the moniker of "open source" for marketing reasons. One still has to go through a requester/sponsor arrangement to submit a patch to the OpenSolaris project.

(By contrast, the Ubuntu Linux distribution started by Canonical is now a little more than three-and-a-half years old - and there is no need to detail what it has achieved).

As Linux kernel guru Ted T'so commented, "Fundamentally, Open Solaris has been released under a Open Source license, but it is not an Open Source development community. Maybe it will be someday, as some Sun executives have claimed, but it’s definitely not a priority by Sun; if it was, it would have been done before now. And why not? After all, they are getting all of the marketing benefit of claiming that Solaris is 'just like Linux', without having to deal with any of the messy costs of working with an outside community. As a tactical measure, astroturfing is certainly a valid marketing trick. But after three years, the excuse of 'just you wait a little longer, we’re just trying to figure this open source community stuff out', is starting to wear a little thin."

According to the OpenSolaris website, "We are working hard to create a process which will allow anyone to contribute code to OpenSolaris while maintaining the highest possible quality standards." Three years later what is available is a draft which is long on process when it come to contributions - and short on product. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is relatively little buzz around the project. Lest we forget, work is going on to draft a constitution for OpenSolaris. Really.

It is worth recalling here that even before the Linux kernel made its appearance, there was a project named 386BSD, one which delivered a working system, which lost traction due to the fact that development was restricted to just the two people who started it and kept it going. Linux has largely grown due to its inclusiveness, the openness to contributions from any Tom, Dick or Harry, provided they meet technical standards. But then the human race, Sun Microsystems personnel included, rarely learns from experience.

Project Indiana is headed by Ian Murdock who started the Debian GNU/Linux project in 1993 and led it for three years. After leaving Debian, Murdock started another distribution called Progeny based on Debian, but that shut shop after a while. People often have the perception that if one touch turns something into gold, then it works every time. Sadly, such is not the case.

There has been some acrimony over the fact that Murdock's project seems to have appropriated the name OpenSolaris. So much so, that one well-known participant in the OpenSolaris project, Roy Fielding of Apache HTTP Server Project fame, quit in disgust earlier this year. He had this to say, in part: "What is the point of creating the OpenSolaris Community governance if the community isn’t even allowed to decide what is called OpenSolaris? This isn’t an abstract discussion of trademarks. It is the fundamental basis for making technical decisions of any kind for the project."

Commenting on his departure, Emily Ratliff of IBM's Linux Technology Centre pointed out that until that point there had been 578 patches contributed to the OpenSolaris project, a rate of 0.6 patches a day. "Linus (Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel) gets more patches while he is brushing his teeth than OpenSolaris gets in a week. Despite Roy’s efforts to build a real community, contributing to OpenSolaris always has been and seemingly always will be, corporate welfare," she commented.

And, she added: "For me, the realization (sic) that Sun just doesn’t get it, and never will, was crystallized (sic) the day I was turned away from an OpenSolaris Users’ Group meeting for refusing to sign an NDA."

And now to the binary distribution, itself. The recent release (2008.05) from Project Indiana appears to be geared towards the business desktop but network connectivity is problematic. Then again, given the amount of eye candy, it cannot be geared towards the server.

Network connectivity is possible if one allows the so-called Network-Magic utility to work and provides a DHCP server. Turn off the magic (which strongly reminds me of the brain-dead GNOME application Network Manager) and you can't get a connection. Sure, you can set a static IP but you'll still be isolated on the network. No internet for you, OpenSolaris user.

It's difficult to figure out why Sun has left out OpenOffice.org from this release. What is the point of having a tab titled Office on the list of programs - and then providing just a document viewer in this subset?

The software management tool is a poorly designed and implemented application, and the number of packages available for inclusion is pathetically small compared to what a Linux distribution offers.

But the licence is what jars the most. It pops up in all its glorious detail right at the start of proceedings, the Community Development and Distribution Licence. It isn't compatible with the General Public Licence, an indicator, again, that Sun is still in two minds - should we (really) give it away or should we still continue to be control freaks?

Let's remember that nine years ago, one of the founders of Sun, software legend Bill Joy, used to go around promoting Sun's Community Source Licence (SCSL) as an alternative to the GPL. The difference? The GPL requires that all alterations to code be released into the public domain if it is going to be distributed while the SCSL allows licensees to release binary-only derivatives - for a price.

This isn't the first time that Sun has toyed with creating an Unix-based desktop aimed at business users. It put out something called the Java Desktop System in 2004 - though why a modified version of what was then SuSE Linux, which included a few small Java applets, merited that name still isn't clear. The first release that I received was not installable and I had to return it to Sun, advising them that a review at that stage would be a major PR disaster for the company. A few months later, a working release was sent to me.

That system is no longer available; components which bear the same name now sit atop the Solaris operating system and are marketed to businesses; the JDS component is free, Solaris costs an arm and a leg.

There are two Sun components that would be of interest to Linux developers if they were licensed under terms that made them portable - the ZFS filesystem and DTrace. But by the time Sun decides on whether it will open source these two, it may be time for me to bid goodbye to this world. Or it could well be that Sun's own demise predates my own.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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