Sun exec takes control of open source projects

Sun has never viewed open source as being in a single silo, but Simon Phipps will coordinate a unified effort

Sun Microsystems has created a new office to coordinate its open-source projects and appointed long-time technology evangelist Simon Phipps to oversee the effort.

Phipps' new role as chief open source officer will be a familiar one, since he's been performing the duties of the job for about two years at Sun, Phipps said in an interview Thursday.

But it is the first time Sun has had an executive in charge of all of its open-source projects, mainly because Sun has never viewed open source as being in a single silo, but rather as part of the fabric of the company, he said.

"If you look at other companies, they have open-source offices, and it's dead easy, because open source is like a laminate stuck on the outside of the company," Phipps said. "With Sun, community-based development goes all through the company's history, and coordinating it is a sensitive and difficult job."

Though Phipps' role will be to bring together the open-source projects at Sun and make sure they work together when they can and all foster "the spirit of open source," he stressed that the Open Source Office will not exercise control over those communities.

"When you're coordinating a significant number of them, it’s like herding squirrels, to a certain degree, which is like herding cats but in three dimensions," Phipps said. "When you’re doing community-based development, you really can’t call the shots. I can’t tell the folks doing OpenOffice what to do, because they’re depending on the OpenOffice community. But I can make sure the people on our [open-source teams] get to meet each other in a conference room several times a year so they're aware of each other's actions and how they can help each other."

Though Sun has never had a chief open source officer before, the creation of the new office is not the first time Sun has attempted to organize its open-source efforts in a cohesive way. In 2000, Danese Cooper, now the chief open-source evangelist at Intel, started the Open Source Programs Office at Sun, which she ran for three years. The job of that office was mainly to ensure that Sun's Web sites supporting its open-source projects were running smoothly, which was just one piece of open-source efforts at Sun, she said Thursday.

Cooper said she thinks it is a good idea for every major technology vendor to have a formalized open-source office and is happy to see her former company making this move, especially with Phipps at the helm.

"Every big company ought to have one of these," Cooper said. "You have to figure out what your [open source] policies are and how you’re going to implement them. Every big company needs someone to know enough about [open source] to help make decisions. ... [Phipps] has done a lot of work in the years since he's decided that open source is something he's interested in. I'm really pleased for him."

Sun currently has numerous open-source efforts under way; OpenSolaris, NetBeans and OpenOffice are some of the best known. Phipps said he is in the process of counting all the projects, many of which are listed on http://www.sunsource.net/, Sun's site that aggregates content and sites for its open-source projects. In fact, that site is run by the group Cooper founded at Sun, which is still in existence.

Phipps said he expects the list of open-source projects at Sun to grow in the coming months, as Sun President and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Schwartz recently stated plans to make Sun's software open source whenever it's "feasible."

"You’ll see a number of interesting innovations in open source from Sun over the coming few months to a year," Phipps said.

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