A year later: Has Oracle ruined or saved Sun?

The company irks open source advocates but is steadfast in upgrading Sun-derived technologies

In its first year in charge of the former Sun Microsystems technologies, Oracle stepped on plenty of toes, as the company dueled with both the open source community and Google. But Oracle also has released a plethora of products and advanced numerous projects derived from the Sun acquisition, ranging from Java and NetBeans IDE upgrades to StorageTek storage units, the Solaris OS, and Sparc hardware. Has Oracle ruined Sun or saved it?

Oracle formally took over Sun in late January 2010. Since then, the company has had to pursue a goal that had escaped Sun in the later years of Sun's existence: profitability. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison in September 2009 said Sun was losing $100 million a month while waiting for the $7.4 billion Sun acquisition to be completed. Ellison since then has criticized Sun management for bad business practices and noted Sun did not make a lot of money from Java, whereas Oracle did.

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So it shoud be no surprise that Oracle in the past year has pursued whatever opportunities it can find to make money when Sun did not. This push for profits has forced Sun's engineering-driven culture to take a backseat to the bottom line. Oracle has not been shy about asserting its control over the myriad Sun technologies, even if that has meant upsetting the people who started them.

Indeed, if the formerly high-flying Sun had been profitable, the company likely would still be here today. Instead, signs of Sun's fall are visible in the defunct company's Silicon Valley home. Facebook, for example, is moving into a former Sun research park near the southern end of the San Francisco Bay that had been a jewel in Sun's crown.

Oracle has made some common-sense moves with Sun's technology, such as pairing Sun hardware with Oracle middleware in the Exalogic Elastic Cloud system. Oracle, however, has taken a public relations beating in the open source realm, where projects such as the Hudson continuous integration server and Java itself have been the subjects of controversy.

But a review of Oracle's moves during the past year reveals advances for former Sun product lines, soothing the concerns of IT pros who had committed to Sun's technology. (A notable exception has been the Sun Cloud, the cloud computing platform that never got off the ground after Oracle took charge.)

Oracle did not comment for this article, but even an official at the Apache Software Foundation, which has sparred with Oracle over Java licensing terms and control of the platform, gave Oracle a qualified nod. "By every measure, I think Oracle is a very successful technology business, so as to how Oracle as a business will do with Sun technology, I think they're going to do great," says Geir Magnusson, Apache's treasurer and co-founder of the disputed Apache Harmony project. "The problems have surfaced over the last 12 to 18 months have been sort of all around open source community."

Java: JSEE advances but disputes reign on several fronts

Oracle's stewardship of Java, perhaps the most critical technology gained in the Sun acquisition, has been a mixed bag. The company in November submitted specifications for the Java Standard Editions 7 and 8, with accommodations for multicore processors and modularity, that the Java Community Process (JCP) approved in December. In September, Oracle also detailed plans to bolster the JavaFX rich Internet application platform. JavaFX 2.0 is due later this year, supporting hardware-accelerated graphics and updated UI controls.

Oracle, however, has had to deal with high-profile conflict. For example, after initially siding with Apache against Sun's proposed field-of-use restrictions for the Apache Harmony version of Java, Oracle switched sides after it bought Sun and supported the restrictions that Apache disliked. The restrictions, according to Apache, would prohibit Harmony's use on mobile platforms. The dispute, which goes back half a decade, finally led to Apache quitting the JCP Java SE/EE executive committee in December, with Apache protesting Oracle's control over Java.

More conflict in the Java realm has been over Oracle's highly publicized lawsuit against Google, which alleges that the Android mobile OS violates Java patents. The lawsuit prompted Google to pull out of the first Oracle-run JavaOne conference in September.

Even more conflict: Oracle has been promoting OpenJDK as the principal reference implementation of open source Java, getting backing from IBM in October. (IBM previously had backed Apache's position.) This month, Oracle issued draft bylaws for OpenJDK ostensibly to encourage participants to act in an "open, transparent, and meritocratic manner." But critics note that Oracle appoints a chair and IBM a vice chair under the rules. "It was interesting to see IBM get a permanent position on the governing board as vice chair," said a cynical Magnusson, the Apache treasurer.

Solaris: Today's Oracle invests in the OS it used to ignore

Oracle's jurisdiction over Solaris is a bit ironic since Oracle certainly did not help the platform when Sun began promoting commodity Linux in the days Sun was still independent. Nonetheless, Oracle has been moving forward with Solaris. In November, Oracle shipped Solaris 11 Express, which is geared to developers and serves as a preview of Solaris 11, due in 2011. Version 11 is set to increase application throughput, improve performance, and boost reliability and security.

Another Oracle move, however, could prompt Solaris users to look at Linux. The company last year changed the free usage provision of Solaris 10, limiting it to 90 days. Sun had been offering the operating system free of charge in hopes of selling support subscriptions. Oracle also put a dent in the OpenSolaris open source version of Solaris, with leaked plans revealing intentions to stop developing it. In August, the OpenSolaris Governing Board voted to dissolve itself.

Open source projects: Steps both forward and backward

Besides Java, which became an open source venture in late 2007, Oracle has taken on other open source projects from Sun, including the NetBeans IDE, OpenOffice.org productivity suite, and Project Hudson -- causing consternation with the last two efforts.

Backers of Hudson have been sniping at Oracle over independence and trademark issues, prompting a move to change the project name to Jenkins. "The underlying problem was that since I left Oracle, there was virtually zero contribution from Oracle to the project in terms of the development resources, marketing, etc," says project leader Kohsuke Kawaguchi, one of many high-profile technologists to leave Oracle since the Sun acquisition. "So over the past year, people doing the work started to feel that it's a truly community-driven project like Linux kernel, not a vendor-driven [open source] project like JBoss."

Hudson supporters were thus rudely surprised when "last November, our project hosting infrastructure at java.net was suddenly locked down. So the developers decided to move the code to better hosting infrastructure, and that's when Oracle [senior vice president] Ted Farrell showed up and told us that we can't do that because they own the name Hudson," Kawaguchi recalls.

With OpenOffice.org, Oracle raised eyebrows when it released the Oracle ODF Plug-In for Microsoft, for sharing files between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office, charging $90 and requiring a minimum order of 100. Supporters of the project ended up forming an independent group, the Document Foundation, and released the LibreOffice fork of Openoffice, calling it "the next evolution of the world's leading office suite." But Oracle continues to update OpenOffice: OpenOffice 3.3 was released in January, with enhancements for usability, productivity, and internationalization.

NetBeans also has marched onward, even though Oracle already had commitments to its own JDeveloper Java IDE and the open Eclipse open source IDE. NetBeans has remained an Oracle-sponsored project, and NetBeans 6.9 was released in June featuring JavaFX Composer, a visual layout tool for JavaFX. NetBeans 7.0 is due this spring, offering Java SE 7 capabilities. But Ruby on Rails development has been dropped from the 7.0 release, with NetBeans builders citing a lack of use and a need to prioritize on Java.

MySQL database now firmly in Oracle's product arsenal

Oracle's ownership of the open source MySQL database had been a bone of contention for many. For example, it caused the European Union to hold up the sale of Sun in 2009 pending review of the antitrust implications on MySQL specifically and open source in general. (The EU ultimately gave the go-ahead.) But Oracle delivered MySQL 5.5 in December, featuring scalability for Web application on multiple operating environments. MySQL Enterprise, featuring the database with production tools, was refreshed in May, with enhanced query monitoring and security capabilities. The MySQL Cluster 7.1 database was released in April, with automated management.

Oracle also raised the price of low-end MySQL support, with the annual cost jumping to $2,000 per server, up from $599 per server.

Sparc: The Sun CPU also marches on

Oracle is now the owner of Sun's prized Sparc CPU platform -- another technology that Oracle didn't support when Sun was its own company. Sparc pretty much lost the mind share and market share battles to Intel, with few people even talking anymore about the debate between CISC and RISC architectures (Sparc uses the latter, and Intel uses the former). Still, Oracle continues to release products that use Sun's Sparc chip while upgrading the chip itself.

Oracle enhanced the Sparc Enterprise M-Series server product line in December with a new processor, the Sparc64 VII+. In September, Oracle introduced a 16-core Sparc processor, the Sparc T3. But a follow-up T4 chip will have just eight cores on each chip, with the company looking to improve single-thread performance, which is important for running large databases and back-end applications.

Among Oracle's Sparc-based hardware rollouts was the Sparc Supercluster, based on Sparc T3 and M5000 servers, that Oracle introduced in December. It has been positioned as a platform for the Oracle database and RAC (Real Application Clusters).

Oracle continues to invest in other Sun hardware

On the client side, Sun introduced the Sun Ray 3 and Sun Ray 3i clients. The 3i device features a high-definition display, while the Sun Ray 3 is billed as the company's lowest-cost thin client.

In the storage space, Oracle unveiled in January the StorageTek T10000C tape drive, with 5TB of native capacity. The company's Sun ZFS Storage Appliance product line, revealed in September, features integration with Oracle's database and applications as well as with Oracle Fusion middleware and Solaris.

IDC analyst Al Hilwa gives Oracle a thumbs-up on the job it has done with Sun hardware. "Given that Sun was struggling financially for years prior to the acquisition, and that it was facing some serious adjustment in the scale of its hardware business, I think Oracle has done well so far from a financial perspective, keeping the business on track, the margins inline and growing its software revenues," he says.

The verdict on Oracle's stewardship of Sun

A year after the Sun acquisition by a database and middleware company with no experience in hardware or Unix OS development, it's clear that Oracle is driving the Sun technology mantle forward, where Sun could not survive on its own. Although Oracle had product redundancies with Sun such as in the application server and IDE spaces, Oracle had no such overlap in the chip set, hardware, and Unix operating system it was acquiring -- unlike IBM, the other candidate interested in Sun. Less of Sun may have survived in that scenario.

Oracle was large enough to take on Sun and experienced enough with mergers to integrate what Sun had to offer, given its experience in added wares from large companies such as PeopleSoft and BEA Systems. That augurs well for the core Sun technologies.

But Oracle is not a company worried about alienating its competitors or partners. The whole organization -- not just Ellison -- has a penchant to publicly bash whomever it disagrees with. Hewlett-Packard discovered that tendency in the dismissal of CEO Mark Hurd (now an Oracle executive), as did SAP -- Oracle PR spammed the press with scathing commentary on its chief applications competitor during the recent trial over software piracy. It should be no surprise that Oracle has continued to upset some people with its New World Order for Sun technologies.

Although this modus operandi is sure to continue angering some technology purists and old-school Sun fans, it should provide reassurance to users that they have a powerhouse behind them with every intention to carry forward those technologies -- and make them profitable.

This story, "A year later: Has Oracle ruined or saved Sun?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in the technology industry at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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