Despite Ellison assurances, Sun customers remain uncertain

Lack of information from Oracle leaves room for doubts about key Sun technologies' fates

The JavaOne conference, the annual Java technical event staged by Sun Microsystems last week in San Francisco, was noteworthy not for groundbreaking new additions to the platform but for a surprise appearance by the executive who soon will be in charge of Sun's critical Java implementation: Larry Ellison.

Oracle CEO Ellison appeared briefly onstage to offer assurances to the Java community at large that Oracle -- which is buying Sun -- was among them as adherents to the Java platform. "We see increased investments in Java coming from the Sun-Oracle combination and an expansion of the overall community, and we're very excited about that," Ellison says.

[ For full coverage of JavaOne, see InfoWorld's special report. ]

But attendees remained skeptical in part about how the future of Java and Sun technologies will play out, wondering what would happen with projects such as the GlassFish open source application server. Oracle has been largely silent about the fate of specific Sun products. Attendees did not even get any assurances from Oracle that the JavaOne event itself would be continued by Oracle in coming years.

Sun's prized status as a place of cultural innovation now is in question, says Miko Matsumura, chief software strategist at Software AG, which occasionally competes with Oracle in the database market. "I think people right now are broadly questioning [Ellison's] commitment to I guess [what] I would call the inventive culture that Sun has fostered for so many years," he adds.

"I think there's a lot of things that are a bit regrettable about [the merger], but one [is that] ... it's kind of a reach for them be going out into systems," he says, since Oracle has not been a hardware company before.

Where users and developers have doubts
Another attendee, Kurt Zoglmann, a systems analyst at Kansas State University, says the merger presents opportunities but also puts doubts in people's minds. "The opportunity is there for some vertical integration for the two companies to be more efficient as a whole," with the ability to package Sun technologies with the complete Oracle database, he says.

The doubts, though, concern the fate of the Sparc architecture, Zoglmann says: "Is it something that is viable in the long term?" He points out that "a lot of people have spent tons of money on it." (Ellison has stated intentions to keep Sun's hardware business.) But Zoglmann was not concerned about Oracle's commitment to open source software, which has been a staple of Sun's software strategy in recent years.

But another attendee, Stephen Staeheli, a developer at the Basler Versicherungen insurance company in Switzerland, cited the fate of GlassFish as a concern. Oracle has three different application server technologies now, with its own application server, the WebLogic server it acquired when it bought BEA, and now GlassFish. "Unfortunately, the one that is free [GlassFish] is the best," Staeheil says. "I wonder if it'll stay free."

Although his company now uses Sun's Solaris OS, Staeheli says Basler was moving to AMD and probably Linux anyway. "It's just a matter of costs."

Software engineer Robert Nowak raised concerns about the continued availability of source code and other downloadable software: "I'm just a little bit worried."

Oracle's role creates some optimism, despite limited information
Meanwhile, attendee Serge Liberloo, owner of the Jscoop Java service consultancy, is hopeful that commitments to Java expressed at the conference would be kept. But Liberloo notes not a lot of information had been offered at this point.

"I hope that everything they promised will be true and that Java and all the technologies around Java will remain as they are today because we are happy about the way that they were working in open source," Liberloo said.

A software engineer at StreamSage, which offers metadata analysis and is affiliated with Comcast, was optimistic about the merger and its effects on open source strategies and Sun technologies. "Pretty much, I think it will continue as-is, because Oracle has such an investment in Java," says Arlen Sprague, lead software engineer at StreamSage. "Hopefully, they'll continue things like JavaOne and continue to support the community."

Ceasing to hold JavaOne "would be a foolish thing to do," says Sprague, a first-time attendee at the event. Perhaps in the future, though, languages such as Scala and Ruby might instead become the subject of the big conferences, he suggests.

Sun officials largely mum on the future
Key Sun officials were mostly silent about what the merger and what it might mean as far as whether they stay on at the company. "It depends on how things go," says James Gosling, Sun vice president and Java founder, when asked if he would stay on.

"I wouldn't possibly dream of commenting on [the merger]," says Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun.

But another Sun executive expressed optimism. "I think our team is very excited," says Jeet Kaul, a senior vice president of Java engineering. "The things that we are working on are things that Larry talked about."

JavaOne conference's fate unclear
The Oracle-Sun merger put a "bit of a pallor on the JavaOne conference," particularly in the Sun booth itself, Matsumura says. "The people who are demoing there [are] probably wondering if they'll be employed by Oracle," he notes.

The show had the look and feel of being the end of the road for JavaOne, says analyst Al Hilwa, program director for application development software at IDC. "It was hard not to get a sense that this was the last one," Hilwa notes. "Attendance was down perhaps because travel is down everywhere. Oracle might want to fold it into [the Oracle OpenWorld conference] as they strive for bragging rights of the largest conference ever."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.