Sun exec ponders OpenSolaris, Linux

In an interview, Ian Murdock, formerly with the Linux Foundation and now with Sun, discusses the company's open-source efforts and how to monetize them

Ian Murdock is vice president of developer and community marketing at Sun Microsystems. Prior to that, he was the founder of the Debian Linux distribution and CTO at the Linux Foundation. InfoWorld Editor at Large Paul Krill met with Murdock at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco this week to talk about open source and how Sun, with its OpenSolaris version of the Solaris Unix platform, will fare in the open-source arena versus Linux.

InfoWorld: What exactly is Debian?

Murdock: Debian is a Linux distribution. It's the basis of Ubuntu Linux. I suppose the basic innovation of Debian was that it was developed by a distributed community, so we intentionally set out to build it in a distributed fashion, and it's one of the first open-source projects to operate that way.

InfoWorld: Are you still involved with the Debian project?

Murdock: Not so much, but that's more of a function of lack of time.

InfoWorld: Why did you join Sun?

Murdock: When I was in school as a computer science student in the early 1990s, I was a huge Sun fan. There were Sun workstations all over the place, and I wanted one of these more than anything in the world, and Sun was the company I wanted to work for. And when I had the opportunity to come to Sun and in particular bring some of my Linux experience to sort of a new set of challenges, I jumped at the opportunity.

InfoWorld: What do you do at Sun? I see the OpenSolaris project seems to fall onto your plate.

Murdock: Initially I was working on OpenSolaris and started Project Indiana, which culminated this week [with] the first version of the OpenSolaris binary distribution.  These days I am running the developer and community marketing organization, so I am responsible for marketing Sun's developer tools, the developer programs like Sun Developer Network and Tech Days Events, our open-source projects and communities. [Also, I do marketing for] StarOffice, OpenOffice, So basically anything that relates to the developer community in some way, I run the marketing piece of that.

InfoWorld: Is Sun completely open source with its software right now?

Murdock: Well, not entirely, but that's again mostly a function of how complex it is to take a piece of intellectual property that has not been open source and then moving it into open source. We are in the process of open sourcing all of our software, as [Sun President/CEO Jonathan Schwartz] has said many times.  But, for example, with Solaris there, are still a few bits and pieces that have been licensed from other companies. We are working out the arrangements with those companies to be able to open source them.

InfoWorld: What pieces are those?

Murdock: Well, for example, some device drivers [and] certain bits of functionality that were licensed.

InfoWorld: I heard a former Sun official last year who basically said that he thought Sun was kind of moving too fast with open source, maybe over-emphasizing it a bit. You're probably going to disagree with that, but how would you respond to that?

Murdock: I think the big question around open source is how do you make money from it? And it's because the software industry has traditionally been built on an intellectual property licensing model. But the reality of the situation is with the rise of open-source software, developers don't buy things anymore. [It is] a world where you can go to the Web and download just about anything you could possibly need to put an application into production. So you don't monetize at the point of acquisition of software any longer, you have to monetize at a different place. So it's not to say that there is not money to be made in software, it's just made at a different place, and the different place is with all of the developers adopting technology, putting it into production, some of those applications that are deployed are going to be successful. They're going to run into the traditional challenges of having to grow and scale that application. They're going to need to have a relationship with the vendor behind the technology. So there are ample opportunities to make money because even though open source is free in the monetary sense, it still requires a lot of expertise and knowhow to make it operate efficiently. So there's plenty of opportunity there to add value.

InfoWorld: I heard two different computer industry executives make the following comments. One is, how do you have a software industry if there's open source? And the other is, open source lowers revenues for everybody. How would you respond to those?

Murdock: Well again, open source is only free or free software is only free if your time is free. And I don't know about you, but my time is definitely not free. And in terms of lowering revenues, I don't think that's necessarily true. I think the money changes to a different place. The revenue opportunity changes to a different place. So it's a disruptive event in the software industry. But disruptive events create opportunities for those who are agile enough or have the foresight to see the changes that are coming and can adapt. And so Sun's embrace of open source is just a part of adapting and changing with the changing of landscape. There's still plenty of money to be made, it's just shifting to a different place. Again, pay at the point of deriving some value from having a relationship with your vendor versus pay to get access to the technology.

InfoWorld: With OpenSolaris, Sun changed the packaging to make it more like Linux. Is it too late for OpenSolaris to compete against Linux?

Murdock: No, I don't think it's too late at all. In fact, I think there's a huge amount of interest in the Linux community for the technologies that we have in Solaris. So whether it's ZFS (Zettabyte File System) or DTrace [providing a dynamic tracing framework] or containers or any of those things. And the problem has always been barriers to adoption, right? The changes that we have put into OpenSolaris are primarily designed to lower barriers to adoption to that technology that the market has been wanting, but it has been too difficult to this point for to get at it. It'll be interesting to see how OpenSolaris is received in the Linux community. I would look at it as it's not so much an OpenSolaris versus Linux thing. We're putting another alternative out into the marketplace just like Ubuntu is an alternative and Red Hat is an alternative and SuSE is an alternative.

InfoWorld: As somebody who has developed Debian and now is an advocate for OpenSolaris, which do you see as superior?

Murdock: I think they're both good for different reasons. One of the advantages of Debian is it has a huge ecosystem of packages around it, so just about anything you could possibly want is just an app to get installed away. OpenSolaris has some of this functionality, like ZFS and D-Trace, that Debian -- or no Linux distribution for that matter -- has. So it all depends on the application environment.

InfoWorld: Won't those capabilities you mentioned be added to Debian in other Linux distributions?

Murdock: Well no, because those are part of the Solaris platform, and Debian is based on Linux. Now certainly we're going to see a lot of the reverse happening, so now that we have the package system in place around OpenSolaris, we have the same kind of infrastructure around it to enable bringing in this open-source software that is available for Debian.

InfoWorld: No one is permitted to take ZFS and port it to Linux?

Murdock: Well, today the licenses are not compatible with each other, so that can't be done.

InfoWorld: What are the differences in the licensing?

Murdock: Linux is governed by the GNU Public License, or GPL, and open source is governed by the CDDL, the Common Development and Distribution License.

InfoWorld: Why CDDL and not GPL like you did for Java?

Murdock: Well, OpenSolaris was open sourced, what, a year and a half before Java? There's a desire in some of our customer base to have a license that allows you to build value-added products on top of OpenSolaris. And so the ability to easily drive commercial versions based on Solaris technology was one of the drivers behind the CDDL. And basically, the CDDL is just a slightly modified version of the Mozilla Public License, so it is an OSI-approved open-source license. It's no more or less open source than a GPL is. But it turns out that the GPL is very restrictive, and so you can't combine some of the things that the CDDL says with some of the things that the GPL says.

InfoWorld: What are you expecting developers to do with Open Solaris?

Murdock: I think first of all, there's going to be a lot of experimentation now that the barriers are gone for a Linux developer, a Linux user to take a look at what OpenSolaris has to offer. We are spending a lot of time understanding what those developers are doing; namely, how they are moving up the stack and working in environments like PHP and Ruby on Rails. So how do we describe the capabilities of Solaris, such as DTrace, in a way that's relevant to them? For example, OpenSolaris is going to be an ideal environment for Web-facing applications because we've moved the DTrace functionality up into somebody's Web application frameworks. And if you think about it, the basic problem behind a Web application is, particularly if you are successful, how do you scale? If you build an application, you put it out there, you gain a large user base, people start hitting your servers, you have to figure out where in your code you need to optimize so that you can scale along with it. DTrace offers those kinds of developer's capabilities that are not available on any other operating system.

InfoWorld: What do you see happening with the Amazon-based hosted version of OpenSolaris?

Murdock: That represents yet another barrier to entry being removed. Now you can take advantage of these same capabilities without necessarily having to provision your own infrastructure. And it's all a part of the same trends that you've seen coming out of Sun over the last several years. The embrace of AMD and Intel, Linux, Windows. I mean, it's all about how do we get Sun technology as broadly adopted as possible, no matter what the vehicle?

InfoWorld: Do you see a role for OpenSolaris in the Web 2.0 world?

Murdock: Absolutely. If you are building a Web application and you become popular, your servers are getting hammered by all of these users who are coming, how do you scale with the increasing demand? And we've actually done this in several Web 2.0 shops where they've run into scaling problems, we've been able to come in, point DTrace at it, and extract some very amazing performance improvements in a very short amount of time. So we feel that now that the barriers to adoption have been removed, we're going to be able to play a much bigger role in this space than we have with Solaris 10 and previous.

InfoWorld: Is there anything else you wanted to bring up?

Murdock: One of the things to watch here in the coming months is what we are doing around [which is Sun's grid-based cloud computing platform]. At Sun we are fully committed to open source. To your earlier question about open source and business, we have a very clearly defined business model where the core offerings that are for developers are free and open source, no barriers to adoption. The one interesting question is what role does open source play in a world where software is no longer delivered as a product but rather delivered as a service? Web 2.0, for example, wouldn't be possible without open source. But why are people going to open source? They're going to open source for the same reason that they went to open standards and open systems. [There is] the desire to not be locked into a single vendor. Are we going back to the 30-year-old model in the pursuit of simplicity and moving everything into the cloud? I think you're going to see, coming out of Sun and around in particular, some pretty interesting answers to these questions.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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