What is OpenSolaris success?

Now that opensolaris has been progressing for almost 2 years, some people are starting to ask the question "is it a success?"

Which begs the question of how do you measure its success?

Is it by the number of developers who subscribe to be a part of OpenSolaris?

Is it by the number of projects?

Is it by the activity in the OpenSolaris discussion groups?

Or something else?

I'd argue that none of the above are good measures for judging its success.

When the question of how to measure its success came to my mind, I started to think about how long it would take for OpenSolaris communities to be able to contribute in a worthwhile manner and the rationale goes something like this:

  • for most college students, by the time they're past the first half of their first year, if they're the type of student who will become involved in the open source movement then they've already chosen an allegience.
  • college students seem to be (roughly speaking) the set of people with most time on their hands to dedicate to work on open source projects.
  • a college student is ordinarily going to require 2-3 years of learning before being ready to contribute to OpenSolaris in a meaningful manner.
  • given the 2-3 year lag and wipe out the first year of OpenSolaris (2005), this establishes a period of 3 years before we can expect to see meaningful input from college students.
  • to attract the dedicated geeks who start hacking in their teens, we've a longer wait, possible 4 or 5 years, for someone to emerge from either starting out playing with OpenSolaris and run with it and/or for OpenSolaris to gain a big enough name amongst those who work on open source things to be worthy of attention.

As an example of the problem here, although I've seen multiple people (and in different areas) invite outsiders to be a part of an OpenSolaris project to provide new functionality, I've yet to see anyone step up to the plate to do more than provide just bug fixes.

Is this a problem? Not directly. What's more important is that stake holders in the OpenSolaris project, inside Sun, need to understand that it may take a length period of time (my estimate is 3-8 years, with anything meaningful inside 5 years a bonus) before there is a start to any real return on the investment in it as an open source project.

The problem for Sun, entering the open source space with OpenSolaris today is that many of those who it would like to have contributing are already at work elsewhere on other projects. Sun is somewhere between 10 and 15 years "late" and that in being "late" it faces a much harder job of being successful. Kind of like how it would be that much more difficult to start up a new ISP or search engine or internet auction web site, today, and compete with the giants that exist already.

What about other contributors? The number of people who will "defect" from one open source project to another is small but not 0. In general the reasons for this are:

  • becoming disenchanted with where the project is going
  • personal conflict issues

Neither of these are common events.

Against all of this, in the background there is the "problem" that OpenSolaris is a product of Sun and that anyone who works on an OpenSolaris project is quite clearly going to be contributing work, "for free", to a company that will directly benefit. That this is the case is driven home by the agreement required to participate in OpenSolaris forums. The agreement spells out that you grant Sun any rights required to use any ideas you discuss in its forums. For Sun, this is a natural requirement and as an employee, I agree 100% that it needs to be present. That it isn't enforced through the mailing lists is something of a glaring loophole and could be a problem in the future. Is OpenSolaris and Sun the only people who do this? No. The NetBSD project also requires developers to assign copyright to The NetBSD Foundation for all code committed there and submitting code changes to some FSF projects (such as gcc, gdb) requires additional paperwork to assign copyright. Why is this an issue? Well, the lack of there being a single person having copyright over the Linux kernel means that no one person can decide to change it from being GPLv2 to GPLv3 or something else.

Although there are constant complaints about the licence choice (CDDL vs GPL), this is not likely to be a deciding factor for anyone. OpenSolaris needs to be "cool" in the minds of those who have time to burn, first. Won't changing the licence make it "cool"? I have my doubts about this. Being "cool" will mean making it easy to do different things with OpenSolaris (i.e. use it on something with 32MB of RAM and a 32MB CF card), being able to get your name inside a .c file for submitting a driver patch for a new card you have, etc.

So what does this discussion have to do with OpenSolaris succeeding? Because for OpenSolaris to succeed, it needs to become bigger than just what it is at Sun. And it can only do that by attracting more people to it than just from at Sun.

Recently on one of the opensolaris.org forums I added the comment that OpenSolaris will be successful when it is in a position to exist without Sun. The reason for is are somewhat obvious: if Sun folds then OpenSolaris goes with it as all of the infrastructure (servers, people updating the source code tree, etc) comes from Sun. Without Sun, there is no way for OpenSolaris to continue evolving. On top of infrastructure, it is also a reference to the developer base. So long as the majority of projects committed (or putback) into the OpenSolaris code base come from within Sun, if Sun goes away then so does the majority of the activity behind OpenSolaris - there would be a high risk of OpenSolaris just withering and dieing at that point.

How does Sun address this?

Firstly it needs to assist in making the project function independently of the work that happens inside Sun. In other open source projects, there is no concept of the role "gatekeeper". At Sun this role needs to be focused on bringing code in from OpenSolaris, to build the product called "Solaris" rather than controlling what gets putback into OpenSolaris.

Secondly, management at Sun needs to step back, to the point where managers, directors, VPs, etc, should have no involvment with the project as an employee or agent of Sun. Successful open source projects are managed/run/driven by the folks who do the technical work, not their "managers/minders/directors".

Thirdly, Sun needs to create a non-profit organisation that "owns" OpenSolaris and donate money/equipment to that and invite other individuals/companies to do the same.

But most of all, patience is required. The success of OpenSolaris cannot be measured like normal projects.

So, at the end of all of that, if I weren't a Sun employee, would I register with the OpenSolaris community? No and primarily because of the intellectual rights issue. I would limit myself to being a subscriber to the mailing lists. There are other issues but they're less tangible and more to do with the "feeling" of the OpenSolaris community forums when compared to others, elsewhere.

Comments:

I agree 100% with your comments regarding the "problem" that OpenSolaris is a product of Sun. As a single parent and independent developer, I can only afford to contribute to the project if I am paid for my time. From my selfish perspective, OpenSolaris will be a success when I can make a decent living working on it! Ian

Posted by Ian on March 06, 2007 at 12:14 PM PST #

Good post! I agree with much of it, and certainly disappointed that we didn't go the 'OpenSolaris Foundation' right from the very start, despite the relative risks involved. The problems are the fact that it's a large mature codebase, with poor infrastructure, and a relatively poor level of people stepping up to the plate leading within the various sub-communities. Perhaps creating a community around a 'finished' codebase is harder because there's less perceived opportunity for people to make an impact. Who knows, but there's likely to be many years of interesting discussion ahead trying to figure this stuff out, and I'm certainly looking forward to tackling it if I get onto the OGB.

Posted by Glynn Foster on March 06, 2007 at 06:11 PM PST #

Yes,Darren,your vision is correct.I'm full agree with you.I'm a simple partecipant registered in 2005 but with disappointment,I was been silent for one year.Why? I didn't recognize a real open and self made community.Through many threads I read that something was wrong.Many things were considered right or wrong with not clear decisional methods and,more important issue,community folks didn't speak with the goal to share ideas and to increase a common vision.It's strange but the recent discussion about GPLv3 has change something.Finally the community had decided to open a democratic process to evolve: many different people through discussions had discovered that really shared many things.This is the glue for an open community same as to realize a real product.The idea to consider OpenSolaris a project with the goal to maintain and evolve Solaris open sources is too generic.A community lives and works with a clear goal to realize a concrete product.So,I consider,before all,"Emancipation project" the first answer and a way to build a concrete product and a self made community.However it isn't only technical issue.I'm waiting a strong change after OGB elections.We have the men to realize it,and they are candidates. Ok it isn't reasonable to think, to promote immediately all but is important to mark a way and take a clear direction.I believe that every change is possible.

Posted by Giacomo on March 06, 2007 at 10:15 PM PST #

I agree with most of your comments, except for the copyright issue. I've had to sign many agreements over the years for copyright assignment, NDAs, etc. I've gotten used to them simply because I understand that any organisation needs the protections they provide. I personally think that whether or not the OpenSolaris project is tied to a foundation or to SUN, the copyright assignment agreement must stay in place to help ensure we have a good legal foundation for our project.

Posted by Shawn on March 07, 2007 at 06:13 AM PST #

Personally, I have no idea /how/ to contribute to OpenSolaris; there's too much of a "run by committee" feel to it. The fact (and correct me if I'm wrong, please) that nobody outside of Sun can compile the code to something that they can actually run is a little bit of a barrier too; closed/ needs to go away, and soon.

Posted by Ceri Davies on March 07, 2007 at 07:50 PM PST #

I think the idea behind open sourcing solaris is sound. And it is enjoying moderate success. But the source gates are still behind sun's firewall. Sun engineers accept and propose pet projects in the forums - anything that is offbeat and off track, is ignored. And Sun management is heavily involved in opensolaris and that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Let the geeks run the show - we don't want sun managers on the mailing list.

Posted by Terry on March 09, 2007 at 07:07 AM PST #

Actually, you'd be surprised at how \*few\* managers are on the mailing lists. Yes we do have a problem in making sure that it remains a community project - it's going to take a while for that to sink in, and with that, we're going to have a lot of ups and downs in terms of getting everyone on the same page.

Posted by Glynn Foster on March 11, 2007 at 01:22 PM PDT #

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