A Near-Death Experience

Evidently, my previous post was just a tad too cheerful for some folks' taste.  But I speak with the optimism of a man who has cheated death.  And ironically, Pete's reference to George Cameron had a lot to do with it.

Several years ago, George and a few other Sun folks went off to form 3par, a new storage company.  They all had Solaris expertise, and understood its advantages, so they wanted to use it inside their box.  But we weren't open-source at the time, and our licensing terms really sucked.  Both of us -- George at 3par, and me at Sun -- tried for months to arrange something reasonable.  We failed.  So finally -- because Sun literally gave them no choice -- 3par went with Linux.

I couldn't believe it.  A cool new company wanted to use our product, and instead of giving them a hand, we gave them the finger.

For many of us, that was the tipping point.  If we had any reservations about open-sourcing Solaris, that ended them.  It was a gamble, to be sure, but the alternative was certain death.  Even if the 3par situation had ended differently, it was clear that we needed to change our business practices.  To do that, we'd first have to change our culture.

But cultures don't change easily -- it usually takes some traumatic event.  In Sun's case, watching our stock shed 95% of its value did the trick.  It was that total collapse of confidence -- that near-death experience -- that opened us up to things that had previously seemed too dangerous.  We had to face a number of hard questions, including the most fundamental ones: Can we make a viable business out of this wreckage?  Why are we doing SPARC?  Why not AMD and Intel?  Why Solaris?  Why not Linux and Windows?  Where are we going with Java?  And not rah-rah why, but really, why?

In each case, asking the question with a truly open mind changed the answer.  We killed our more-of-the-same SPARC roadmap and went multi-core, multi-thread, and low-power instead.  We started building AMD and Intel systems.  We launched a wave of innovation in Solaris (DTrace, ZFS, zones, FMA, SMF, FireEngine, CrossBow) and open-sourced all of it.  We started supporting Linux and Windows.  And most recently, we open-sourced Java.  In short, we changed just about everything.  Including, over time, the culture.

Still, there was no guarantee that open-sourcing Solaris would change anything.  It's that same nagging fear you have the first time you throw a party: what if nobody comes?  But in fact, it changed everything: the level of interest, the rate of adoption, the pace of communication.  Most significantly, it changed the way we do development.  It's not just the code that's open, but the entire development process.  And that, in turn, is attracting developers and ISVs whom we couldn't even have spoken to a few years ago.  The openness permits us to have the conversation; the technology makes the conversation interesting.

After coming so close to augering into the ground, it's immensely gratifying to see the Solaris revival now underway.  So if I sometimes sound a bit like the proud papa going on and on about his son, well, I hope you can forgive me.

Oh, and Pete, if you're reading this -- George Cameron is back at Sun now, three doors down the hall from me.  Small valley!

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