A Fundamentally Flawed Strategy

Here are some interesting comments (and my reactions) from a piece in Network Computing Magazine -- Will Sun Shine Again? -- where Sun's John Fowler, EVP of Systems, was interviewed on a variety of issues. I just picked out the OpenSolaris bits here:

IBM has embraced Linux and Microsoft OSes as well as it's own OS stable all of which has paid off for the company.

Sun's response to this desire for openness wasn't to embrace Linux, but instead to create OpenSolaris. Fowler says the goal wasn't necessarily to get others contributing code to the Solaris kernel but instead to create a conversation about the source code.

Sure, we didn't necessarily need code contributions to the kernel because the code base was already mature and stable and being developed by 1,000 engineers around the world. However, we always wanted code contributions, and we always wanted those contributions to represent new ways to use and extend the system. In other words, we wanted to grow in new ways that didn't necessarily represent Sun's core markets. And we started that process by opening the code and engaging in conversations about the code. So, Fowler is absolutely correct. And I agree, too.

He also says that it'll take a decade for strategy to prove itself, so we shouldn't judge it yet. Be that as it may, the notion seems fundamentally flawed.

Fundamentally flawed? Actually, the strategy has been quite successful even in these early years. In just two years we've built a nascent development community, we are clearly growing globally, we are taking code contributions (and other contributions), we have an early governance model, we are opening our infrastructure, there are a few distributions based on the kernel, and now we are expanding the program even further with a new binary to engage not only new levels of developers but also users as well. And that's characterized as flawed?

If what you're looking for is a huge developer community that values the ability to see the source code for the operating system, Linux will obviously win over Solaris.

Why must one system live and the other die? Instead, why can't both thrive? Also, the "huge developer community" probably has as much to do with the binary as it has to do with with the source code. Some would argue more, actually. That's what Indiana and the other distributions are designed to address -- to engage users and application developers building on top of the system. The number of developers actually interacting at the kernel source level and helping to build the system itself is much smaller, and it will always remain much smaller. Regardless, our strategy always included a long term, phased approach of opening code, infrastructure, and people and building a multi-layered community around the core. This can't be done all at once. It takes time. What you see now is a snapshot in time. We were different a year ago, and we'll be different a year from now. So, again, I fail to see how this strategy is "fundamentally flawed." Also, I fail to see how any comparison to Linux (or IBM or HP, for that matter) makes any sense whatsoever. I think over time, people will come to realize that community building is not necessarily a zero sum game. There is room for diversity. The world is a big place.

And by opening the source code, Sun has both created a product in OpenSolaris that won't have a revenue stream and given its Solaris faithful a reason to look at AIX and HP-UX based systems.

Actually, the exact opposite is true. By opening the code, the Solaris faithful are sticking with Solaris, and some who left are coming back. Also, it was the "Solaris faithful" who wanted us to open the code in the first place. They told us this quite directly, in fact. But we didn't open the code exclusively for the faithful. We opened it to reach new people, too. And we are. By the tens of thousands, actually, and we've been able to do that because the code is open. And regarding revenue streams -- remember that OpenSolaris is a development project. Sun's product is Solaris. There's a difference. Sure, as the OpenSolaris binary distros evolve, I'm sure business models will emerge and Sun will participate as well. But for right now there's no reason to confuse the obvious -- OpenSolaris is a development project run by a community, and Solaris is a product supported by a company.

For some applications, that closed development process used by the likes of HP, IBM and formerly Sun, that results rock solid software married to rock solid hardware is desirable, if expensive. While there's no doubt that Solaris is still a solid OS, there is some doubt about where Sun sees its fortunes and its future for Solaris.

Just because we are opening our development processes doesn't mean we are throwing out our development processes. Over time, non-Sun community members will earn their way just as Sun community members. This is already occurring, actually. As far as the "doubt" bit, well, you can't convince everyone, I suppose. When I look at the massive engineering and business investment Sun is making in Solaris and OpenSolaris and new support from AMD, Intel, IBM, and Dell on top of HP claiming they sell more Solaris systems than anyone else, well, "doubt" is not the first word that pops into my mind. I can think of a few other words that come to mind, though. Can you?

Thanks for your reasoned response. Being a former Sun employee and a current shareholder I am obviously biased but I am rooting for you guys.

Posted by smathew on November 24, 2007 at 06:29 AM JST #

i have always believed in open source and by opening solaris, i believe sun will reap the many benefits that linux is seeing now. solaris is far superior in my opinon than linux because it already came superior (developed by sun) and what more by having an open platform, we can see it getting better and better.

Posted by ping on November 24, 2007 at 07:24 AM JST #

I think I pretty much agree on everything you say.
However, I'm not quite sure how it works in relation to Indiana, because what I've seen so far from the Indiana side seems to work very hard against what you say.

What brought me as a Sun customer over to OpenSolaris was the access to the source and the community full of the people working on Solaris proper. Along comes Indiana ignoring all the virtues of Solaris such as ARC and being able to trust that grep is not a gnu perversion of grep and the guaranteed compatibility among versions. Trying to build a new package management system is commendable, but when the focus is building a desktop system for end-users I can't help worry as a Sun server customer. How many resources go from building the most innovative unix into pleasing the gnu users? and how many paying customers will get sick of Ians dictatorship and leave in disgust?

If I were in Sun sales, I'd be really worried about the cost of bringing in a few nonpaying users at the expense of large enterprise customers.

Posted by Mads on November 24, 2007 at 11:27 AM JST #

"Why must one system live and the other die? Instead, why can't both thrive?"

Because one will inevitably be obsoleted by the other. It is inevitable.

And if I've seen anything of computer history in these ~22+ years, the one which obsoletes the other will be (Open)Solaris obsoleting Linux, and not just Linux. However, years remain before this process will be finished.

I have great faith in Solaris, judging by what I've seen and experienced so far. But as always, history will judge.

Posted by UX-admin on November 24, 2007 at 02:14 PM JST #

How exactly will Sun make money from (Open)Solaris? Just selling subscriptions and being like RedHat? Or is the plan that the OS investment will drive Hardware sales? If the latter, how does the Dell and IBM deal fit in?

Posted by Scott on November 24, 2007 at 05:28 PM JST #

The comments on opening Solaris driving customers to AIX and HP-UX are just bizzare. HP-UX is an OS wedded to a dead chip walking, the Itanium. AIX went from being a second-class citizen for IBM when it decided to push Linux on POWER, to now being a niche OS for its high-end systems.

If anything, the openness of Solaris, and the availability of Solaris on both SPARC and x86, increases the value of Solaris on midrange and high-end SPARC when compared to HP-UX and AIX.

Posted by Mark on November 24, 2007 at 06:14 PM JST #

Yes, you are absolutely correct, Jim. As one of the "Solaris faithful" as you put it, I can completely relate to your arguments.

However, Sun employees etc. need to eat, too. Where's the revenue? Sun has always been a hardware company at heart. And it was good hardware, too. The current line is sound, technologically solid and
well manufactured.

But that's not enough. What's missing? Marketing. The SunRay is great technology, but dead in the water. T1/T2? Yes, for some specialist apps. No horizontal market penetration. The AMD line? Yes, but why are people still buying more HP and IBM kit? Look at the remote console of an IBM X series box and weep... suddenly Suns ILOM doesn't look so bad. I could go on and on.

All this great technology, all this R&D spending, all the neat stuff now open-sourced will not be enough at the end of the day.

Marketing. That's where Sun needs to shape up.

Posted by Volker A. Brandt on November 24, 2007 at 08:44 PM JST #

Mads ... Indiana (which is basically an alpha release at this point) will help expand the community to new levels of developers and users. All of the distros should help in that effort, actually, since they are binary representations of the OpenSolaris source to one extent or another. More people will be able to use the OpenSolaris technology as a result. That's I'm saying. But Sun's Solaris product (Solaris 10 + updates, Solaris Next, etc) continues on, though, and that's for enterprise customers who need/want all the functionality and support Solaris has always offered. In my mind, I'm hoping that Solaris will make Indiana better and Indiana will make Solaris better. It's early, so we'll have to see where all this leads but compromising Solaris is not an option.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on November 24, 2007 at 11:59 PM JST #

ux-admin ... Linux is pretty big and has been around for a long time. I doubt seriously OpenSolaris will be the undoing of Linux. I can't even imagine it, actually. But, like you said, we'll see. :)

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on November 25, 2007 at 12:02 AM JST #

Volker ... the "Solaris faithful" bit is from the magazine article. :) I'm just quoting them. I don't actually like the expression, to be honest. As far as revenue is concerned, all I can say is that OpenSolaris is a development project. It's not a revenue-generating effort. At least not now, anyway. Sun produces revenue based on the results of the project by shipping fully supported systems. And, over time, other companies will do the same. This is already starting to happen with Nexenta Systems http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/071112/aqm240.html?.v=3.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on November 25, 2007 at 12:13 AM JST #

"However, Sun employees etc. need to eat, too. Where's the revenue? Sun has always been a hardware company at heart. And it was good hardware, too. The current line is sound, technologically solid and
well manufactured.

But that's not enough. What's missing? Marketing."

Excellent. You are of course correct. What is also missing is down to earth prices. It's silicon. Remanufactured sand. It's not possible to recuperate the costs with high profit margins.

The price MUST go down. A T5220 CAN NOT cost $15K, 64 HW-threads or not. People don't care, most don't even know about Sun. The price is 5x what this hardware is worth. And it's like that all across Sun's product line.

Big companies will not be the ones which decide the future of SUNW... small and mid-size ones will. There are far more small and mid-size companies in the world than big ones. Their volume and buying power combined is far greater than anything big companies could ever muster. Jonathan gets it, but he's being lied to and stuff is being done behind his back. This MUST stop!

Posted by UX-admin on November 25, 2007 at 08:38 AM JST #

"ux-admin ... Linux is pretty big and has been around for a long time. I doubt seriously OpenSolaris will be the undoing of Linux. I can't even imagine it, actually. But, like you said, we'll see. :)"

I know Jim, I know. I agree, It's hard to even begin to imagine at this point.

But, what was the difference between Vinod, Scott, Andy, and Bill and the rest of the population?

They could envision, they could see something the rest of the world could not, or would not.

Posted by UX-admin on November 25, 2007 at 08:49 AM JST #

Sun is a dead company there is no future here

Posted by Ken on December 01, 2007 at 01:56 PM JST #

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