Q&A: Sun's Loiacono on open-source Solaris

Sun will make its Solaris operating system available under an open-source model by the end of the year, according to John Loiacono, the company's executive vice president of software. Although Loiacono said no decision has been made about the open-source licensing model, he discussed the philosophy behind the move during an interview at the company's recent JavaOne conference.

Sun will make its Solaris operating system  available under an open-source model by the end of the year, according to John Loiacono, the company's executive vice president of software. Although Loiacono said no decision has been made about the open-source licensing model, he discussed the philosophy behind the move during an interview at the company's recent JavaOne conference.

Why is Sun going to make Solaris available under an open-source model?

 If you talk to CIOs about something like Solaris, you know what they say to me? "Why would you do that? It makes no sense to me." They say, "I want mission-critical, reliable, redundant, available, secure. That's what Solaris brings to me. I want that to continue. Open-source means very little to me."

Conversely, you go talk to the developers in that corporation, and they say, "Oh, this would be great. I can write drivers. I can do innovation. ... I'm a university kid who can't afford to buy stuff. I want to put it on the PC in my dorm room. I can download it and have a quality product vs. something that's got a lot less features and functionality."

So there's a sense of creating the community. This is about how I get more people actually developing software on the platform, because at the end of the day, it's all about applications. It's not about the [operating system] itself. People like Windows because there's a lot of applications running on it. People are liking Mac more because there's a lot of applications on it. They like Linux because there's a growing number of applications on it.

The reason we're doing this on the whole is because we're trying to create relevance in the fact that there's more people finding Solaris and being more able to use and modify and actually develop on top of Solaris. And that isn't just about the (people) that we sell to. It's about creating the community of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who actually want to then go innovate on top of the code we give them access to.

Will moving to open-source allow Sun to decrease its Solaris development staff?

There's not going to be a huge decrease. ... The CIOs say, "My biggest worry about open-source is all the problems that things like Linux give me. ... What I want is your QA tests and all the rigidity you put behind a Solaris release." And my point to them is, absolutely. What we'll do tomorrow -- whether it's open-source, or no matter what licensing model it is -- you will get Solaris with all its QA, its tests, its hardening, all its security that you have today. All those resources required to do that, we will maintain.

In addition to innovation for things like container technology or fault recovery or dynamic tracing that I'm adding as new features in Solaris, I anticipate now that I'll have tens of thousands of people saying, "Here's an innovation on top of that." So could I get even more features built in, or could I over time reduce my cost of production? Yeah, absolutely -- as long as I'm doing the QA and test cycle on what I call Solaris versus the open version of Solaris, which is probably called something slightly different, just to make sure people understand there are differences between the two.

Will there be two versions of Solaris?

No. We will release the same version. But one will be open-source, no support. And one will be the one that we ship to Merrill Lynch.

Are you leaning toward a specific open-source licensing model at this point?

We have some internal debates on what we think will be the most optimal. There are several to pick from. ... There isn't one hammer for every nail. To pick one licensing model and say that's going to be for everything, (the decision) may be (made) by technology, and it may be by user type.

Is it possible you'll take an approach similar to what IBM did with Eclipse?

Possible. You should also look at what Red Hat has done with Linux.

Any other models look appealing?

I've got to be careful, because they do bring different things to the table. You have things like the Apache model, which gives you some of the branding rights. You have MySQL, which has some of the branding rights. You have the Mozilla license, which is a very popular license model. You have the CPL (Common Public License), which gives you some flexibility in different areas. And you obviously have GPL (General Public License) and LGPL (Lesser GPL). Then we even have our Sun public license, something we call the SISL, the Sun Industry Standard License.

When will you make a decision about the licensing model?

Shortly. I hate to be so vague, but by the end of the year, we'll have the whole thing announced -- the licensing model, the actual Web presence and the community process.

Solaris is going open-source. Why not Java?

There's rhetoric from the competitors, and then there's information from the customers and developers. Our competitors are very forthright with telling us, "The best thing you could do is give Java away."

One in particular?

Yes. And my question to them (IBM) is, "Tell me when WebSphere is going to be open-source." (They say,) "Oh, well, that's different." What? You want us to give the crown jewels of the foundation pieces away? You might see this as pie in the sky, but we see ourselves as actually being the stewards of Java. That's been our role since Day 1. Compatibility is a key issue. As soon as you open-source within GPL or any one of those other licensing models, that makes it loose. You've now taken away the brand equity of what Java is, because I can take your Java and run with it, fork it into something that is not compatible with your Java. It may be a lousy product. And I can still call it Java.

Do you have similar worries with Solaris?

No. Solaris is a 20-year Sun product that only Sun has made for 20 years and has long roots in development and innovation. Forking Java is way more of a threat to the industry. Could you tomorrow download Solaris and try to out-Sun at doing Solaris as an operating system and out-innovate us in that space? If you can, have at it. I'm less worried about that versus IBM, BEA or Microsoft taking and running with Java and forking that entire industry.

Hasn't Java reached a certain level of stability now?

Great stability. Much smaller, much more compact and much more able to be forked.

Is there any chance your feelings might change?

We're not myopic. People think we're religious about it. We're not. We're just responding to the customers, who keep coming back and saying, "Do not give up compatibility. ... If you give up compatibility, you've lost the whole game. Now you're going to get what we have in Linux right now." People say, "Linux," and what they mean is Red Hat or SuSE or Mandrake or whatever.

Sun has been talking a lot about subscription-based pricing. What's the rationale behind that?

We have a portfolio of assets to work with, not just hardware, not just software, not just services. Therefore, having a subscription pricing model enables us to actually leverage all of the assets. Say you get us on a subscription on an ongoing basis -- we can look at the net present value of that margin to us and actually trend in that. It may be more beneficial to give you an upfront discount of a product that you're going to give me reoccurring revenue for (during) the next three years versus selling everything to you right now at one lump-sum fee and then you go away.

There's value in both the ongoing relationship you have with me, the fact that you're coming back to me for three years to update the patches, revisions, maintenance, service, support, etc. I can cross-sell, upsell, find out more about your business, what you're up to, what your systems are doing. But I can actually service you better. I can lower my support cost to you by having a relationship with you. These are all things that we're trying to use a business model to be more progressive with than just simply saying, "Here's the price."

What's driving all this? Is the present software model of selling perpetual licenses just not working?

No. I think it's the ability to be disruptive. And the fact that right now, everybody's banging their heads, using the same pricing models. ... What we're saying is that what Sun did in the late '80s with workstations, in the mid-'90s with servers, we're doing again with middleware. And the whole concept is basically we believe that people have been gouging on pricing. ... When you sell a la carte pricing, you buy everything by the component. It can get really expensive really, really fast. ... So we're saying that when you used to spend $25,000 per CPU for an app server or $15,000 per CPU, we're going to say, "Why don't you give us a fixed amount, $100 per employee per year?" ... "Well, how can I use that?" "Anyway you want." "What if I have 50,000 employees?" "It's 1,000 times that number." "What if it's 2,000 employees?" "Two thousand times that number."

At JavaOne, you announced some subscription offerings for tools. Can we expect to see more?

You should expect to see more bundles that include hardware. We haven't announced any just yet. But you should not assume that we're just going to do the tools and we're going to be done with it. We will do more.

Will there continue to be a la carte pricing?

Absolutely. ... Now I'm saying you can either buy this burger and the fries and the Coke individually, or I'll give you a Happy Meal. If you buy it altogether, I'll give you a special price. Now you may say, "You know what, I'd rather have coffee, so I'll buy your soda and I'll throw it away because I'm going to use my own." Same price. But you still may pay less than if you try to buy the hamburgers and the French fries independently.

This story, "Q&A: Sun's Loiacono on open-source Solaris" was originally published by Computerworld.

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