OpenSolaris: Success Story, or Too Soon to Say?

Sun Microsystems is touting the growth of its one-year-old open source project OpenSolaris, indicating the open code effort for its formerly closed Solaris operating system has drawn thousands of developers, hundreds of contributions, and millions in revenue.

Celebrating the OpenSolaris anniversary this week, Sun released the latest version of Solaris 10, which counts OpenSolaris enhancements among its new and improved features.

There is still some skepticism of OpenSolaris, with some wondering whether it is too soon to declare it a success. Some Linux and other open source software proponents continue to resist Sun, which has had its missteps with open source in the past.

Nevertheless, Sun credited the open sourcing of Solaris code and development for renewed Solaris 10 operating system (OS) gains.

“What you see in our announcement is what we think is a ringing endorsement of the strategy we’ve taken with Solaris 10,” Sun Director of Solaris Marketing Chris Ratcliffe told LinuxInsider. “We’re very pleased with what we’re seeing.”

Open Growth

Ratcliffe reported that after starting basically from scratch to draw developers with the OpenSolaris strategy last June, the community around the effort now includes more than 14,000 members with only about 1,500 of them being Sun employees.

Sun also highlighted how some of the new functionality in Solaris 10, such as a new ZFS file system and support for the PostgreSQL open source database, were among 100 contributions from OpenSolaris development.

“They have been developed whole or partially in the open source community,” Ratcliffe said. “At this point, pretty much everything is being done in the open.”

Pleasantly Surprised

Despite Sun’s past mistakes and lackluster open source efforts, the company has committed what was needed — in code and capital — to create a community around OpenSolaris, according to Josh Berkus, a PostgreSQL developer who was hired by Sun earlier this year to help with the PostgreSQL database support in Solaris 10.

“Quite frankly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Berkus told LinuxInsider. “Usually, corporate software that gets open sourced has a tremendous failure rate. Historically, they’ve had a very poor record of attracting contributors and adoption.”

OpenSolaris, however, had a solid user base and was not open sourced because it was failing, and represents Sun’s improvement from prior open source errors, according to Berkus.

“In working with open source, Sun has gone through some rough and less successful experiences with some of their things and has learned from that,” he said.

New Development Model

Open source developers appreciate Sun’s continuing investment in OpenSolaris and its community, Ratcliffe said.

“They appreciate that we haven’t just thrown it over the wall and walked away,” he said. “It is our new development model.”

Berkus, who said OpenSolaris provides another open source operating system platform choice, said he was stunned by the fact that with more than five million registered Solaris 10 licensees, Sun is actually making more money from OpenSolaris than the company did when Solaris was closed.

Still an Experiment

The OpenSolaris move may have helped drive more development or momentum for Solaris 10, but the Sun software was already “a venerable,” leading Unix operating system, Interarbor Solutions Principal Analyst Dana Gardner told LinuxInsider.

“I don’t think you can draw the line [between OpenSolaris and Solaris 10 success],” he said. “What’s more important is the fact that Solaris 10 has been successful and that would probably have been the case whether they opened Solaris or not.”

Gardner also indicated there is still dissension within Sun about whether opening Solaris was the right thing to do.

“I kind of see this as still an ongoing experiment,” he said. “It’s too soon to tell. I don’t think we can determine whether the long-term viability of Sun or Solaris have been assured by this move to openness.”

Benefits for All

There have also been criticisms from Linux supporters who argue that Linux development benefits the entire ecosystem around the open source operating system, whereas OpenSolaris development benefits primarily Sun.

In response, Ratcliffe pointed to the fact that 97 percent of Fortune 100 companies and more than 85 percent of the Fortune 500 have Solaris 10 in production or development.

“I would make the argument that a significant part of the IT industry, a tremendous percentage of the industry period, is benefiting from OpenSolaris,” he said.

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