Sun Opens Darkstar to Win Over Online Game Developers

Sun Microsystems, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week, announced it would open source its online game server platform, called “Project Darkstar,” which is written entirely in Java technology.

The source code for Project Darkstar will become available under a GPL (general public license) in the coming months, the company stated, promising to release further details at its JavaOne Conference in May.

Sun also unveiled Darkstar Playground, a venue in which developers can gain access to server resources to develop their online games. It will be live at JavaOne.

“By open sourcing Darkstar technology, we will help enable the widest possible market for online game developers and remove their burden of having to build enterprise-grade server solutions, leaving them to do what they do best — build great game experiences,” Chris Melissinos, chief gaming officer at the company, stated.

Open Source Credentials

Sun is following a familiar path with its open source of Darkstar. It has released on open source most of its proprietary operating systems and platforms, with the intention of making a profit through increased demand for its hardware.

“It is an interesting question how a company that is essentially a hardware provider and systems vendor is able to benefit from open source,” Charles King, principal of Pund-IT, told LinuxInsider.

Sun clearly feels it benefits from open sourcing its products, he noted, adding, “They evidently see more of a commercial opportunity in giving the stuff away and then picking up the profit at the back end by selling equipment to support the platforms.”

However, there may be a limit to Sun’s success with this strategy — that is, of driving overall demand for its hardware by bolstering open source options. Also, leaving aside the question of whether making products open source can deliver long-term gains, providing Darkstar as open source could be considered an incidental product to this strategy.

“I applaud their open source efforts, but open sourcing a product, per se, doesn’t necessarily make you flavor of the month, and, in any case, must support your overall business strategy,” Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica, an open source strategy consulting firm, and author of Succeeding with Open Source, told LinuxInsider.

“IBM, for example, has judiciously open sourced products as a way of driving demand for complementary commercial IBM software products or to increase demand for IBM services,” he said.

All Hardware?

Nevertheless, the key question is whether Sun’s open source strategy will drive demand for its hardware — or hardware in general, Golden commented.

“Sun has traditionally made their money with big, SPARC (scalable processor architecture)-based servers. Since a lot of open source use is driven by cost-consciousness, much open source is run on commodity x86 boxes,” he explained.

Sun reportedly has trimmed costs to the point where it can make money on a US$1,000 commodity server, according to Golden. However, Sun’s business model is not aimed at commodity servers.

“The kind of open source Sun needs to get people to use is mission-critical open source, which users are more likely to want to run on robust, high-performance hardware like Sun’s high-end SPARC machines,” he noted.

It’s a Puzzle

For these reasons, the Darkstar initiative is puzzling, Golden stated.

“It’s hard to see how it fits into a user profile that will be motivated to purchase high-margin, high-cost SPARC servers. Getting bound up in an open source initiative like Darkstar is, at best, an unnecessary distraction and, at worst, a down payment on a significant stream of future time and money commitments,” he said.

However, there may be extraneous reasons behind the open source of Darkstar, King declared.

“It may be that they see their existing customers benefiting from it. Or it may be that, by distributing the license for free, they feel they can help their developers stay in business,” he commented.

“I expect it is a little of both in this case. The real challenge for Sun will be to ensure that the potential benefits it gains for expanding the use of Darkstar go well beyond the development costs it will have to put out,” King added.

A Shrewd Move

Darkstar is a good vertical to open source, Bryan Sims, the former vice president at Red Hat, told LinuxInsider.

“Sun has tapped into exactly what the open source community is all about,” noted Sims, who is now of counsel for the law firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.

“The move goes to the heart of the developers that are into the gaming culture — and many of those developers are enterprise developers,” he added.

Many companies are trying to produce platforms for development for use with heterogeneous systems, he noted.

“There are a lot of disparate gaming development platforms out there. All those gaming platforms can now be created and served in one environment,” Sims concluded, adding that Sun will get the service revenue associated with this platform.

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