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Sun Microsystems Embraces Free Software: An Interview with Patrick Finch

Sun Microsystems Inc.A long coming interview between the Libervis Community and Sun Microsystems representative is finally here. We have asked Patrick Finch, the leader of the OpenSolaris Content project and one of the guys working on FLOSS within the company, questions which we believe might be of interest to anyone who uses or values Free Software. Our interview was done as a cooperative community project, meaning everyone could propose a question to be asked and participate in a related discussion in our forums.

Note that this interview was conducted before the JavaOne conference and the official release of Java as Free Software.

Sun's relationship with Free Software

1.) What kind of work do you do for Sun?

I work on FLOSS at Sun - so I spend most of my time reading and writing about it, advising product groups, sales, marketing, understand business issues and community issues and generally advocating for open source. I like it.

2.) Sun seems to have changed a lot recently, with much more interest in Free Open Source Software. Can you tell us something about the changes in philosophy and the business model?

Absolutely. Sun has gone through a major transition after a couple of tough years. I'd say that this has given us a deeper insight into what matters in our market -almost an enlightened sense of self-interest. Sun, of course, remains a business, but one that understands that open source is the best model of software development and that Free software leads to the healthiest software markets. If you are making and selling software, you can do one of two things. You can develop it in a closed room and charge people money to use your software, or you can do it in the open, let people use the software for free (after all, it costs you nothing extra once the software is written) and then charge for the things that you can do that the customer cannot or chooses not do for themselves. We believe the latter is how the software market of the future will work. And you have to bear in mind, Sun makes the infrastructure of the network. Infrastructure tends to be open, and tends to be used by large organisations who want the competence of an IT vendor. So we believe that the coming software market, which will be dominated by Free software, is a good match for our business.

3.) What is the relationship between Sun and free software developers?
(I.e. are we your customers or are we part of the same community working for the same customers?)

I think we all play many roles at once. On an individual level a developer may buy a Sun workstation or one of our developer support packages and of course, we regard them as our customer with everything that implies. But I don't think that Sun views Free software developers as a market but as a community in which it participates -as Jonathan Schwartz puts it, "developers don't buy things, they join things". There are some communities which we join, such as GNOME or X.org, and some which we have formed and which other people have joined, such as OpenOffice.org or OpenSolaris. In some cases we're all working for the same customers, but I think that community development is truly successful when we're part of the same community working for a diverse set of customers.

4.) If SUN made all it's software libre, you would depend more on your hardware and services to make money - if so what open standards would be used for hardware e.g. using FreeBIOS or another libre BIOS for the BIOS?"

Well, I'm not sure I agree entirely with the question. We are making more money from software now it is open. We are moving away from our customers paying upfront license revenue, and might decide to pay for subscriptions or support (what I suppose you mean with "services"). As for your question, we did release OpenBoot under the new BSD license, and I know it is used on a variety of hardware platforms, including the OLPC project, although I am not sure if it is recognised as a formal standard. I don't know what plans, if any, we have for a libre BIOS. Sun has already made some hardware designs libre: the T1 chip design was released under the GPL in the OpenSPARC project last year.

5.) Is there some sort of division within the company between free software/hardware supporters and those that support nonfree software or has the company overwhelmingly turned to Free Software? Do you think there is a similar division in other companies (for example HP)?

There are approximately 35,000 people at Sun, and there will always be differences of opinions. There is quite an open culture inside the company (for example, blogs.sun.com). At the same time, the company's direction on Free software is rather well documented. Jonathan Schwartz has stated that all of our software asset will be free and open source, and we've been delivering against that. I can't really comment on other companies, but I tend to think that while company cultures may differ, that people are the same everywhere.

6.) How do you think open hardware and free software compare?

I think the differences are smaller than people think. Although the developer communities will be smaller in open hardware, if you look at the companies able to produce a viable commercial distribution of an open source product, you do still require a critical mass. If you want to produce a chip from the OpenSPARC specs you can (I believe, I've never actually tried this) send your specs to a fabrication plant who will produce the chip for you. So the barriers to entering the hardware market are lower than people might assume, and they are higher than people may assume for software.

7.) Do you think a GPL'ed Sparc will do the same thing for processors as the "open" IBM PC architecture did for computers? Does Sun intend to become the company that defines the standards?

This is a little pedantic of me, but standards bodies should define standards and then markets implement them - but the answer to your question is yes, we hope that much of the technology that is coming out of Sun will standard throughout the industry. That can only happen if you relinquish control to the extent that others can implement and innovate on the standard. That's what happened to the PC architecture in the 80s, and that's what I don't think will happen with a "standard" like Microsoft Office Open XML. It's hard to see anyone else implementing that.

With the OpenSPARC project already two other companies have taped out (i.e. have ready for manufacture) their own versions: Polaris Micro in China and SimplyRISC, which is an anglo-italian concern. Both have produced designs for the embedded space. That's exactly the kind of thing we were hoping for -those are the ones I know of, there may be more.

8.) What makes the big difference for Sun between GPLv2 and GPLv3?

There isn't such a big difference for Sun between v2 and v3. We are involved with defining v3, but the issues that seem to be controversial to some, such as the DRM provisions, and web services provisions, are possibly less of a big deal for us than for other large software producers. The attempt at handling software patents is interesting: I think we all know that they are important, that they have the potential to be harmful to innovation, and that addressing them will be difficult.

9.) There are talks about Sun dual licensing Solaris under both CDDL and GPLv3, is this a firm plan and if so, when can we expect this to happen?

It isn't a firm plan. I don't think that anyone will make a decision about GPLv3 until it's finalised. Sun consulted the OpenSolaris community a while ago and there was a range of opinions. It is an interesting prospect, but it is worth bearing in mind that the CDDL is a Free software license too, and it seems very popular with the community.

Licensing decisions regarding the OpenSolaris source code aren't Sun's alone. Decisions will involve the OpenSolaris Governing Board (OGB). Dual licensing under the GPLv3 can't be seriously considered until that license is finalized and reviewed by all concerned parties.

10.) Can you describe the impact that your adoption of GPLv3 could have on the Free Software world or even more broadly the software industry (considering some of the controversies regarding this new license)?

Well, I think that it would probaly be a good thing for the Free Software community, but you have to realise that we are in a different position to some other companies in the industry. I can't really speak to the implications for other companies, but I do tend to think that the ability to redefine what constitutes a Free software license is important. Technology and how it applies to the law changes over time: your license probably needs to as well.

11.) Is Sun involved in any way in the development of GPLv3? Have you been sending FSF any suggestions and proposals and which were those? If not, what would your suggestions be?

Yes, we have a seat on GPL v3 Committee B, we are actively engaged in the development of license. Right now, the GPLv3 has not yet been finalised, we've just seen the latest draft, and we remain hopeful and supportive of the FSF's efforts and that v3 will be a license that is adoptable by all.

12.) Sun has announced that you will release Java as Free Software under the GNU GPLv2. When can we expect the Free Software version of Java to come out? (Currently available downloads from java.sun.com still carry a "Binary Code License Agreement").

On May 8, 2007 Sun announced the release of a fully buildable Java Development Kit (JDK) version for Java Platform Standard Edition (Java SE) to the OpenJDK Community as free software under the GNU General Public License version two (GPLv2). In addition, Sun announced the Interim Governing Board for the OpenJDK community. Sun also announced that OpenJDK-based implementations can use the Java SE 6 Technical Compatibility Kit (JCK) to establish compatibility with the Java SE 6 specification.

Less than one year after we announced our intent to release Java technology as open source software under GPL v2, we have achieved our goal. Now the free and open source community has access to implementations of Java Platform Standard Edition, Enterprise Edition and Micro Edition as free software under the GPL. We will continue to collaborate with the Java community and the free and open source communities to determine the future of Java technology.

The five members of the Interim Governance Board for the OpenJDK Community are Doug Lea, Dalibor Topic, Fabiane Biznella Nardon, Mark Reinhold, Simon Phipps.

13.) Even though it still appears to be widely used, many have concerns about Java being slow, among some other complaints. Are there any plans of improvement to Java that would address these known concerns (maybe even Free Software developers can help you now)?

Well, I think that usually comments that Java is slow are based on experiences with much earlier versions of the JRE (Java Runtime Environment). The performance of the current JRE is really very good - Sun has had a large team of engineers working on Java for many years now. If you think Java is slow, I'd recommend trying Java SE 6, which came out at the end of last year. In many cases, application performance on the new JVM (Java Virtual Machine) is faster than that of natively compiled code - JVM can continually optimise performance. Dave Dagastine's (head of Java SE performance team) blog (http://blogs.sun.com/dagastine) has some more information on this. Then there is DTrace - the observability framework in Solaris 10. It's more advanced than any other observability framework and allows for faster, more insightful performance tuning than anything else. The DTrace providers are built into Java SE 6, so we strongly recommend trying it on OpenSolaris.

After all that, I do have to make it clear that we are looking forward to the contributions of free software developers to both the performance and stability of the JDK - but we are investing in this ourselves.

14.) What kind of relationship do you have with OpenOffice.org project and what are your future OOo related plans?

Well, as you know, Sun is the biggest individual contributor to OpenOffice.org and we seeded the project back in 2000, so of course I want to say that we have a great relationship with the OpenOffice.org project.

Of course, we're also aware that it hasn't been so easy for external developers to contribute code to OpenOffice.org in the past, but we've been learning from that and we feel that we've made a lot of progress there. Hopefully we're more responsive to helping developers get their contributions into the code base. There are some recent examples of enhancements such as the PDF export, and smart tag infrastructure which I understand have been driven by the non-Sun OpenOffice.org community membership. It's been a learning experience for us though.

Sun is also helping as a mentor in the Google Summer of Code again, as we have the last two years. We also expect to have a strong presence at this year's OpenOffice.org Conference (in lovely Barcelona) and we try to have our developers work in the open with the community - for example, they have meetings with contributors and community members in our engineering centre in Hamburg.

Sun is still the major code contributor to OpenOffice.org, but there more and more individuals and companies joining. So far the community has lead a lot of ports and localisation projects, but I think we'll see more and more functionality developed by the community. It's a very important and very successful project.

15.) About Sun's involvement with DRM. Is the DReaM project still alive and what is it supposed to accomplish, what are Sun's plans with it?

I'm not really aware of any plans around DReaM, but the reasons for starting the project, that all DRM systems out there were proprietary, was a valid. The hope has to be that if content providers insist on using DRM, they will do it in a manner which does not distort the market or prejudice others' ability. There seems to be some talk in the industry about moving away from DRM, including from Apple who I had understood were big supporters up to this point. Personally, I hope that is the case: I can maybe understand the security case for DRM, but the idea of implementing disabling technology to protect old business models feels like a retrograde step. We should be looking for the opportunities technology presents.

Technical questions:

16.) Why Doesn't Solaris have a dependency resolving package manager? Are there any plans of including one in the future?

A lot of people are asking for it - but I honestly don't know of any concrete plan. Ian Murdoch (of Debian fame) did just join Sun to look at operating platforms, and we have a close relationship with the Ubuntu community, so I think we have a lot to learn from those folks. I'm not saying that we're going to see apt-get on OpenSolaris anytime soon, but it would be interesting.

17.) Sun has often compared Solaris to (GNU/)Linux. How about a comparison with other, possibly more similar systems such as FreeBSD?

FreeBSD is rather similar to Solaris on the desktop, you're right, and the hardware support seems good. My experience with FreeBSD was that it was essentially very similar to other Free desktops, like GNU/Linux and Solaris. Max Bruning wrote a rather good article comparing the OpenSolaris, Linux and BSD kernels a while ago, if you're interested (http://www.opensolaris.org/os/article/2005-10-14_a_comparison_of_solaris__linux__and_freebsd_kernels/). As for BSD as a business: I don't ever think that it will take off in that respect because the license is so permissive, it allows proprietary software companies to take without giving back. GNU/Linux has taken off in business and large companies have invested in it expecting something reciprocal. With the New BSD-style license, you don't have that assurance. None of which is to say that it isn't a first-class Free operating system.

We thank Patrick Finch and Sun for their time and for the enlightening answers.