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Open Source Software Comes to a Fork in the Code

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Oracle is a very big software company, and Larry Ellison is a very rich man. How did they get that way? By selling proprietary software, not by giving it away. It’s the key point to bear in mind when looking at the twin train wrecks of Solaris and OpenSolaris, the two UNIX OSes Oracle controls by virtue of the Sun acquisition.

Anyone paying attention to Oracle’s acquisition of Sun had a keen sense that a culture clash was inevitable for the open source software OpenSolaris. This week’s launch of Illumos reveals the time might be now.

Perhaps train wreck is too strong a phrase, but there’s no doubt Ellison’s vision for Oracle Solaris has very little in common those of many Solaris developers and users. “It’s picking the Sun technologies that are commercializable and focusing on those, and ignoring those that are not. They are just science projects,” is how Ellison sums up his approach.

As for OpenSolaris and the whole idea of having an open source, cutting-edge version of an enterprise OS — like Red Hat has with Fedora and Novell has with OpenSUSE — well, that might be the way Red Hat and Novell like to develop their enterprise Linux OSes, but it’s not the way Oracle is used to developing its proprietary and highly profitable software offerings. Never has been, and probably never will be.

So it’s hardly surprising Oracle is not a happy place for Solaris engineers to be right now. Although the company appears to be studiously ignoring the OpenSolaris community in the apparent hope it will eventually go away, it may well get its wish — some OpenSolaris community developers have started a new project, and a fork in the code looks imminent.

The “old” Solaris’ decline is starting to accelerate. Greg Lavender, the lead Solaris developer, left Oracle a few weeks ago with little fanfare or acknowledgement from the company. And Bryan Cantrill, one of the triumvirate responsible for the development of DTrace, walked out last week to join the San Francisco based cloud computing outfit Joyent. That’s just the latest in a long line of departures from the Sun part of Oracle, and it’s getting to be a case of “will the last of the old school developer to leave please turn out the lights?”

Meanwhile, the OpenSolaris situation has come to a head. Not long ago, the OpenSolaris Governing Board (OGB) threatened to wash its hands of OpenSolaris and hand the whole project back to Oracle unless the company appointed a suitable liaison person to talk to the OpenSolaris community by August 16th. Some on the OGB, like Dennis Clarke, said that they had had enough. “I am not one for sitting on my hands while people stand around looking for leadership … Personally I am all for a fork …” he said recently.

It looks like some leading lights in the OpenSolaris community weren’t willing to wait for August 16th to make a move. Garrett “code first, questions later” D’Amore, a leading contributor to OpenSolaris (who walked out of Sun a few weeks back to join open storage software company Nexenta, along with former Sun man and ZFS expert Richard Elling) had this to say a couple of weeks back, “With all the ruckus surrounding Oracle’s apparent abandonment of the community, and OGB’s stated intention to suicide, the community uproar has been crazy. Without giving any details, let me say that a few of us are quietly but diligently working on solutions to the critical problems.”

Today, he went further, announcing Illumos. (That’s Illum as in light, like the sun, plus OS for Illum OS.) It’s a fork in OpenSolaris that will be a child of OS/Net (or ON), and 100 percent compatible with Solaris ON. Crucially, it will be completely open source, unlike OpenSolaris, which includes closed components like libc_il8n, NFS lock manager and numerous crucial drivers.

The fork will be completely independent from OpenSolaris, and although it will have corporate sponsors, including Nexenta and Joyent, none of them will have the sort of sway over the project that Oracle now has over OpenSolaris. “We will not be a slave to any corporate master,” D’Amore said in his position of Illumos project leader. He also hinted that the new project would not get tied up in bureaucracy the way OpenSolaris did, saying, “the aim is to get code done without engaging in a lot of conversation.” This view was echoed by Cantrill, who pitched in with this pithy comment: “A fork allows people to innovate and not get hung up on governance models.”

Today is day one for Illumos. In years to come it might prove to be a significant date in the history of a completely open source Solaris-like server OS, and one that may not end up being mired down in governance issues. After the way the company treated OpenSolaris, you can’t help but wonder what Oracle makes of it all …

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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