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Will Sun Burn Linux with "Free" Solaris?

Written By: R. Krause
Published On: February 2 2000

Event Summary

Sun Microsystems has eliminated licensing fees for Solaris 8 in an effort to boost its appeal against Linux and Windows NT. Solaris 8 is due to ship in February, around the same time Microsoft is due to ship Windows 2000.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy has been laying the groundwork for the announcement for months by telling audiences that software is a service and should be free. McNealy recommended last year that the government require Microsoft to make free and open its application program interfaces (APIs), rather than break itself into pieces, as a preferred remedy in the current Department of Justice vs. Microsoft antitrust investigation.

"Free" is a relative term, however. In December, Sun eliminated fees for Java 2 Standard Edition, but still requires developers to pay for compatibility tests required to maintain their licenses. Linux advocates and other industry watchers have claimed that the Sun Community Source License is not as free or open as Linux and other open-source licenses are.

Sun has been working for over a year to offer Solaris under the Sun Community Source License but was stymied by the fact that it didn't own all the intellectual property inside Solaris. SCSL is a quasi open-source license that requires developers to return bug fixes to Sun, maintain compatibility, and pay fees to Sun when they ship binaries based on Sun source code. It is unclear how Sun has resolved its intellectual property issues. But that is not stopping the company from working to get on the good side of the open-source community.

Market Impact

We can not tell whom Sun considers a better target (or bigger problem), Windows or Linux. This is the second "free" announcement from it in four months, indicating it has shifted at least part of its focus from bashing Microsoft/Windows to trying to hip-check the open source movement out of the spotlight. Examination of the licensing terms indicates that you can have the code, but anything you develop may be controlled by Sun through one of its licensing agreements.

We expect that this will provide a modest sales boost for Sun and Solaris, especially among small companies on a limited budget. Sun shipped more mid-range and high-end servers than any other vendor during Q3CY99 [Source: IDC], and continues to be a top choice for web serving. However, Linux has made inroads in the last 1-2 years, in large part because of its price. Freeing the source may help Sun slow Linux's progress into its primary customer base.

Although a secondary focus of this announcement is to try to pressure Microsoft to open its source and APIs, we do not expect Redmond to take the bait.

User Recommendations

This sweetens the pot for current Solaris users, and provides an extra incentive for those considering Solaris as their platform, but we do not see this alone as a reason to pick Sun/Solaris. There are plenty of reasons why users would want to have a Sun/Solaris environment, but free source code is not a major one. It does partially reduce Linux's freeness as a competitive sales factor, but we see this more as "marketeering" than anything else. The licensing terms are restrictive enough that users will see modest benefit, at best, to this new structure. However, we do commend Sun for moving at least part way toward the Linux model.

Solaris 7 costs $1500 for an unlimited license, plus $1500 for full documentation, so this announcement is hardly a big cost saver for large corporations - even if Solaris 8 would normally have been priced at double that. However, free is free, so organizatons should take advantage of this if they are already running Solaris 7. (Please note that these comments relate to the "Free Binary" program, not the "Free Source" program.)

 
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