The Great Oracle Experiment


So, it finally happened:

We are pleased to announce that Oracle has completed its acquisition of Sun Microsystems and Sun is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oracle. With this news, we want to reiterate our commitment to deliver complete, open and integrated systems that help our customers improve the performance, reliability and security of their IT infrastructure. We would also like to thank the many customers that have supported us throughout the acquisition process.

There is no doubt that this combination transforms the IT industry. With the addition of servers, storage, SPARC processors, the Solaris operating system, Java, and the MySQL database to Oracle’s portfolio of database, middleware, and business and industry applications, we plan to engineer and deliver open and integrated systems - from applications to disk - where all the pieces fit and work together out of the box.

All well and good, but what does that mean in practice? The detailed answer to that question is obviously of vital importance. But there's another general aspect to this whole business that hasn't been touched on much, and which I think is one of the most interesting.

For the first time, we get to see what happens when a company that has built up an immense global business empire on the basis of its proprietary software takes over some of the most important open source projects around. Does it destroy them through mutual incomprehension? Corrupt them through its control of the purse strings? Come to value them for their deeper qualities? Might it even be *changed* by them, moving towards their approaches? That's what we're going to find out over the next few years in the Great Oracle Experiment.

Meanwhile, we can sift through the first few clues that Oracle has vouchsafed us. The key document is this FAQ [.pdf], which runs through the fate of most of Sun's products. The future of MySQL seems rosy enough:

What are Oracle’s plans for MySQL?

Oracle plans to spend more money developing MySQL than Sun does now. Oracle expects to continue to develop and provide the open source MySQL database. Oracle plans to add MySQL to Oracle’s existing suite of database products, which already includes Berkeley DB, an open source database. Oracle also currently offers InnoDB, an open source transactional storage engine and the most important and popular transaction engine under MySQL. Oracle already distributes MySQL as part of our Enterprise Linux offering.

As does that for Java:

Delivering increased investment and innovation in Java

Oracle plans to accelerate investment in the Java platform for the benefit of customers and the Java community.

What about OpenSolaris?

Oracle plans to spend more money developing Solaris than Sun does now. The industry leading capabilities of the Solaris operating system make it the leader in performance, scalability, reliability, and security – all of which are core requirements for our customers. Oracle plans to enhance our investment in Solaris to push core technologies to the next level as quickly as possible.

The complete absence of any mention of OpenSolaris here is bound to raise questions, as will the following (positive) statement about GNU/Linux:

What are Oracle’s plans for Linux?

Oracle remains fully committed to the Linux operating system and plans to continue to develop and enhance Linux, provide technical leadership and contributions back to the Linux community, and deliver world-class Linux support to our customers and partners.

We are excited about having both the most popular Unix operating system and the leading Linux offering under our development umbrella. Between these two operating systems, customers can manage any critical application on modern systems. We expect that our customers will see the management of their environments that run both Linux and Solaris simplified. Additionally, customers using both Solaris and Linux will be able to rely on one vendor, Oracle, for the support of their entire stack – applications to disk.

Again, the constant emphasis on the Solaris-GNU/Linux pairing does not augur well for OpenSolaris, I fear.

What about Oracle’s plans for NetBeans?

Oracle has a strong track record of demonstrating commitment to choice for Java developers. As such, NetBeans is expected to provide an additional open source option and complement to the two free tools Oracle already offers for enterprise Java development: Oracle JDeveloper and Oracle Enterprise Pack for Eclipse. While Oracle JDeveloper remains Oracle’s strategic development tool for the broad portfolio of Oracle Fusion Middleware products and for Oracle’s next generation of enterprise applications, developers will be able to use whichever free tool they are most comfortable with for pure Java and Java EE development: JDeveloper, Enterprise Pack for Eclipse, or NetBeans.

Is it just me, or does that read like “you can use whatever Java development environment you like, but we won't actually be doing anything with NetBeans?” We shall see....

Perhaps the most interesting Sun project now under the aegis of Oracle is

What is Oracle’s plan for OpenOffice?

Oracle has a history of developing complete, integrated, and open products, making integration quicker and less costly for our customers. Based on the open ODF standard, OpenOffice is expected to create a compelling desktop integration bridge for our enterprise customers and offers consumers another choice on the desktop. Oracle plans to continue developing and supporting OpenOffice as open source. As before, some of the larger customers will ask for extra assurances, support, and enterprise tools. For these customers we expect to offer a typical commercial license option.

There seem to me to be lots of strong signals here: this “desktop integration bridge for our enterprise customers” linking to Oracle's enterprise applications, would be a powerful reason for many companies to switch to There is a clear commitment to continue supporting the open source side while noting that commercial options will also be added. In many ways, Sun's stewardship of has been rather disappointing in that it proved unable to make the breakthrough in the enterprise sector; maybe Oracle can do better.

As for all the myriad smaller projects not mentioned in the FAQ, there has already been one casualty, but also a solution for dealing with it:

OpenSSO was a Sun project that Oracle seemingly killed last week as part of their assimilation / refactoring process. In less than a week, it seems there’s already a commercial organization willing support the code-base.

This, ultimately, is the most reassuring aspect of the Great Oracle Experiment: if things go wrong, there is always the possibility of taking the code elsewhere (if Oracle doesn't mind) or just forking it (if it does). In this respect, takeovers of companies that control open source projects are rather less nerve-wracking for users than those involving purely proprietary software – a fact that we can all be grateful for after the worrying uncertainty that has surrounded the Sun-Oracle deal during the last few months.

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