A year later: Has Oracle ruined or saved Sun?

The company irks open source advocates but is steadfast in upgrading Sun-derived technologies


In its first year in charge of the former Sun Microsystems technologies, Oracle stepped on plenty of toes, as the company duelled with both the open source community and Google. But Oracle also has released a plethora of products and advanced numerous projects derived from the Sun acquisition, ranging from Java and NetBeans IDE upgrades to StorageTek storage units, the Solaris OS, and Sparc hardware. Has Oracle ruined Sun or saved it?

Oracle formally took over Sun in late January 2010. Since then, the company has had to pursue a goal that had escaped Sun in the later years of Sun's existence: profitability. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison in September 2009 said Sun was losing $100 million a month while waiting for the $7.4 billion Sun acquisition to be completed. Ellison since then has criticized Sun management for bad business practices and noted Sun did not make a lot of money from Java, whereas Oracle did.

So it shoud be no surprise that Oracle in the past year has pursued whatever opportunities it can find to make money when Sun did not. This push for profits has forced Sun's engineering-driven culture to take a backseat to the bottom line. Oracle has not been shy about asserting its control over the myriad Sun technologies, even if that has meant upsetting the people who started them.

Indeed, if the formerly high-flying Sun had been profitable, the company likely would still be here today. Instead, signs of Sun's fall are visible in the defunct company's Silicon Valley home. Facebook, for example, is moving into a former Sun research park near the southern end of the San Francisco Bay that had been a jewel in Sun's crown.

Oracle has made some common-sense moves with Sun's technology, such as pairing Sun hardware with Oracle middleware in the Exalogic Elastic Cloud system. Oracle, however, has taken a public relations beating in the open source realm, where projects such as the Hudson continuous integration server and Java itself have been the subjects of controversy.

But a review of Oracle's moves during the past year reveals advances for former Sun product lines, soothing the concerns of IT pros who had committed to Sun's technology. (A notable exception has been the Sun Cloud, the cloud computing platform that never got off the ground after Oracle took charge.)

Oracle did not comment for this article, but even an official at the Apache Software Foundation, which has sparred with Oracle over Java licensing terms and control of the platform, gave Oracle a qualified nod. "By every measure, I think Oracle is a very successful technology business, so as to how Oracle as a business will do with Sun technology, I think they're going to do great," says Geir Magnusson, Apache's treasurer and co-founder of the disputed Apache Harmony project. "The problems have surfaced over the last 12 to 18 months have been sort of all around open source community."

Java: JSEE advances but disputes reign on several fronts

 Oracle's stewardship of Java, perhaps the most critical technology gained in the Sun acquisition, has been a mixed bag. The company in November submitted specifications for the Java Standard Editions 7 and 8, with accommodations for multicore processors and modularity, that the Java Community Process (JCP) approved in December. In September, Oracle also detailed plans to bolster the JavaFX rich Internet application platform. JavaFX 2.0 is due later this year, supporting hardware-accelerated graphics and updated UI controls.

Oracle, however, has had to deal with high-profile conflict. For example, after initially siding with Apache against Sun's proposed field-of-use restrictions for the Apache Harmony version of Java, Oracle switched sides after it bought Sun and supported the restrictions that Apache disliked. The restrictions, according to Apache, would prohibit Harmony's use on mobile platforms. The dispute, which goes back half a decade, finally led to Apache quitting the JCP Java SE/EE executive committee in December, with Apache protesting Oracle's control over Java.

More conflict in the Java realm has been over Oracle's highly publicised lawsuit against Google, which alleges that the Android mobile OS violates Java patents. The lawsuit prompted Google to pull out of the first Oracle-run JavaOne conference in September.

Even more conflict: Oracle has been promoting OpenJDK as the principal reference implementation of open source Java, getting backing from IBM in October. (IBM previously had backed Apache's position.) This month, Oracle issued draft bylaws for OpenJDK ostensibly to encourage participants to act in an "open, transparent, and meritocratic manner." But critics note that Oracle appoints a chair and IBM a vice chair under the rules. "It was interesting to see IBM get a permanent position on the governing board as vice chair," said a cynical Magnusson, the Apache treasurer.

Solaris: Today's Oracle invests in the OS it used to ignore

 Oracle's jurisdiction over Solaris is a bit ironic since Oracle certainly did not help the platform when Sun began promoting commodity Linux in the days Sun was still independent. Nonetheless, Oracle has been moving forward with Solaris. In November, Oracle shipped Solaris 11 Express, which is geared to developers and serves as a preview of Solaris 11, due in 2011. Version 11 is set to increase application throughput, improve performance, and boost reliability and security.

Another Oracle move, however, could prompt Solaris users to look at Linux. The company last year changed the free usage provision of Solaris 10, limiting it to 90 days. Sun had been offering the operating system free of charge in hopes of selling support subscriptions. Oracle also put a dent in the OpenSolaris open source version of Solaris, with leaked plans revealing intentions to stop developing it. In August, the OpenSolaris Governing Board voted to dissolve itself.

"Recommended For You"

Sun lifts lid on enterprise Java technologies The Great Oracle Experiment