Sun exec ponders OpenSolaris, Linux

Sun's open source developer guru Ian Murdock on OpenSolaris and Project Indiana

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Ian Murdock is vice president of developer and community marketing at Sun Microsystems. Prior to that, he was the founder of the Debian Linux distribution and CTO at the Linux Foundation.

Paul Krill editor at large of InfoWorld, a sister publication of Computerworld UK met with Murdock at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco this week to talk about open source and how Sun, with its OpenSolaris version of the Solaris Unix platform, will fare in the open-source arena versus Linux.

InfoWorld: What exactly is Debian?

Murdock: Debian is a Linux distribution. It's the basis of Ubuntu Linux. I suppose the basic innovation of Debian was that it was developed by a distributed community, so we intentionally set out to build it in a distributed fashion, and it's one of the first open-source projects to operate that way.

InfoWorld: Are you still involved with the Debian project?

Murdock: Not so much, but that's more of a function of lack of time.

InfoWorld: Why did you join Sun?

Murdock: When I was in school as a computer science student in the early 1990s, I was a huge Sun fan. There were Sun workstations all over the place, and I wanted one of these more than anything in the world, and Sun was the company I wanted to work for. And when I had the opportunity to come to Sun and in particular bring some of my Linux experience to sort of a new set of challenges, I jumped at the opportunity.

InfoWorld: What do you do at Sun? I see the OpenSolaris project seems to fall onto your plate.

Murdock: Initially I was working on OpenSolaris and started Project Indiana, which culminated this week [with] the first version of the OpenSolaris binary distribution. These days I am running the developer and community marketing organization, so I am responsible for marketing Sun's developer tools, the developer programs like Sun Developer Network and Tech Days Events, our open-source projects and communities. [Also, I do marketing for] StarOffice, OpenOffice, Network.com. So basically anything that relates to the developer community in some way, I run the marketing piece of that.

Disruptive events create opportunities for those who are agile enough or have the foresight to see the changes that are coming and can adapt.

InfoWorld: Is Sun completely open source with its software right now?

Murdock: Well, not entirely, but that's again mostly a function of how complex it is to take a piece of intellectual property that has not been open source and then moving it into open source. We are in the process of open sourcing all of our software, as [Sun President/CEO Jonathan Schwartz] has said many times. But, for example, with Solaris there, are still a few bits and pieces that have been licensed from other companies. We are working out the arrangements with those companies to be able to open source them.

InfoWorld: What pieces are those?

Murdock: Well, for example, some device drivers [and] certain bits of functionality that were licensed.

InfoWorld: I heard a former Sun official last year who basically said that he thought Sun was kind of moving too fast with open source, maybe over-emphasizing it a bit. You're probably going to disagree with that, but how would you respond to that?

Murdock: I think the big question around open source is how do you make money from it? And it's because the software industry has traditionally been built on an intellectual property licensing model. But the reality of the situation is with the rise of open-source software, developers don't buy things anymore.

[It is] a world where you can go to the Web and download just about anything you could possibly need to put an application into production. So you don't monetize at the point of acquisition of software any longer, you have to monetize at a different place. So it's not to say that there is not money to be made in software, it's just made at a different place, and the different place is with all of the developers adopting technology, putting it into production, some of those applications that are deployed are going to be successful.

They're going to run into the traditional challenges of having to grow and scale that application. They're going to need to have a relationship with the vendor behind the technology. So there are ample opportunities to make money because even though open source is free in the monetary sense, it still requires a lot of expertise and knowhow to make it operate efficiently. So there's plenty of opportunity there to add value.

InfoWorld: I heard two different computer industry executives make the following comments. One is, how do you have a software industry if there's open source? And the other is, open source lowers revenues for everybody. How would you respond to those?

Murdock: Well again, open source is only free or free software is only free if your time is free. And I don't know about you, but my time is definitely not free. And in terms of lowering revenues, I don't think that's necessarily true. I think the money changes to a different place. The revenue opportunity changes to a different place.

So it's a disruptive event in the software industry. But disruptive events create opportunities for those who are agile enough or have the foresight to see the changes that are coming and can adapt. And so Sun's embrace of open source is just a part of adapting and changing with the changing of landscape. There's still plenty of money to be made, it's just shifting to a different place. Again, pay at the point of deriving some value from having a relationship with your vendor versus pay to get access to the technology.

InfoWorld: With OpenSolaris, Sun changed the packaging to make it more like Linux. Is it too late for OpenSolaris to compete against Linux?

Murdock: No, I don't think it's too late at all. In fact, I think there's a huge amount of interest in the Linux community for the technologies that we have in Solaris. So whether it's ZFS (Zettabyte File System) or DTrace [providing a dynamic tracing framework] or containers or any of those things.

And the problem has always been barriers to adoption, right? The changes that we have put into OpenSolaris are primarily designed to lower barriers to adoption to that technology that the market has been wanting, but it has been too difficult to this point for to get at it. It'll be interesting to see how OpenSolaris is received in the Linux community. I would look at it as it's not so much an OpenSolaris versus Linux thing. We're putting another alternative out into the marketplace just like Ubuntu is an alternative and Red Hat is an alternative and SuSE is an alternative.

InfoWorld: As somebody who has developed Debian and now is an advocate for OpenSolaris, which do you see as superior?

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