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28 June 2010, 13:47

Has Oracle been a disaster for Sun's open source?

by Glyn Moody

Companies based around open source are still comparatively young. So it remains an open question what happens to them in the long term. As open source becomes more widely accepted, an obvious growth path for them is to be bought by a bigger, traditional software company. The concern then becomes: how does the underlying open source code fare in those circumstances?

The first large-scale test-case was Sun buying MySQL. But that experiment was soon curtailed – and trumped – when Oracle bought Sun. Naturally, this prompted much hand-wringing over whether Oracle would nurture the open source projects that Sun was running – and whether it was even capable of understanding the free software culture. That was over a year ago, so it's maybe time to see how things are working out.

As far as Oracle is concerned, everything is going swimmingly:

Oracle Corporation today announced fiscal 2010 Q4 GAAP total revenues were up 39% to $9.5 billion, while non-GAAP total revenues were up 40% to $9.6 billion.

In particular, Sun seems to be making plenty of money:

We estimate that the acquired business [Sun] will contribute over $1.5 billion to Oracle’s non-GAAP operating profit in the first year, increasing to over $2 billion in the second year. This would make the Sun acquisition more profitable in per share contribution in the first year than we had planned for the acquisitions of BEA, PeopleSoft and Siebel combined,” said Oracle President Safra Catz.

So, it seems that the Sun acquisition has gone really well – for Oracle. But how is it going for the open source community, which is not really interested in Oracle's non-GAAP operating profit? Well, let's look at some of the key components of Sun/Oracle's open source portfolio: MySQL, Java and

Here's what Oracle Chief Corporate Architect Edward Screven has to say on the subject of MySQL in a recent interview:

We have three major thrusts. One is to make MySQL a better product. So add features, add functionality, make it perform better, improve its quality. The second is to make MySQL support better. To make sure that customers who are getting support from Oracle for MySQL and also other Oracle products get that same integrated support experience for MySQL that they get with Oracle Database.

Finally, we want to make MySQL more integrated with the rest of the Oracle stack. So, for example, it makes a lot of sense for us in the long run to make MySQL manageable through Oracle Enterprise Manager, to make MySQL backup coordinated through Oracle Secure Backup, and to make MySQL auditing records delivered into Oracle Audit Vault.

I'm sure Oracle is doing all those things, but as I wrote in The H a few months back, part of the problem is that even before Oracle bought Sun there was a growing sense that MySQL was not addressing new markets, and maybe not even serving the old ones so well. Oracle's strategy doesn't really seem to be dealing with those problems, and certainly doesn't suggest any increased engagement with the open source community, who will probably not be interested in helping “to make MySQL more integrated with the rest of the Oracle stack.”

What about Java? Here's Screven again:

Java is really one of the most important computing technologies ever.

That ubiquity of the programming language and programming model is very powerful for customers and developers. Our strategy is to continue to push the boundaries of that. So, continue to enhance the programming model and the APIs. Continue to invest in Java as a technology at every single scope, at every single scale. To try to make sure that Java remains, by far, the premier development programming language and programming environment on the planet.

All of which sounds great. But then you have this:

Yes, indeed, the rumors are true: I resigned from Oracle a week ago (April 2nd). I apologize to everyone in St Petersburg who came to TechDays on Thursday expecting to hear from me. I really hated not being there. As to why I left, it's difficult to answer: Just about anything I could say that would be accurate and honest would do more harm than good.

That was written by James Gosling, Java's inventor. If Java really is "one of the most important computing technologies ever", and one which you intend to build on and invest in, losing the man who wrote it is not a good sign: it suggests that something, somewhere, isn't right. It's hard to tell from Gosling's cryptic remarks what exactly happened, but the last phrase in particular bodes ill.

And so on to Screven says:

OpenOffice is an open standards-based office productivity suite. It’s being managed inside Oracle as a separate global business unit, which means that its development team and its sales team are within their own special organization, and I think it’s a very compelling offering.

But as a recent feature in The H explained, the situation for is very similar to that for MySQL: although by no means a failure, things could be much, much better. But that won't happen without a clear plan from Oracle to make it one of its core products – not something hived off to a “separate global business unit”, where it is probably mostly ignored by Oracle's senior management.

One of the most interesting things in the Screven interview is not what he says, but what he doesn't say: there is no mention of OpenSolaris, which for an article about "the importance of open source and open standards" is pretty extraordinary.

OpenSolaris must be one of the more vulnerable projects within Oracle: it doesn't really fit well alongside Solaris and GNU/Linux, both of which are mentioned from time to time by the company. And Oracle has already shown that it has no compunction about abandoning free software, as The H reported a few months ago:

OpenSSO Express has been removed for download from Oracle's website, leaving users of the community version of what was Sun's single sign-on platform to either, build their own version from source code, or to go to a third party.

But in this case, something interesting has happened, as the article went on to explain:

Norwegian company ForgeRock has stepped in and released OpenAM, based on OpenSSO source code. The ForgeRock builds are available to download. ForgeRock CEO, Lasse Andresen called Oracle's move "surprising", but said ForgeRock would be the new home for OpenSSO, now called OpenAM due to Oracle IP issues. He added that it would be "committed to the existing roadmap from a product development standpoint, and to more open participation with the community". ForgeRock had already made plans for the future of OpenSSO and has detailed them in a FAQ.

As others have noted, this is a good demonstration of the fact that open source projects are effectively "immortal": provided there is sufficient interest among users, they can always be forked. It should also serve as a reminder to Oracle that they are the guardians of the open source projects formerly managed by Sun, not the owners (well, they own the copyright, but that's not quite the same.) If it fails to move the projects forward in the way that many users would like, it may well be faced with more forks.

The problem is that Oracle is naturally trying to optimise its acquisition of Sun for its own shareholders, but seems to have forgotten that there are other stakeholders too: the larger open source communities that have formed around the code. That may make sense in the short term, but is undoubtedly fatal in the long term: free software cannot continue to grow and thrive without an engaged community.

It would probably be unfair to characterise Oracle's running of Sun's open source projects as a disaster – at least, for the moment; but as the above shows, there are plenty of grounds for concern, both in terms of how the code is being developed, and the happiness or otherwise of developers and users. Whether buying Sun will prove to be a smart move in the long term depends critically on how smartly Larry Ellison and his managers can address these issues. They also need to start to think more seriously about how Oracle can contribute to Sun's open source products, and not just the other way around.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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