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The Modern State of Software Innovation: How Sun and Oracle Are Changing Their Open Source Diet

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Sun Microsystems and Oracle offer insight into the motives behind accelerating their involvement in open source projects. Matthew Sacks describes how these major players are pioneering their own software products by more actively using open source and virtualization technologies.

Matthew Sacks is a System Administrator and Technical writer for TheBitsource.com.

Many large software companies are beginning to embrace open source technologies for software infrastructures and products that previously have been based largely on proprietary software and technologies. The recent bad economic weather in the U.S. is further persuading large enterprises to consider integrating open source technologies (and consolidation technologies such as virtualization) into the solutions supporting their business systems and processes.

This article is based on interviews with major players in the technology industry such as Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and SourceForge.net. The information gathered during these interviews provides a glimpse into what some large enterprises are doing with open source technology, why they're doing it, and their results.

Finding Where the State of Innovation Lies

Enterprises can gain valuable development efforts by open sourcing a product and making it available to the community. The open source community benefits because developers get access to software and code with which they can improve their own software designs. In exchange for corporate contribution to an open source project, a company benefits by getting bug fixes and software engineering hours that trickle back in as a result of the open source community's efforts. As a value-add and source of income, a company can sell support and professional services contracts on community-supported open source products and services, and most companies add features that introduce additional value to a standard open-source software solution.

The Classic Argument: Open or Closed Source?

There are a few schools of thought when it comes to how to develop software and power innovation:

  • Purchase a proprietary solution and pay another company for support costs
  • Manufacture the solution in house, based on existing open source community-driven software
  • Use a hybrid of these development methodologies

Both software engineering methodologies have their advantages. One type of software cannot be deemed to be better than the other, because there are too many different kinds of businesses with different needs for one methodology to serve for all.

Open source can sometimes have a "fanatical" connotation to it, but that is due more to stereotype than fact. Open source software has been around since computers were created. A more modern example is the open sourcing of UNIX with the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) project.

Open source is increasingly important in the way that companies do business today, because more large corporations that produce software are beginning to welcome open source into their product lines. Many companies offer both an open source version of their product and an "enterprise" version, which comes with special features and enhanced customer support. The benefit of this approach is that the open source community is constantly working on the open source version of the product, while the in-house development team is integrating whatever the company determines to be beneficial to the quality of the product—reducing the number of redundant work hours of a potentially overburdened software engineering team. It's the difference between having 1,000 developers versus 1,000 backed by a worldwide team of potentially tens of thousands of developers—all integrating and contributing to the software.

Many large software companies also use a methodology of getting involved with a specific open source software product and reselling a commercial version of that product under their own brand, with additional support contracts and features that may be specific to the independent software company. For example, Sun Microsystems and Oracle are members of the Xen.org advisory board. Xen is an open source software solution that allows for the virtualization of hardware; that is, taking a single physical server and partitioning it into several "virtual machines," effectively extracting better performance utilization with less power consumption and easier management of independent servers.

Virtualization for Cost Savings and Flexibility

Virtualization holds a key part in the current state of technology. Many software companies (and other technology-based companies with software engineering teams) leverage virtualization technologies to make efficient use of hardware for their software engineering practices.

Virtualization offers the benefit of rapidly producing computing platforms for software development projects, which in turns allows for rapidly producing, testing, and releasing new technological products and services.

Until recently, commercial virtualization had typically been a proprietary market with Microsoft and VMware. The widespread adoption of the Xen hypervisor, which is an open source virtualization platform, has changed that dynamic.

The State of Innovation at Sun Microsystems

Dr. Tim Marsland is a Sun Fellow, Vice President, and Systems Software CTO at Sun Microsystems. Marsland believes that the process of widespread adoption of open source technologies is accelerating, and many large companies are reevaluating proprietary software solutions. Companies will not simply drop their software licenses and the large investment in them and convert to open source right away, however, according to Marsland.

Sun built its business on the basis of being an open systems company, developing high-quality implementations of open software specifications. In the late 1990s, Sun began opening up those implementations and their development activities to open source communities, as well as participating in many other open source communities—a strategy that is the logical conclusion of "open systems" at the core of the company, and continues to be the business practice of Sun Microsystems. Sun has even open sourced the silicon designs for one of its processors, the Niagara chip.

When asked why virtualization is important to Sun, as a producer of a widely used operating system, Marsland responded with the following comments:

Hypervisor technology is a key component of hardware virtualization, but operating systems are key components too—in fact, there are two roles for the operating system in virtualization software stacks. One key role is as an infrastructure component that provides and coordinates services and data movement by the hypervisor—usually managing storage and network services to guests. We think OpenSolaris is really good at those things, and we're working on making it better—the Crossbow project is the latest example of that. The other role is as a guest, which is initially a "passive" thing, though obviously we've been working on optimization and tuning. We think Solaris, with its enormous set of applications and solutions, fits really well there, too.

Sun has been a pioneer in virtualization with Solaris Containers (a.k.a. Zones) and Logical Domains (LDoms), yet still looks to the open source community with the Xen project in order to expand opportunities for creating better software products. In house, Sun uses the VirtualBox product, an open source desktop-based virtualization solution, which allows Sun developers to build and test software on a variety of operating systems without having a dedicated physical machine for each operating system type.

I asked Marsland how contributing to projects such as Xen benefits Sun as a company and improves the quality of Sun products. He responded that being part of a community allows Sun to deliver value to its customers at a lower cost, as well as giving customers and partners a more direct influence on product features and capabilities. In return, Sun commits changes and contributions into the Xen community's software projects. Sun's product offerings are able to combine the strengths of the Xen project and the OpenSolaris project to provide better quality and features in both parties' software.

Sun Microsystems has been a member of the Xen advisory board since its founding. (Other members include Citrix, IBM, Novell, Intel, AMD, Red Hat, and Oracle.) According to Marsland, Sun's virtualization technology is being used in Sun's network-facing infrastructure, and will be part of its recently announced cloud computing offering, which includes the acquisition of Q-layer.

In addition to creating better-quality software, which results in better profitability as a company, Sun also offers technical support and training on open source technologies that provide additional value to Sun customers. Marsland admits that making open source software profitable is tricky, though MySQL offers a useful insight into how this benefit can be achieved—MySQL is a core open source platform that is widely distributed, with for-profit services and product enhancements to the core open source platform. The substantial core platform is selling enhancements to open source products.

The State of Innovation at Oracle Corporation

Oracle's Wim Coekaerts (Vice President of Linux Engineering) and Monica Kumar (Senior Director of Linux and Open Source Product Marketing) explain that Linux, server virtualization, and open source technologies play a key part in Oracle's business and product offerings. For example, Oracle's server virtualization product, Oracle VM, is based on Xen and Oracle Enterprise Linux, which in turn are derived from open source technologies; Oracle Enterprise Linux is source- and binary-compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Linux is strategically important due to Oracle's competition with Microsoft. Competitive edge is based on providing enterprise-class support and offering additional features. Linux also allows Oracle to offer the best product to its customers by taking an existing technology and contributing back to it, rather than creating it from scratch. Oracle brings in additional features and customer support, which gives customers an advantage over a pure open-source solution while providing the flexibility of being based on an open source distribution.

While Oracle is notorious for dealing in proprietary software, it has also become one of the largest contributors to and consumers of open source technology, due to the quality of and demand for open source technologies such as Xen and Linux. Oracle contributes to open source software as well as consumes it, and has made many contributions to the Linux kernel and Xen hypervisor, among other open source middleware products, according to Kumar and Coekaerts. Kumar believes that Oracle contributes just as much as Red Hat to the Linux kernel. Oracle's Unbreakable Linux support program came out of customer demand for support from a single company; because it prevents the customer from having to ping-pong between operating system vendor and database vendor, this approach minimizes support costs.

Oracle's own internal IT department uses Oracle Enterprise Linux and Oracle VM for consolidation of resources as well as rapidly deploying applications. The benefit to Oracle of using open source technologies (and the technologies desired by Oracle customers) is that these systems offer better integration with other database and application software products, which Oracle can support and back with its own service guarantees because these products have gone through Oracle development and quality processes. The common thread seems to be that if an open source product meets Oracle's needs, there's every reason to use that open source technology and consider integrating it into Oracle products.

According to Kumar, business sees open source as a cost-saving decision, but without proper support this may not always be the result. The amount of time spent troubleshooting an unsupported product may impose a greater cost than not paying for support on an open source technology.

Coekaerts states that open source software is not one homogeneous entity, and in general open source technologies should be treated like any other software product. If it's a good technology that's good for the customer, adoption should be considered, regardless of whether the product is open source or proprietary.

The State of Innovation at OpenGear

Opengear specializes in communications (telecom), power and cooling, and console server management. Because Opengear's products are based on hardware appliances that use open source, it represents the profile of a smaller company that leverages open source technologies to drive product solutions and offer better-quality products to its customers.

Bob Waldie, Chairman and CEO of Opengear, offers some insights into its usage of open source software for powering innovation and developing products. Waldie states that most CIOs don't consider the cost of power and cooling in their budgets; Opengear helps managers of IT infrastructure to manage and monitor these perspectives, using open source technology.

Opengear is joining together different proprietary markets for better standardization of data center management appliances and software, by integrating open source technologies into their products. Opengear's data center management appliances now interface with 78 proprietary vendors.

As far back as 2006, Gartner Research predicted that the cost of power would eventually outweigh the cost of actual computing hardware, and Waldie states that today most systems burn 50% of their energy sitting idle. Open source software helps Opengear to create solutions that will allow for better power savings and data center management.

Opengear uses virtualization technologies for its software engineering processes and is developing the ability to run console server clients on virtual machines. Waldie warns of the dangers of virtualization, however, in the increased complexity and management overhead of maintaining a virtualized computing platform. In a midsize company, he notes, there's a large cost in managing the complexity of computing infrastructure for virtualization, and that solution therefore tends to make more sense for larger businesses.

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