Thursday, December 30, 2010

Watching the SUN Set


SUN Microsystems found itself on shaky ground after posting losses fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter. The company had a very large offering of hardware and software but was not able to capitalize on the goods and services they were selling. Around 2008 the ship began to sink so to speak. SUN agreed to purchase MySQL on Jan 16, 2008 for approx 1 billion dollars. This was a major deal because MySQL was the most popular open source database used in countless LAMP installations across the globe. SUN also owned the rights to many different software applications including the JAVA programming language which it had developed.


One of the reasons SUN was failing to turn a profit on any of it's technology portfolio was due to its stance on open sourcing everything it had to offer. MySQL, VirtualBox, and Solaris were just a few of titles which anyone could freely download an use. Sure, they did make some revenue off of these products through support contracts but for the most part they were not able to turn a profit. The CEO was a big open source software advocate and helped propagate this philosophy throughout the company regardless of the outcome. Open source supporters such as myself loved this way of thinking and took full advantage of all the free software SUN had to offer. Paying for a database, operating system, or even an office suite was not necessary because SUN would give you all of these things and more, best of all, it was 100% free of charge.

SUN hardware was another key component in the companies technology offerings. Although the hardware was not free the company did offer affordable solutions for SPARC and x86 architectures. This hardware coupled with technologies such as Solaris were very reliable and a popular platform choice for mission critical enterprise applications. Despite having a good product the company continued to post fiscal losses every quarter. This drove some people to become skeptical about the company and it's products which in turn lost them even more revenue and ultimately led to their downfall.


On April 20, 2009 SUN Microsystems was purchased by the Oracle corporation for 7.4 billion dollars. That day marks the moment in time where the SUN began to set in the technology world. The events that followed would signify the end of an era and the transformation from free to far from it.

Following the announcement of Oracle's intent to purchase SUN a long drawn out anti-trust debacle was off and running. The United States had given the okay for the Oracle purchase the European Union was another story all together. The European commission was crying foul over Oracle possibly owning MySQL and a lengthy anti-trust investigation. During this time MySQL cofounder Michael "Monty" Widenius plead to the EU to block the merger even going as far as starting the Help MySQL petition.

The drawn out litigation in Europe made SUN customers even more nervous. Companies such as HP and IBM started offering extremely generous discounts to current SUN customers for trading in their hardware and switching to one of the systems they offered. IBM had previously been in talks with SUN about purchasing them and probably felt jilted when Oracle came in out of nowhere and bought the company out from under them. These competitive activities were impacting company revenues and driving them even lower than they currently were. Along with the fact that Oracle could not do anything to stop them because the merger had not yet been completed.

The EU commission finally handed down the ruling in favor of Oracle in January of 2010. Almost a year after the initial announcement it was finally official and the EU had been defeated by the lawyers working for the Oracle corporation. Following the announcement Oracle began attempting to reassure the remaining SUN customer base and fired up the PR machine into high gear.


After having a few months to get it's image corrected and business strategy developed the inevitable end starts to begin. Open source supporters knew that Oracle did not operate like SUN what so ever. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison rules with an iron fist and squeezes every penny out of every product in their portfolio. This philosophy is worlds away from the SUN community driven process.

Products that overlapped began to get eliminated and large amounts of skepticism were surrounding the hardware business and Solaris operating system. Oracle already had an operating system Oracle Unbreakable Linux. Their Linux distrobution was nothing more than a copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux that had a few splash screens and config files rebranded. The fact that they had already been selling and supporting Linux made Solaris look like a dying breed. Product road maps and company representatives promising that was not the case was the only thing keeping Solaris supporters hopeful.

Open Solaris however was another story entirely. Open Solaris was the community driven version of Solaris that was typically the testing ground for features that would eventually be merged into the main line Solaris distrobution. Since Open Solaris was considered one of the many open source offerings it had to be euthenized. Open Solaris was a community driven collaboration but the community required participation from Oracle. The Open Solaris Governing Board had been attempting to work with it's new parent company but had been unsuccessful. This lead to the OGB delivering an ultimatum to Oracle for appointing a new liaison by August 16, 2010 to work collaboratively with them. Oracle continued to treat the OGB as though they didn't exist and ultimately was able to kill off Open Solaris for the most part when the OGB disbanded out of protest.

While the Open Solaris project was dealing with the cold shoulder Oracle was busy working toward maximizing profits. The Solaris operating system was open sourced by SUN Microsystems. That meant anyone who felt like it could download and run Solaris UNIX on their own systems without paying any royalty fees. Oracle looked to change that and did so successfully when they quietly modified the Solaris terms of use. The new terms stated that you could download and use Solaris for a period of 90 days after which you would need to purchase a service contract from Oracle. Along with the 90 day limitation you were also no longer allowed access to security patches without paying for a service agreement. This move was the death blow to anyone using Solaris as if it was still free. You had to cough up money to run the operating system or find yourself out of compliance and unable to update your system.


The new philosophy of Oracle was not well received and important people began to run away from the company. Key employees from SUN were now leaving for greener pastures. People such as the father of ZFS Jeff Bonwick, DTrace co creator Bryan Cantrill, Lead Solaris developer Greg Lavender, and even James Gosling the "Father of Java". It seemed like every week another former SUN employee was leaving Oracle. The stories were somewhat vague but they all seemed to have one thing in common which was a conflict of interest in the direction and management of the company.

Oracle was out to do whatever it wanted. It began renaming and re-branding the SUN products as quick as possible. It was also working on killing off the sun websites and migrating everyone to These things are to be expected but the actions did not come without consequences. Worried about getting everything renamed and not having the foresight to investigate possible problems or document changes they wound up with a bunch of angry developers on their hands. Oracle pushed out a java update which renamed the company and subsequently broke the Eclipse development program

Java was the real prize in the eyes of Oracle. The "misuse" of JAVA by google was considered a lawsuit that would result in a large financial gain. James Gosling was quoted as saying the lawyers eyes lit up when the situation was discussed. Mr. Gosling also attempted to start a Free Java movement but it would not matter in the end. Oracle forces its way forward despite anyone trying to stand in their way.

Oracle's proprietary tactics had created quite a few enemies in the open source world. One of which was an extremely large and influential group called the Apache Software Foundation. The JAVA language was guided by a community of collaborators. The Java Community Process JCP was headed up by the executive committee who would vote on the direction of the new releases and features. Oracle refused to grant the a TCK license for the ASF project Harmony. Apache unsuccessfully voted against Oracles proposed direction for JAVA and finally got fed up resigning their JCP seat.

Sound familiar? It should, it is the exact same tactics that Oracle used to eliminate the Open Solaris governing board. Refusing to be open minded and taking the my way or the high way approach. The sad thing here is that it seems to be working just fine for them. After snubbing Apache's request for a license for project Harmony things got interesting. In a move that most people did not see coming Oracle announced they were teaming up with IBM on OpenJDK . IBM was previously part of project Harmony which allowed Oracle to strong arm them into complying and participating. Two birds with one stone, they snubbed ASF and stole one of their supporters in IBM. Project Harmony is Android friendly which is most likely the driving force behind Oracles dastardly tactics.


Now that most of the pesky open source projects that SUN was supporting have been monetized or killed what does the future hold? Projects such as Virtual Box, Open Office, and MySQL will most likely be next. One way or another Oracle will find a way to profit from them or at the very least control to such an extend that nobody wants to use them. Watching the SUN set has been truly sad for open source supporters. It is amazing that a company which boasts so many open source projects can just go out and kill off entire communities and strong arm everyone else into submission. They have truly had their cake and proceeded to eat it as well. They have been able to walk the fine line balancing between the open source world and their own proprietary mission.

So what now? The worst part of this entire process was witnessing how open source has evolved to the point of being a threat. Then systematically being defeated by a hard nosed company out to make money on every angle possible. I would not be surprised to see their website migrated to a pay per view model. The game plan worked flawlessly which allowed them to take over ownership of intellectual properties and then eliminating entire communities that were set up to help control the direction of the future. Amazing how the open source projects and collaborators were squeezed to death as though a giant anaconda was constricting them until they could no longer breath and function. What will the next move be in this epic battle of proprietary vs. free? Only the future knows but I can guarantee whatever happens will be beneficial to Oracle one way or another.


  1. Wonderfull writeup.Thanks a bunch!!

  2. I don't know that the end is quite so bleak. If it comes to Oracle vs Google, I'd be very surprised to see Google lose.

  3. The good thing is that Sun put JAVA under GPL one day in the past. So I wonder why Google, ASF and other Open Source leaders like Red Hat do not build an open test suite for Open Java. What do you think will be the defacto Java standard if this would happen ...