How Sun's need to control the code cost them the company

How Sun's need to control the code cost them the company

Summary: Sun was the poster child of a company trying to retain complete control over everything they released into Open Source, and Sun vs. the Linux world was a wonderful example of the weakness of proprietary licensing versus the GPL and decentralized development model.


[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not those of Google, Inc. my current employer.]

If you click on, you get redirected to Sun is no more. The network is no longer the computer. The “Dot” in .COM is now a database. I'm really sorry to see Sun go. I have a long and varied history with Sun. What went wrong ?

I joined Sun in 1989, fresh from a System Administration job at Manchester University. I was so excited. Finally, I was going to get the chance to see the inside of “real” UNIX ! No more Minix hacking for me, I was finally going to get the chance to see and work on the source code for a real UNIX operating system. I wasn't disappointed. It was incredibly sophisticated, with a virtual memory system, a working network file system (NFS) and a state of the art graphical user interface (SunView). It was one of the most advanced systems available at the time.

The difference between Sun systems and everything else out there in the late 1980's (mostly Novell Netware or Microsoft LAN Manager networks) is that Sun networks “just worked”,  all the time. I remember visiting remote Sun offices in the UK, and just being able to log in wherever I was and have all my files and work environment automatically available via the Network File System (NFS) auto mounter and directory services available via Sun's Network Information Service (NIS/Yellow Pages). One morning I was outraged when Sun network operations informed me my home directory and work environment wouldn't be available until that afternoon due to a network outage. I was so spoiled, I didn't even realize such things were extremely rare outside the cozy world inside Sun.

I took a job on the Sun “hotline”, the most technical job available to engineers working for Sun in the UK. We were a hard drinking, hard partying bunch, who prided ourselves on the number of technical customer calls we could fix per day. I'm still friends with a few of the engineers I met there, they were a technical group with extraordinary skills. The UK hotline prepared me for the job that brought me to the US, working for Sun Corporate Technical Escalations (CTE) Group, whose job it was to prepare the front line code fixes sent to Sun customers reporting bugs in the software.

So why did Sun die ? Partly it was their custom designed hardware that couldn't keep up with the immense commodity power of Intel and the x86 clones. Even in the early 1990's there were warning signs when Sun canceled the replacement for their early foray into x86 hardware, the Sun386i. Rumor had it that the Sun 486i was canceled when early benchmarks showed it out performing the Sun-designed SPARC chips of the time, which upset the “all the wood behind one arrowhead” slogan that was Sun's credo around their own SPARC processor design.

But in the long run it was the software that ended up being unable to compete.

Linux systems from Red Hat and others ate Sun up from the inside out, by colonizing their customer base. Sun vs. the Linux world is a wonderful example of the weakness of proprietary licensing and trying to maintain control over software versus the GNU General Public License (GPL) and decentralized development model that Linux uses.

Sun was originally born from a combination of BSD-licensed and proprietary code. The BSD UNIX system was built on top of AT&T's original proprietary UNIX code. The first version of the SunOS operating system was licensed from this version of UNIX, and one of Sun's founding software engineers, Bill Joy, was one of the original creators of BSD UNIX. BSD-licensed code is available to be used freely by anyone without restrictions, and Sun took full advantage of this. Sun didn't give back any changes to the BSD parts of the code, but kept most of their changes proprietary. Occasionally they would release something to the “community” they came from. The Open Network Computing/Remote Procedure Call (ONC/RPC) code that was the underlying technology for NFS was one such thing. But most of the kernel changes and enhancements they made were kept hidden.

That's not to say they never gave anything back to the Open Source/Free Software community. On the contrary, Sun CEO Scott McNealy claimed repeatedly that “We're the largest contributor to open-source on the planet”. The problem was never the size of the contribution (which was indeed large by the end of Sun's life). The problem was that the contributions were always on their own terms. Sun was the poster child of a company trying to retain complete control over everything they released into Open Source.

Most of their released code was essentially just dumped over the proprietary wall. The idea that others may have had contributions they wanted to make to the code that had been opened was never even considered. Originally there were no Free Software projects run from within Sun; the attitude was always “how generous we are to show you our amazing code.” After Linux became popular, they tried to adopt a community-friendly attitude.

The Solaris operating system, the Java language and virtual machine, the OpenOffice office suite -- all of the really large software projects that Sun released -- had strings attached that stopped any real external community from forming around the code. Usually it was the demand that any code contributions be contributed directly to Sun for their own use in proprietary products that was the major failing of all the Sun “community” projects. Poor licensing choices, demands for ownership of all contributors work, ignoring contributors outside of Sun, all of these can be blamed for Sun's inability to maintain active coding communities around their Open Source code, but in the end it comes down to the desire to maintain control and ownership of the code at all costs. People are smart enough to understand when they're being taken advantage of, especially programmers.

This desire for control cost them dearly. When my own Free Software project, Samba, was first released, SunOS and Sun Solaris were the major platforms people wanted to run our code on. Once Linux got networking code added to the kernel, people started to move Samba servers over from Solaris to Linux. The control of your own destiny and the freedom that people got from Linux was the main advantage, even though the Linux kernel didn't work as well as Solaris did at the time. Other Free Software projects tell similar stories about the Solaris to Linux migration.

Real Free Software projects like Linux completely give up centralized control and ownership, in favor of a decentralized model that means contributors keep ownership and see direct benefits to participation, with no one party being able to take advantage over others.

Linux the operating system project completely confused Sun, even the Sun engineers, who you would have thought at least understood what Linux was trying to do. The best example of this is the wonderful email exchange between Linux kernel hacker David Miller, who at the time was one of the Linux Sparc maintainers, and Bryan Cantrill, a Solaris engineer. It's worth quoting:

David Miller wrote (at the end of a long email explaining how Sparc Linux used cache optimizations to beat Solaris on performance):

“One final note. When you have to deal with SunSOFT to report a bug, how "important" do you have (ie. Fortune 500?) to be and how big of a customer do you have to be (multi million dollar purchases?) to get direct access to Sun's Engineers at Sun Quentin?  With Linux, all you have to do is send me or one of the other SparcLinux hackers an email and we will attend to your bug in due time.  We have too much pride in our system to ignore you and not fix the bug.”

To which Bryan Cantrill replied with this amazing retort:

“Have you ever kissed a girl?”

Talk about missing the point and underestimating the competition. You can read the entire exchange.

Of course that's not the only reason for Sun's failure. By the end of Sun's life in the early 2000's the management was bad. No, that's not true. The management was very bad. But it was caught in an untenable situation trying to compete with Free Software.

What could Sun have done ? Was there any path that could have left them successful in a world of widespread Linux and Free Software ? It's not clear. Sun is the classic case of Clayton Christensen's book “The Innovator's Dilemma”. The disruptive force of Linux left them unable to compete, with their high priced product that didn't have enough advantages over the community developed project to get people to pay for it. Oracle did them a kindness, and has picked up some very talented engineers. The interesting thing to observe now will be if Oracle (who is already a Linux vendor) takes the valuable parts of Solaris and adds them to Linux, or tries to resurrect Sun's failed Solaris business model and throws more money onto the fire.

I'm betting Larry Ellison is too smart to do that, and at last Sun has some good management. R.I.P. Sun Microsystems, I'll miss you.

Topics: Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Oracle, Servers, Software

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  • So true, Sun could have been so much more. Are you working on the SAMBA

    integration with Chrome-OS to make it completely
  • @Jeremy: Is getting ongoing API docs from MS for SMB2?

    Or was the documentation strictly for SMB (circa EC vs MS Antitrust)?

    Good story. Thanks.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz
    • Yes we're getting SMB2 docs.

      I was working with Microsoft engineers at Connectathon ( last week doing SMB2 interop testing. Lots of bugs left to fix though :-).

  • you forgot the main reason for Sun's decline

    It was less about Linux and FOSS but rather the monopolistic practices of M$ that sucked up the oxygen needed to compete.
    Linux Geek
    • Companies like Sun and Novell....

      gave MS all the oxygen. MS did not take it. Novell's NOS was the best ever written. But their company practices, their lack of marketing, making it so hard for the average reseller to distribute their product and a myriad of other blunders basically pushed the market to MS. Sun was the same way. The only reason MS has a monopoly is because the competition had no idea how to market what they had no idea or the wrong idea on how to be competitive. MS's competition destroyed itself.
      • that's so not true

        It is not only my opinion, but the DOJ's antitrust action and several successfull lawsuits that followed, support my conclusion not yours.
        Linux Geek
        • I disagree.

          Microsoft certainly didn't help, but they weren't the sole cause of Sun's demise. Most of the problems were self-inflicted wounds (IMHO).

          • Listen to him Linux Geek

            He knows way more than you ever will and he knows how to spell too.
          • These Contra Hominem Attacks Add Nothing

            and certainly make no reason to take [u]you[/u] seriously.
        • Customers were free to choose....

          and they chose MS. MS did not force them. The DOJ only determined MS to be a monopoly but not how they got there. They got there because of other companies dropping the ball just like I stated before. MS beat them in the market because of better stratagies and including marketing. MS held no gun to anyone's head. Novell and Sun are both responsible for their downfalls. They could not play in the market and they shot themselves in the foot.

          MS may have been adjudicated a monopoly. And that is all the DOJ determined. but Sun and Novell gave them that monopoly because of their own lack of market skills. I still believe Netware to be the best NOS ever written but Novell choked in handling the product. Thus giving MS the market and the monopoly.
          • I don't think you understand monopolies

            You say [i]"MS held no gun to anyone's head."[/i]

            Well, not a physical one. It just prevented hardware vendors from distributing competing technologies under threat of higher prices for them, which would have actually killed or badly hurt such vendors.

            They could do that because of their monopoly.
          • But not until...

            ...they had the market sewn up, which didn't happen until the competition had fumbled the ball dozens of times, giving the game to MS.
            Dr. John
          • Hardware companies have been selling Linux on servers for over a decade

            OSX was able to gain share on the desktop against
            Windows, so why hasn't Linux?

            Excuses Excuses Excuses. That's all Linux
            advocates give you.

            At the end of the day your software has serious
            problems if you can't give it away.
          • lol

            ... priceless.

            In reality, a couple of the biggest advantages with linux are also the biggest disadvantages.

            1. Too much choice. MS has a standard, good or bad, which people get. How many distro's, and versions of distro's incompatible in some way with each other do people need? Apple gets this.

            2. Free is percieved as having no value. Additionally, business realies on value, and supporting companies need value to exist. What people use in Business and education usually translates into what they are confortable with at home.(In Melbourne, where I live, finding a competant linux tech is both expensive and frustrating, and inevitably wants to reinstall everything 'their way'). Apple really gets this.

            3. No user, should ever, ever have to touch a command line. Ever. It may be more powerful, it may allow for inifinte possibilities, however infinite isn't ncessary. If they do, it's not suitable for mass consumption ... period. Apple also gets this.

            I run MS, Ubunto and Apple software (well, osX86) and i like them all for different reasons. OS of choice - Win7. Why, cause it just works, and requires minimal thought, and runs everything i need.

            For these reasons, Linux will stay in obscurity (on the desktop). However, if all the competiting linux guys actually got together, Microsoft would have a fight on it's hands. Critical mass is required ... without it, it's just a play-thing.

            (not meaning to offend anyone, just the way I see it)
          • No, you dont understand

            Nobody prevented Apple, Sun or anybody else from making a competing product. If that were true, we wouldnt have OSX, Solaris, and Linux.

            And if MS's terms were so bad, why did the hardware vendors accept them?
        • MS Troll

          You can slide back under your rock now. You have sullied Linux once again. MS thanks you.
          • moron!

            if you can't figure out what so many courts affirmed you are a MORON.
            and most people like you are OSX/windoze worshipers.
            Linux Geek
      • The oxygen...

        was the 1 billion dollars per month going out of the market into Bill's pocket. That kind of money gave them a FUD power factor adequate to bury any technology, any competitor, unless Bill said leave them alone.
        This FUD alone accounts decently for the worldwide switch to useless Micro$ networks instead of better systems.
        You can't market your way past the customer perception that you are done the minute Micro$ says you are done.
        • MS marketed their products.

          They never delivered FUD against any competitor. They simply marketed theirs. While the competition had no market strategy. MS's competition buried themselves. When you have a superior product such as Netware but can't develop and keep market share it is not the competitions fault. It's your own. Novell and Sun have no one to blame but themselves for their failures.
          • The secret to Microsoft's success

            was user ignorance and apathy of the EULA. That was the marketing method introduced to the world by none other than Microsoft. Selling an ethereal product repeatedly while maintaining complete control of use and distribution of said product, rendering virtual control of the market.

            Other important nuances may be found by reading the book about Microsoft's foundation, "Barbarians Led By Bill Gates".


            Barbarians Led by Bill Gates
            How has Microsoft been able to crush its competition every step of the way? The company's own version of history ascribes it to something like "really great technical innovation." Barbarians Led by Bill Gates presents a harsher and messier history, sharply questioning Microsoft's ethics and corporate wisdom while underscoring its fierce will to compete.
            Ole Man