Open source cuts across Sun's growth strategy

Company says it made more money from releasing Solaris source codes, and is now focused on open source as integral part of its strategy.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

NEW YORK--The open source route has generated more money for Sun Microsystems than before, says its open source chief, and staying on this path will be central to the company's growth strategy.

Sun made more money from Solaris today than it did four years ago after it moved the server platform to an open source model, said Simon Phipps, the company's chief open source officer.

"OpenSolaris has been very profitable for us," Phipps said, during a meeting with reporters at the Sun CommunityOne developer conference here Wednesday. The profits have come primarily from offering the platform on a subscription model, he said, which provides its customers a range of services including technical support, default resolution, code maintenance, warranty and legal indemnity.

He noted that Sun is focused on ensuring its open source initiatives are money-making ventures.

"We don't get involved in open source as an act of philanthropy," he said, adding that almost every company that is involved in open source does so with a commercial objective. And Sun is no exception, Phipps said, noting that the company's open source initiatives are closely aligned with its business priorities.

Analysts had previously questioned Sun's ability to make money from its open source ventures.

Sun, in fact, has made open source integral to its growth strategy following a corporate restructure in November 2008, which saw the formation of three business units: systems, applications and cloud.

Phipps noted that open source is the underlying principal, with all three units instructed to closely tie their roadmaps to open source. Cloud, for instance, focuses strongly on open source tools and communities, while Sun's applications including Java, MySQL and GlassFish, are made available on an open source model.

Opportune time to go open
According to Wilvin Chee, IDC's Asia-Pacific director of software research, the bleak economic landscape presents a great opportunity for open source players as businesses start looking at ways to stretch their resources.

Chee said in a phone interview: "When times are bad, many companies are pushed to a corner and need to then make decisions [on how to manage their cost]. In this economic gloom, open source will become more than a passing interest for companies.

"When it comes to IT infrastructure, open source pops up as an alternative and this allows champions like Red Hat and Sun, to come out and talk to these companies."

The time is ripe, he said, for these players to beef up their marketing campaigns, increase their mindshare and differentiate themselves in the market.

However, the challenge Sun, and other open source vendors face is converting non-paying users to become paying users, noted Chee. "There are many open source software users out there, but they're not necessarily people who are paying for software services," he said.

"The economic conditions set a better platform for Sun to make a stronger impression," the IDC analyst added, noting that the IT vendor's move to make its technology open source is a right step forward. "Making all of it open source gives Sun an opportunity to encourage developer interest and sustain development work on these platforms, like Java, OpenSolaris ad GlassFish, which are key software components."

Developers want to be able to reduce costs associated with application development, and to easily access the tools--whether it is the middeware, OS or database platform--they need to do so, he said. If Sun is able to provide that need, and be a feasible option for developers, it will then differentiate itself from the competitors, he said.

Phipps, who once acknowledged that Sun had alienated open source developers, said the company has made significant progress since embarking on its open source roadmap.

"We're involved in over 750 open source projects, and chances are, there are bound to be some conflicts with one or two groups within the community," he said. "But I would say generally, we have a good relationship with open source developers and are regarded as a big contributor to the community."

Eileen Yu of ZDNet Asia reported from Sun Microsystems' CommunityOne developer conference in New York, USA.

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