OpenSolaris one year on: Success or failure?

In June 2005, Sun Microsystems released core elements of its flagship Solaris operating system as open source software, making public more than five million lines of code. The announcement sparked intense interest among developers.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor
In June 2005, Sun Microsystems released core elements of its flagship Solaris operating system as open source software, making public more than five million lines of code. The announcement sparked intense interest among developers. But, one year on, are the structures governing the OpenSolaris project fully in place and has the community embraced the offering?

Evidence on the latter front is promising, with Sun's own statistics showing OpenSolaris could already be one of the world's largest open source projects. Since June last year, more than 13,600 people have signed up to be involved in the development of OpenSolaris through the project's Web site, according to Sun's Australia and New Zealand Solaris product manager James Eagleton.

Of that number, Eagleton told ZDNet Australia in a recent telephone interview, just 1,400 were Sun employees.

While interest is high, the governance framework within which the project operates is still in development. Project leaders have signed off on a charter document broadly defining its structure, and a community advisory board of both Sun employees and external interested parties has been appointed. A more detailed constitution is also in the works.

"That's being worked on right now -- the community's all working on the constitution," said Eagleton, adding he thought the document would deal with any governance issues associated with the project.

In addition, Sun is yet to release some aspects of Solaris as open source software, although that process is due for completion by the year's end.

Meanwhile, non-Sun programmers have to date offered some 165 code contributions to the OpenSolaris project, said Eagleton. Of those, 70 have been accepted into the project's code base, while another 95 are still in the review process.

To allay early community concerns that the process of getting external code contributions accepted was taking too long, Sun has a temporary buddy system whereby external contributors are partnered with Sun employees.

"Over time we'll transfer those skills back out to the wider community and there won't be a need for it, but to get it happening, and happening quickly, we're kind of buddying that up," said Eagleton.

Eagleton is confident his company's initial moves have done much to increase developer interest in the platform.

"It was an accelerant -- like pouring kerosene on a fire," he said. "The level of interaction and discussion, and the level of innovation around Solaris has really taken off."

As an example, Eagleton cited recent cooperation between Sun and the wider programmer community that occurred at the LinuxWorld Australia conference.

Sun kernel engineer Alan Hargreaves collaborated with Andrew Tridgell on a Solaris-oriented bug fix for the popular Samba file sharing and printing suite.

"I could see these guys together on the stand, just working feverishly and really excitedly getting a lot out of working together," said Eagleton. "And that excitement's the type of thing that from the developers wouldn't have happened previous to us being able to open source Solaris."

The external view
United Kingdom-based systems administer Peter Tribble, who has been involved with OpenSolaris as an external contributor, said he had found Sun's open source move "phenomenally useful".

"It's not just the code, although being able to see exactly what the source is doing can be very helpful when analysing a problem," he told ZDNet Australia via e-mail last week. "The really big thing is the community that allows direct interaction with the Sun engineers who designed and wrote the software we use."

Tribble said Solaris' new open nature meant system administrators like him could help guide the development of the operating system they relied upon.

As a code contributor, Tribble said it was very easy to get contributions accepted into the OpenSolaris code base, "provided you're patient". "The sponsor [or buddy] system is essential from a procedural point of view," he said.

"External contributors don't have the ability to directly update the master source at all, as that's still hosted inside Sun. One way of looking at this is that, for simple cases, we work on the code, and the sponsor does the paperwork."

Tribble said there were a number of bite-sized bugs that new contributors could cut their teeth on, as a way to learn the process.

"In more complex cases, the sponsor will offer coding suggestions, arrange code review, arrange for any tests that need to be run, and where there are changes to the way the code works, manage the ARC review [architectural review] process. All the time acting as a liaison with us contributors," he said.

"It works very well, although it must be a lot of work for the sponsors," Tribble continued.

Overall, Tribble said although he wasn't familiar with the management of other open source projects, he was of the opinion that OpenSolaris was being managed well.

"Certainly, when it was first mooted, many of us were worried that Solaris' traditional values of stability, compatibility, and correctness would be compromised, and that hasn't happened," he said.

"The transition into the open source world has continued steadily, but safely."

"There isn't really much of a management structure, at least not that I can see," he added. "Clearly Sun has huge input -- but that's only right, as it's their code to start with, and they're putting in most of the resources at the moment -- so we're not really self-governing yet."

"The project has -- in my view anyway -- been extremely successful in keeping to the original Solaris ethos while developing a strong OpenSolaris community."

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