Sun hands Cobalt an open-source lifeline

Cobalt devotees were given a Christmas present by Sun Microsystems, it has emerged: source code for the user interface and back-end custom code for the server appliances

The Cobalt community was handed a lifeline on Christmas Eve when Sun Microsystems released the Cobalt code under an open-source licence.

The release means that all the custom user interface and back-end code for the Qube 3 and RaQ 550 server appliances is now available under a BSD-style licence. Also, the custom BIOS for all x86-based RaQ/Qube products -- which, among other things, let an administrator tap in the device's network settings without having to plug in a keyboard and monitor -- have been released under the GNU Public License.

Although the Cobalt servers are based on the Linux operating system, which is open source anyway, it is the custom code that gave the servers their appliance-like ease of use. As ISPs and companies hosting Web sites warmed to the Cobalt servers in the late 1990s, Sun Microsystems, whose big, support-heavy servers were losing space to rack-fulls of cheap, almost disposable Cobalt Raqs, Sun bought the company for $2.2bn (£1.2bn) in 2000.

However, say critics, Sun faced a number of issues, including a clash of cultures and indecisiveness over how to support a Linux server operating system alongside Solaris. Late last month, Sun laid the Cobalt experiment to rest as it relegated the remaining Cobalt appliance -- the Raq550 -- to an end-of-life product.

The source code for the distinctive Cobalt Qube servers, which found homes in many small businesses as easy-to-set-up Web and email servers, was released in July 2003 and is now maintained under the Blue Quartz moniker.

The BIOS is now being maintained by Sun engineer Duncan Laurie in a personal capacity at developer site SourceForge. Meanwhile the user interface code is hosted at the Japan-based Cobalt Users Group. "The Cobalt Users Group will continue to participate in the deployment of the all of Cobalt-based software including the porting tasks to 550 based Blue Quartz system," wrote Yutaka Yasuda on the site. "The 550 series has been discontinued and no development plan exists for a new product which inherits Cobalt DNA. However, the Cobalt DNA will survive."

The Cobalt Users Group is an active community demonstrating the passion that Cobalt users harbour for the products. Cobalt-branded merchandise on the group's site ranges from SKYY Vodka to beach sandals, which leave the Cobalt logo imprinted in the sand, and an official user group t-shirt: "It has a big C logo on the back and URL on the sleeve. And on the front, COBALT USERS GROUP name is. Wow!"

Cobalt servers aroused a passion among their users rarely shared by any IT kit produced outside Apple, and inspired a number of imitators. Typically, the servers came pre-configured with the Apache Web server, PHP4 and the MySQL database, as well and DNS and email software. In 1999, a group of Cobalt employees set up the to host extra applications, such as WebMail, that had been "packaged" in a way that let Cobalt users install them from their appliance with a few clicks of a mouse.