The catch in 'free' Solaris 8

It's not quite free - or open. Sure, you can use the Solaris 8 code for free, minus $75 shipping, but all modifications go through Sun

Although Sun Microsystems downplayed "Free Solaris" programs during the Solaris 8 launch Wednesday in New York City, it was Sun's licensing terms that most interested the financial analysts and journalists in attendance.

Executives at Sun were careful to avoid linking the new Solaris 8 licencing terms to Sun's maligned Sun Community Source License (SCSL). Sun had been working for more than a year to offer Solaris under SCSL but was stymied by the fact that it didn't own all the intellectual property inside Solaris.

It also was stung by criticism from open-source advocates that Sun was attempting to pass off SCSL as the equivalent of GPL, the Gnu Public Licence. SCSL required developers to return bug fixes to Sun, maintain compatibility and pay fees to Sun when they ship binaries based on Sun source code.

Instead, on Wednesday Sun created a new, separate category to cover Solaris source and binary (aka runtime) licences. These new licences are just two of a growing number of different types of software licences that Sun will offer in the coming months.

On the source side, Sun is making Solaris free to education, research, appliance and telco OEMs and interested software vendors. Source licensors can evaluate, examine and use the code for free, paying $75 (£46) for the media kit and shipping only. But any modifications made to the Solaris 8 source may be shared with others only if they are relayed through Sun.

On the binary side, Sun is offering two "Free Solaris" options.

Source-code licensors may generate binary copies of standard Solaris 8 from the source code but must meet daunting criteria in order to redistribute modified binaries outside the licensor's organisation: A licensor must enter a formal agreement with Sun, which may stipulate royalty payments; obtain "backline" and source-code support contracts from Sun; provide Sun with documentation (and training, if needed) about the changes made to the Solaris 8 source code; and maintain interoperability and compatibility -- measured by Sun's compatibility test -- with the standard version of Solaris throughout the product's lifetime.

Or, via the Free Solaris Binary Licence, Sun is offering interested parties free use of Solaris 8 on systems with eight or fewer processors. Again, a $75 media charge is levied. Binary licensors also get a free development licence of Oracle's 8I, iPlanet software and a free copy of Sun's StarOffice desktop suite.

Sound a lot more complicated than plain, old open-source? It is. But complications didn't stop Sun's competitors from poking holes in Sun's "free" pitch.

"We've been offering AIX for free for a number of years," said Miles Barel, program director of Unix brand marketing for IBM's enterprise systems group. "Sun's just trying to create confusion about what's going on in the Linux community. You still need to pay Sun to resell the code. And it's not clear you get the whole (Solaris) code anyway.

"They made the source code visible but not available," added Barel, who acknowledged that IBM considered a similar scheme. Instead, IBM is now negotiating with the open-source community -- the keeper of the Linux source-code flame, Linus Torvalds, himself, IBM claims -- regarding AIX components that IBM might provide to the Linux community.

Sun archrival Microsoft -- which was the butt of many of Sun's jabs at the Solaris 8 launch -- likewise picked apart Sun's strategy.

"Sun's operating-system prices have always been part of the system price, anyways," said Chris Ray, product manager of Windows 2000 for Microsoft. "They're still talking about charging lots of money for add-ons like clustering, which can cost more than $50,000 per node in some cases."

Sun acknowledged during the Solaris 8 launch that it will, indeed, charge for "add-ons" like its New Moon Version 3 clustering software, which it plans to ship within the next few months. But Sun won't charge for client-access licences like Microsoft and Novell do, Sun officials emphasised. Solaris will continue to offer unlimited client, multi-user support as part of the Solaris server base fee.

"You make money on services," explains Sun President and Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander. "Things like support and consulting contracts. We're moving Solaris from an up-front-fee to back-end-services" play, he said. Other Sun officials acknowledged that the free licences introduced Wednesday are aimed primarily for internal commercial use and development, not for enterprises attempting to run their businesses.

Sun will begin shipping Solaris 8 commercially on March 5. Media kits for Free Solaris versions will be available later in the spring.

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