UNIX - Let's get together and feel all right

People have often accused me of dreaming too much and not having my thoughts anchored in reality, particularly in this world of multi-billion dollar technology companies and big business, when huge amounts of money are at stake and every competitor is vying for the top spot.In the world of high-end enterprise systems, that top spot - the world of large symmetrical processing UNIX systems - is divided between the tier 1 systems vendors - IBM, Sun and HP.

Unix ‘Mon!
People have often accused me of dreaming too much and not having my thoughts anchored in reality, particularly in this world of multi-billion dollar technology companies and big business, when huge amounts of money are at stake and every competitor is vying for the top spot.

In the world of high-end enterprise systems, that top spot - the world of large symmetrical processing UNIX systems - is divided between the tier 1 systems vendors - IBM, Sun and HP. All of these have their own proprietary architectures - IBM has POWER with AIX, Sun has SPARC and Niagara with Solaris, and HP has the PA-RISC and Itanium platforms with HP-UX. Only two of these vendors, IBM and HP, are able to run enterprise-supported versions of Linux in addition to their proprietary Unixes on their native platforms, although Sun has experimented in the recent past with Ubuntu on their Niagra chip, a relationship which seems to be waning.

Back in the olden days of yore, when the earth was still new, there was one version of UNIX - AT&T's. Much like the current days of Open Source, this code was shared freely among vendors, and the systems were largely source compatible with each other, until the vendors decided to all go their separate ways and rule over their own feudal computing ecosystems. Fast forward 40 years later, and you have the situation where we are today, where many incompatible versions of UNIX now exist and an independent, rogue cousin -- which shares no lineage with UNIX despite having shared ideology and ported applications -- is now nipping at their heels for the same market share.

It has always been a dream of mine to see UNIX re-united within my professional lifetime into a single, standardized "mother" distribution. It could be argued that Linux displaces the need for UNIX, but as I have said before, commodity and utility computing will never fully displace enterprise-class systems. But it makes sense that they should be source compatible and migrating applications and code should be as easy as flipping a compiler switch or spitting out build packages with something like OpenSUSE Build Service. In an ideal world, there should be no such thing as a "Solaris-ism" or "AIX-ism" or "Linux-ism" or any kind of "ism" that inhibits code migration and application portability. Like the Linux Standard Base, which aspires to standardize the base distribution by which all Linux distributions are to conform to, the same should hold true of UNIX. POSIX -tried- to accomplish this, but proprietary OS extensions and varying platform differences effectively neutralized its effectiveness as a UNIX standard.

However, it seems, 40 years after the first AT&T UNIX release, there is a glimpse of hope that "Unixfication" may again be realized. At the most recent Oreilly MySQL Conference and Expo, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz discussed in his keynote the willingness of his company to further cooperate with the Open Source community and move more of their proprietary CDDL licensed material into GPL, the most predominant of the OSI-approved licenses. According to a trusted source and a significant community contributor who attended the keynote, it is my understanding that after completing his speech, Mr. Schwartz engaged in "locker room" chit-chat with members of the audience and discussed the possibility of moving projects such as Solaris into GPL2. Naturally, I asked Jonathan to clarify his comments, and this is what he said:

"Glassfish is dual licensed - CDDL and GPL. And as you're aware, MySQL is GPL(2), as is the Java (runtime) platform itself. So three very big components of what'd be a complete OpenSolaris platform are available to the broader GPL community.

My point was that Rich is considering making other portions of our "CDDL only" portfolio available to the GPL community - including elements like ZFS, which are today in BSD, OpenSolaris, etc., but not Linux. (Executive Vice President, Software) Rich Green is leading the charge..."

Now, of course, I would like to see some real commitments from Sun to actually address the fate of the CDDL and whether or not -all- of their major Open Source assets are up for grabs here rather than using couched and squirrelly double-speak. It is no secret to anyone who has followed my writings that I have always disliked the CDDL , because of the parallel "Mirror Mirror" universe it creates which divides OpenSolaris and Linux developers. Eliminating it altogether and embracing GPL2 would be a first step in uniting the Unix and Linux platforms -- because without any licensing barriers, it would allow the two systems to organically cross-pollinate each other, share code -- and dare I say it -- eventually merge.

Once Solaris is GPLed, it will be only natural, in my opinion, for the other major UNIX vendors to follow suit, which would bring about the eventual platform unification through cross-pollination. However, another well known advocate of Unixfication, Eric S. Raymond, who is one of the authors of the Open Source definition and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, doesn't necessarily agree with me:

"The problem with changing the licensing on a huge project like AIX or HPUX is that due diligence requires you to do an audit for 3rd-party IP claims first.

That's an extremely expensive and time-consuming proposition -- so much so that it may just be easier (for IBM, in particular) to move to Linux and let the proprietary-Unix code quietly expire. " The AIX kernel core is fairly old at this point; and given the breadth of Linux driver support, it seems unlikely that they need to salvage anything from the driver set. Heck, Linux even has support for stuff like DASD and magnetic tapes. And if the stuff they need to keep is in userspace only, why not just GPL those bits and port them to Linux?

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the idea of GPLing the entirety of AIX, it's just not obvious that this would be their least-effort path. HP-UX has exactly parallel problems."

I certainly understand where Eric is coming from, but I have to think that once Solaris and Linux start mixing it up, the other two big guys will want to be able to play in the standardization sandbox as well. HP or IBM ceding the world to SoLinux? I don't see them doing that, regardless if all they want as part of the "mother" distro is userspace bits, as Eric puts it. And don't get me started on Apple and Darwin and all the other BSDs.

Will the GPLing of Solaris lead to Unixfication? Talk back and let me know.

Disclaimer: The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.