The recent posturings of IBM (and more recently Cisco) in acquiring Sun Microsystems has provided significant grist for financial analysts who look upon Sun as being in the main a hardware company. Certainly, the acquisition of the various sun server lines would help IBM, already the largest provider of server hardware in the world, with an even broader suite of offerings, especially on those specialized markets such as media production and hosting, universities and academia and higher end Internet farms.
However, Sun's software side of the acquisition ledger, especially if by IBM, has been rather oddly overlooked, given that it will likely have major implications for software development and cloud computing for years. Sun's software holdings cover five primary areas - Java, Solaris, mySQL, Open Office, and Sun's recently acquired QLayer cloud infrastructure. Understanding how IBM could potentially ramp up (or destroy) each of these gives some interesting insight into the real value of IBM's potential software acquisitions.
Java has long been one of Sun's crown jewels, though even from the days when Java was called Oak Sun's had an awkward relationship with its star child. Java's growth has slowed dramatically from its inception in the mid-1990s, yet even after nearly fifteen years, Java continues to replace C++ as the tool of choice for universities, infrastructure development companies and software developers in general.
Sun, however, has been reluctant to completely open source Java, creating licenses on the language that still keep the evolution of the language firmly under Sun's control - and as such out of bounds for most Linux distributions to include in a purely GPL/LGPL stack. Moreover, it also firmly keeps the Java trademark and moniker fully available for Sun to use to promote its own products.
IBM surpassed Sun in 2007 as the company with the largest number of Java developers, and while IBM has made extensive use of the language internally, the tight reins that Sun had over the Java Community Process often meant that changes that IBM wanted to see incorporated into the language were slow to happen, and in many cases Sun priorities affected both which new class libraries, core langauge changes and modules were added and how those changes were implemented.
It is likely that with an IBM buyout, Java itself will almost certainly be made available in a GPL version, which will also have three rather interesting effects. The first is that it should prove a boon to Linux distro developers, who can include a whole raft of Java applications that have previously been limited in scope to "commercial" add-ons, and as importantly, it raises questions about the degree to which Microsoft can include a Java distribution in Windows (assuming that Java isn't dual licensed).
It will also turbo-charge the Java community, whose participants have drifted away from Java in recent years not only because other languages such as Ruby or Python are sexier, but because the Sun license has hobbled its use in the increasingly open-source oriented software development groups and projects.
Solaris has run into the same licensing issues that Java has - a Unix kernel that straddled the boundaries between being open-source and proprietary, with none of the benefits of either. While this has meant that it has evolved a fairly sophisticated ecosystem of products, typically its also meant that Solaris versions of popular Linux tools would take a year or more before appearing.
Open Solaris, the open source version of the language, had been launched under Sun's CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License), which has been developed primarily to remove encumbered code which had exclusive Sun proprietary patents in 2007. The CDDL, however, is based upon the Mozilla license, and again raises licensing issues with Linux distributions because of the structure of the license itself. This has meant that Open Solaris code (or anything built under that license) could not be incorporated into a Linux distribution, making for increased balkanization between the two platforms.
IBM will most likely change the licensing on Open Solaris to a pure GPL one. This will have the dual effect of making it legally possible (technologically its quite possible) to run Linux applications under Open Solaris, significantly enriching its code base, while at the same time allowing reverse pollination in those areas where Solaris has a significant edge (such as the libPing stack).
There's some question about what will happen to the proprietary version of Solaris, however. It's possible that IBM may choose to continue Solaris development, but it's more probable that Solaris 10 may end up being the last of that proprietary branch, with any subsequent development (beyond big fixes) taking place exclusively on the OpenSolaris branch (and with Sun's current Solaris customers encouraged subtly or otherwise to switch to the OSS version).
Sun's acquisition of mySQL in 2008 caused a number of analysts to scratch their heads trying to figure out what exactly Sun's strategy was in this regard. While mySQL is highly popular in the open source web stack, as an open source project (even with secondary commercial licenses) it was freely available to Sun to license for Solaris, it didn't add appreciably to revenue (indeed, it can be argued that Sun's purchase significantly degraded their own financial health) and it didn't even offer up that much of a consultant arm advantage, because it is a comparatively easy database to both setup and use. The mySQL database can be seen as a precursor to a cloud platform, but even there, it is a very minimal component in that particular domain.
If IBM acquires Sun, then it also acquires mySQL. However, for IBM, mySQL represents a very different value proposition. First, mySQL gives IBM a superb stepping stone to higher-end IBM DB2 functionality, and perhaps as importantly it has the potential to fuse the seat-of-the-pants mentality of young mySQL developers with some of the more traditionally staid DB2 developers, in all likelihood making DB2 as a database much more focused on the web developer (who increasingly also acts as database administrator at the mySQL level).
On the flip side, IBM also has the opportunity to ramp up funding to mySQL in a way that Sun was unable to do, dramatically accelerating its development cycles. This probably has more significance in the European market, where mySQL had a fairly significant presence already, than in the US, but it does represent an effective market for IBM, especially at a time when open source technologies may factor large in governmental programs, an area that IBM has considerably more at stake than Sun did.
Sun has had a rather interesting symbiotic relationship with Open Office ever since it released the source code for Star Office in 2000. While Sun doesn't "directly" control open office, it does have an agreement to port code developed from Open Office into the commercial Star office suite, while augmenting Star Office with proprietary extensions.
It's noteworthy that during the most recent OOXML/ODF standardization scuffle within the ISO (which has in effect made both Open Office and Microsoft Office XML formats standard ones), that the most vociferous champion of Open Office was not Sun but IBM. IBM has a huge stake in establishing an alternative office suite to Microsoft Office, as this approach is very much in line with its open source consulting strategy that has proved quite effective.
Here it was not necessarily an issue of license so much as the more immediate need for cash that has slowed Open Office development over the last few years. At a certain level of maturity, any open source project needs full time developers and maintainers, and while there is an active Open Office community, it is almost certain that IBM has been the primary supplier of that particular largess, not Sun. Thus a buyout of Sun here would not necessarily change Open Office dramatically (though it would improve it somewhat), but would cut down much of the friction between IBM and Sun about how best to push. build and promote its features.
Cloud Platform: Q-Layer and OpenStorage
In 2005, Sun purchased StorageTek (ironically founded by four IBM engineers in 1969) and released a number of their products under CDDL licenses as the OpenStorage suite. The infrastructure for OpenStorage happens to contain many of the key hardware virtualization layers necessary to create Hardware Clouds, including virtual network stacks, virtual disks, and disk array controllers.
Sun's acquisition of Q-Layer in 2007 further strengthened this position. Q-Layer provided large-scale cloud management software, that, in conjunction with OpenStorage established much of the backbone of Sun's cloud strategy. This was also integrated with Sun Grid, which was one of the first formal grid-based computing systems (and by extension, cloud systems) in the market, as early as 2003, although the program gained relatively few adherents until comparatively recently.
IBM itself has been making significant forays into the particular realm of cloud computing for the last eighteen months or so, most notably with IBM Blue Cloud initiative. One of the most telling points about this initiative, however, is that it's not so much reflective of a single given technologies but instead consists of a fairly wide spectrum of alternative, albeit (more-or-less) compatible, related technologies.
Cloud strategies seem to require about eighteen months to two years to come to fruition, and as such there's considerable value to be gained for IBM in getting a hold of the Sun Cloud (as Sun's latest incarnation of distributed computation is called). What's more, IBM's Blue Cloud has suffered considerably from a perception standpoint - seeming somewhat nebulous and ill-defined (rather appropriate for a cloud, perhaps, but not for enterprise customers looking at significant financial outlays for virtual systems and services).
Sun's strength has long been in the Internet server market, so the jump to a broad cloud-based strategy is perfectly natural for them, whereas IBM's servers have typically been geared more towards a more classical enterprise strategy that doesn't necessarily mesh with the distributed point-to-point service architectures that seem to so typify cloud computing. Thus, acquisition of Sun Cloud could definitely serve to strengthen IBM's presence in the "Internet Enterprise" market, at what amounts to a bargain basement price.
At least one pundit has raised the very valid point that, in trying to have its cake and eat it too with regard to Open Source software, Sun may have actually delivered a mortal blow to itself. Sun CEO Jonathon Schwartz put forth a compelling set of arguments recently about how Sun could monetize Open Source software. Unfortunately, this realization has likely come too late.
IBM took a different tack, more than a decade ago, of absorbing its open-source software development costs in order to gain effective control over providing open-source related consulting services. IBM's net revenue is down somewhat from last year, but overall it has held up well. Sun, on the other hand, has continued to spiral downward as its core products - Internet servers - have seen sales plummet, as ambiguous strategies and timidity in embracing a fully open source model has hurt key technologies such as Java, and as questionable business purchases such as mySQL have depleted its operating capital (and likely placed it at the whims of the currently brutal credit markets).
Recessions reward prudence and foresight and punish bad business decisions and excess. It's unfortunate that Sun, long a home for some of the most innovative products, services and ideas in the tech sector, is now faced with the consequences of those decisions, but its not, sadly, all that surprising. This should be a year for consolidation as cash rich companies go on a buying spree to pick up good companies at bargain rates, and Sun will be neither the first, nor the last, to be bought up or go out of business.