Despite a steady stream of rumors, IBM did not, in the end, buy Sun
Microsystems. But, on April 20,
. This acquisition could have some interesting implications for the
Linux community. Your editor, while not really knowing more than anybody
else, suspects that the outcome could be mostly positive. What follows,
here, is some wild speculation on where this could all go.
Some months ago, your editor posted a
slightly tongue-in-cheek article on a serious topic: what would happen
if Sun Microsystems were to undergo a change in management which rendered
the company far less friendly toward free software? It now appears that
there will, indeed, be a management change. One might well worry what
changes we might see in the newly-acquired company's attitude; Oracle is
not always seen as the friendliest company in general. But Oracle, while
being very much a proprietary software company, does seem to have a
supportive approach toward free software. Your editor was reasonably well
impressed by the talk given by Oracle "Chief Corporate Architect" Edward
Screven at the recent Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit. At some
levels of the software stack, at least, Oracle seems genuinely interested
in working with and growing the development community.
There are a number of specific topics of interest when speculating on what
could happen; your editor will visit a few of them below.
MySQL. This project, of course, can be seen as being in direct
competition with Oracle's flagship offering. So, unsurprisingly, a number
of people have speculated that Oracle will not encourage its further
growth. So, perhaps, Oracle will de-emphasize the project or "return it
to the community." But that is not necessarily how things will go.
One should remember that this isn't the first time Oracle has been seen to
threaten MySQL through acquisition. Back in 2005, Oracle bought Innobase, the creator of
the InnoDB storage engine used by MySQL. The MySQL project wisely branched
away from InnoDB, but the fact of the matter is that this code is still
free software, and InnoDB releases continue to happen. The sky did not
fall after all.
Beyond that, there is the simple matter that MySQL appears to earn money.
This acquisition could well be an opportunity for Oracle to gain revenue
from customers who, for whatever reason, are not interested in buying
Oracle licenses. It broadens the company's database product line and might
provide the opportunity to encourage some customers to move toward the more
expensive, proprietary offerings.
Most interesting, though, will be to see what happens with the MySQL
development community. Oracle still does not have vast amounts of
experience running large, community-oriented projects, but it seems to be
learning. The MySQL community is not in top condition, currently; it has
suffered from Sun's legendary heavy hand, leading to a fair amount of
developer unhappiness. There are currently a few active
forks out there, raising the possibility that control over the "real" MySQL
could move out of Sun's hands altogether. Oracle could, just maybe, woo
these developers back into a core MySQL project which was managed in a more
community-oriented manner. If that were to happen, it would be hard to
conclude that this acquisition was anything but good for MySQL.
Solaris. This operating system is said, in the press release, to be
one of the core justifications for the acquisition. Oracle sells a fair
number of licenses for deployments on Solaris; it cannot be unhappy with the
idea of gaining control over the full platform. The real question here,
perhaps, is whether Oracle sees Solaris as a system with a long future
ahead of it, or whether Solaris becomes a legacy platform which will be
supported for some time, but which will not see a great deal of
There have been suggestions for a while that Sun is reconsidering its
licensing choices. A GPL-licensed Solaris was not entirely out of the
question before the acquisition; quite possibly, those chances have
improved now. A relicensed Solaris, preferably combined
with some clarity on patent licensing, could make it possible for
technologies like ZFS and Dtrace to move into Linux. Whether Linux would
want them is a separate discussion, though.
There is an alternative, of course: Oracle could decide to promote Solaris
as an (incompatibly-licensed) competitor to Linux and reduce its
involvement on the Linux side.
Your editor, perhaps naively, sees this outcome as unlikely. Oracle has
invested heavily enough in Linux to create a real impression of believing
in the platform. Oracle has not invested in Solaris (which is also free
software, remember) at anything close to the same level. If Oracle were to
to try to push Solaris as a better alternative to Linux, it would really
just be continuing Sun's strategy. Presumably there are people in Oracle
smart enough to wonder why Oracle would have any more success with that
approach than Sun did.
Btrfs. Edward Screven claimed that Oracle was pursuing Btrfs
because it likes the technology better than it likes ZFS. Ownership of ZFS
could well put that claim to the test, but there does not appear to be any
reason to believe that it was not sincere. The early word from Oracle is that plans for Btrfs
have not changed, and that the resources put into that project will not
Java. The press release states that Java "is the most
important software Oracle has ever acquired." Much Oracle-based
software is written in Java, so there are clear advantages in having
control over that part of the software stack. Increasingly, customers can
just go to Oracle and get support for most of the major components they use
from a single source. That, presumably, will help make some money for
OpenOffice.org. This project looks like a bit of a strange fit in
Oracle, which is not really a desktop software company. Still, Oracle may
see value in keeping this project going as a way to encourage corporate
desktop users away from Microsoft products. With any luck at all, Oracle
will work to turn OpenOffice.org into a more community-oriented project.
By making participation in OpenOffice.org so hard, Sun has spurned the
offers of assistance which have come from around the community. Maybe
Oracle will be a bit smarter and will realize that, by opening things up a
bit, it can speed the development of OpenOffice.org without really having
to invest more into the project. One can always hope.
What it comes down to is that just about anything could happen. It could
be that this acquisition is part of a long-term plan by Oracle to acquire
just enough of the free software community to neutralize any threats it
sees. Now that this hypothetical plan is coming to fruition (lacking,
perhaps, just the occasionally-rumored acquisition of Red Hat), Oracle can
proceed to move away from Linux, turn things proprietary, and generally
prepare itself for the Final Battle. This would not be a good outcome for
the Linux community, though we would, as usual, end up stronger once the
dust had settled.
Alternatively, Oracle may have understood that truly free software can
help to turn its competitors' products into commodities while enabling
Oracle to provide a solid offering around its own products. This company,
which has already become one of the top Linux kernel contributors, could become
the top contributor to free software projects as a whole (a title which Sun
has already claimed). If Oracle sustains Sun's projects in a more
community-oriented mode, we may well conclude, one year from now, that this
acquisition was a good thing indeed.
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