Aug 29, 2008 (08:08 PM EDT)
A New Model: Open Source Software After It's Acquired

Read the Original Article at InformationWeek

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Roy Fielding, chief scientist at Day Software and co-founder of the original Apache Web server project, is the kind of guy who oozes cred in the open source community. He was lead architect on the HTTP specification and described Representational State Transfer--we know it simply as REST today--as a development method in his doctoral dissertation eight years ago.

When Fielding joined the OpenSolaris community advisory board in 2005, Sun Microsystems hailed his presence as a sign of its commitment to open source. The honeymoon ended in February, when Fielding resigned. Sun's pledge to give the community authority over OpenSolaris was "a sham," Fielding wrote in his letter of resignation.

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"They were telling me they wanted a community, like the one around Apache," Fielding says in an interview. At the same time, "they were undermining the OpenSolaris brand," by distributing open source code combined with Sun proprietary code. "There's no point sitting around giving advice when Sun's marketing department will decide what it wants to distribute anyway," he says.

The discord underscores what can go wrong when big IT vendors get integrally involved in open source projects or, as has been increasingly the case, buy open source companies. Business technology organizations have years of experience watching their key software startups get snapped up and, in some cases, mutilated, but the large-scale commercialization of open source brings a whole new set of challenges.

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The timing of Fielding's departure couldn't have been worse for Sun, which was completing a $1 billion acquisition of MySQL AB, developer of the MySQL open source database. What should businesses using MySQL expect will change under Sun ownership?

Nothing changes, asserts Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who by leading the acquisition of MySQL and making the Solaris operating system and Sun's Java middleware suite open source has bet his job on the idea of a profitable coexistence between open source and proprietary software in the same company. Schwartz says he doesn't expect former MySQL CEO Marten Mickos and others from MySQL to become obedient Sun employees. What he really wants is for them to continue cultivating their communities of open source developers and users.

If they do, Sun will tap into the thousands of new open source users who download MySQL each week; it'll supply technical support to those who have built a major business around it; and it will have the chance to sell servers and offer its library of open source Java middleware and tools to the same prospects. Rivals such as IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle already have a broad front of software products in these markets, and embracing open source could give Sun an opening to be a disruptive force, capitalizing on its technical expertise while outflanking established players for new customers. So far, so good at least on one critical front--Sun hasn't lost any of MySQL's top leaders since it completed the acquisition in February.

Six weeks after the MySQL acquisition, Sun had what one observer called the dreaded "Slashdot moment." On April 16, Sun announced it would launch a backup system for MySQL invoking advanced features including compression and encryption as a commercial product for which people would have to pay. The announcement was met with a flame war of protest on the open source discussion board.

Until this point, all MySQL offerings had been freely downloadable, rather than one free "community" version and a more advanced, feature-rich version for a price. Having a free and a for-fee version is hardly unheard of in open source projects, but it's a tricky transition when people are hooked on getting the best version for free. "For those of you who put your time into helping MySQL become a great DB, and who must feel like a child kicked in the tummy by mother, my condolences," said commenter Margrave, the day after the news broke. "Maybe we'll see a fork."

If a second open source version of MySQL veered off from Sun's subscription version, such a fork could divert developer focus, something business users don't want. Likewise, the community worried that MySQL's focus would shift to proprietary additions, rather than free, open source offerings. Open source companies are judged by the developer community in part on how much of their code they make freely available. Keep the finest bells and whistles for commercial products, and the risk is that enthusiasm to contribute wanes.

Sun backed off charging for encryption and compression. "We listened to the reaction, we've had time to reconsider, and that was done," said Rich Green, Sun's executive VP for software, in an interview in May during JavaOne. The enterprise-friendly enhancements were added to the core system instead.

However, it was revealed later that MySQL's open source founders had planned the same move in hopes of boosting revenue ahead of an IPO filing. The incident shows that an add-on product that might have been sold by an intact, small open source company faces greater suspicion once that company is part of a major vendor.

A related risk to losing or fragmenting the developer community is losing the open source company's leadership. Sun so far has retained CEO Mickos, VP for products Zack Urlocker, and other MySQL execs, who are among the most experienced at walking the tightrope between community interest and profitability. Mickos walks that line deftly, and Sun executives who want to lead the company in MySQL's direction can learn a lot from him, says Fielding, if Sun "thinks of itself as part of the community, not the leader of the community." Johnson, originator of the Spring Framework and someone who has worked with Sun through the Java Community Process, says he has been encouraged lately by Sun's efforts to open up Solaris and Java. Johnson says he feels "more positive" about Sun's ability to produce good open source code and relate to open source communities, and about the the potential for the MySQL organization to thrive inside of Sun.

Asked in April if he's concerned about Sun's acquisition of MySQL, Bruce Lowe, owner of Center Stage Software, a maker of show business events software, said he tends to believe CEO Schwartz will protect MySQL's open source integrity. "Better to be acquired by Mr. Schwartz than Mr. Ellison," Lowe said.