Thoughts on Jeremy's Sun/Oracle Analysis

Wednesday 3 March 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

Leslie Hawthorn referred me to an excellent article by Jeremy Allison about Sun merging with Oracle. It was a particularly interesting read for me since, while I knew that Jeremy worked for Sun early in his career, I didn't realize that he started in engineering tech support.

The most amusing part to me is that it's quite possible Jeremy was on the UK tech support hotline during the same time frame when I was calling USA Sun tech support while working for Westinghouse. I probably would have had a different view of proprietary software if Jeremy had answered the USA phone calls. One of the major life experiences that led me down the path of hard-core software freedom beliefs were my many calls to Sun tech support, who would usually tell me they just weren't going to fix the bugs I was reporting because Westinghouse just wasn't “big enough” (it was ironically one of the largest employers in Maryland in the 1980s and early 1990s) to demand that Sun fix such bugs (notwithstanding our monthly Sun maintenance fees).

But, more fascinating still is Jeremy's analysis of why Sun failed as a FLOSS company. Specifically, Jeremy points out that the need for corporate control over all software technologies that Sun released, specifically demanding the exclusive right to proprietarize non-Sun contributions, was a primary reason that Sun just never succeeded as a FLOSS company.

Meanwhile, I'm less optimistic than Jeremy on the future of Oracle. I have paid attention to Oracle's contributions to btrfs in light of recent events. Amusingly, btfs exists in no small part because ZFS was never licensed correctly and never turned into a truly community-oriented project. While the two projects don't have identical goals, they are similar enough that it seems unlikely btrfs would exist if Sun had endeavored to become a real FLOSS contributor and shepherd ZFS into Linux upstream using normal Linux community processes. It's thus strange to think that Oracle controls ZFS, even while it continues to contribute to btrfs, in a normal, upstream way (i.e., collaborating under the terms of GPLv2 with community developers and employees of other companies such as Red Hat, HP, Intel, Novell, and Fujitsu).

I have mostly considered Oracle's contributions to btrfs (and to Xen, to which they contribute to in much the same way) as a complete fluke. Oracle is third only to Apple and Microsoft in its predatory, proprietary software marketing practices and mistreatment of users. Other than these notable exceptions, Oracle's attitude generally matches Sun's long-ago roots (and Apple's current attitude) in this regard: non-copyleft FLOSS without giving contributions back is the best “Open Source” plan.

Software corporations usually oscillate between treating users and developers well and treating them poorly. Larger companies are often completely self-contradictory on this issue across multiple divisions. Microsoft and Apple are actually unique in their consistency of anti-software-freedom attitudes; I've typically assessed Oracle as roughly equivalent to the two of them0. I don't really see Oracle's predatory proprietary licensing models changing, and I expect them to try to manipulate FLOSS to bolster their proprietary licensing. Oracle was never an operating system company before the Sun acquisition, and therefore contributing to operating system components like btrfs and Xen were historically a non-issue. My pessimistic view is that Oracle's FLOSS involvement won't go beyond what currently exists (and I even find myself worrying if others can pick up the slack on btrfs if (when?) Oracle starts marketing a proprietarized ZFS-based solution instead). In short, I expect Oracle's primary business will still be anti-FLOSS. Nevertheless, I'll try to quickly acknowledge it if it turns out I'm wrong.


0 Contrary to the popular receptions at the time, I was actually quite depressed both when, in 1999, Oracle announced first that they'd have a certified version of Oracle's database available for Red Hat Linux and when, in 2002, Oracle announced so-called “Unbreakable” Linux. These moves were not toward more software freedom, but rather to leverage the availability of a software freedom operating system, GNU/Linux, to sell proprietary licenses for Oracle databases. Neither event should have been heralded as anything but negative for software freedom.

Posted on Wednesday 3 March 2010 at 05:45 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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