Packet Rat: The whiskered one tries a new open-source ingredient

The Rat

Michael J. Bechetti

Sometimes, when a company does what it has repeatedly said it will do, it still comes as a surprise.

Such was the case when Sun Microsystems Inc. announced last month it was releasing the Solaris operating system'or at least a significant chunk of it'under an open-source license of its own design.

Naturally, people in the open-source community who'd been pushing Sun toward this step reacted in a predictable way: They condemned Sun for not being open enough.

'I guess Sun-bashing is a hard habit to kick,' the Rat sighed as he read the growing flame war on Usenet.

Ironically, just before Sun announced it was setting its Solaris code free (sort of), London police apparently arrested an unfortunate computer user who had been tagged by webmasters as a hacker because he had attempted to visit a tsunami relief site using Solaris and the Lynx text Web browser.

'Apparently desktop Solaris users are so rare in the wild that they have to take them into protective custody,' the cyberrodent told his spouse.

The source of Sun griping among the chattering coder class is one of those little problems in the open-source world: a conflict between the licensing schemes that govern projects such as Linux versus the new OpenSolaris.

Linux code is released under the GNU General Public License (GPL), while Sun has created its own license called the Common Development and Distribution License, or CDDL, pronounced 'cuddle.' By creating its own open-source license, Sun did more than open up its cuddly code'it opened up a big ugly can of worms.

Sun got the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to give its blessing to CDDL. The problem is, CDDL isn't compatible with GPL.

'It's like antimatter in Star Trek,' the whiskered one later explained to members of his agency's architecture review committee. 'You can't put stuff from a GPL project into a CDDL project, or vice versa, without creating an intellectual property black hole that sucks you and your code into an alternative dimension called Lawsuitopia'an upside-down world where the SCO Group still has a viable business model.'

Of course, almost none of the other OSI-approved licenses are compatible with GPL, either. That incompatibility doesn't mean projects written under GPL can't be distributed with non-GPL licenses. It just means they have to be 'loosely integrated' like commercial software that works with GPL software. But the shades of gray are enough to cause hand wringing among open-source advocates.

The cyberrodent is just fine with Sun's licensing scheme, considering the company is giving away commercial-grade Solaris for free. It's when you want service that you'll have to pull out your wallet. Giving it away might be the only way for Sun to get any market share for Solaris beyond current users, given the momentum Linux is building in the Unix-replacement biz. And as far as the Rat can tell, Sun isn't giving away Trusted Solaris, the OS that the Defense Department and intelligence agencies have taken a shine to.

'I can learn to love free Solaris,' the Rat said. 'Just so long as I don't get arrested for browsing the Web with it.'

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at

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