If IBM Swallows Sun, Open-Source Is The Winner

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There is a lot of overlap for IBM and Sun in the areas of open source and operating systems – but that could actually be a good thing, given IBM’s ability to build business on the open source model

Whenever a major acquisition—like the currently rumored IBM acquisition of Sun Microsystems—occurs, attention immediately turns to product and technology overlap.

Too much overlap, and the deal doesn’t make sense. The conventional wisdom here seems reasonable enough, but we must pay attention to the way that open-source development and licensing models—to which both Sun and IBM adhere for a significant portion of their strategies—change our conventional overlap equations.

For starters, there’s the IBM/Sun Unix operating system overlap, which ZDNet’s Dana Gardner saw fit to dismiss in three curt words, “Unix? IBM has one.”  [In a post that dismisses the deal as a red herring and produces an excellent list of alternative buyers including Apple, Dell, Google and even Microsoft – Editor]

My colleague Jim Rapoza set it aside almost as swiftly: “And, let’s face it: Both of these OSes are pretty much legacy systems now—or are well on their way to that status.”

I’d say that in the case of IBM’s AIX, Rapoza is correct in assigning the legacy label. Solaris, on the other hand, is very much alive, with compelling stories around functionality (DTrace, Zones, ZFS, Crossbow), hardware platform support (x86 as a first-class platform) and community engagement (OpenSolaris) that put Solaris in a totally different class to AIX.

Where today IBM offers up a minor constellation of operating system options with which to run its broad server lineup—from entry-level towers to giant mainframes—Solaris could give IBM an operating system to scale from the bottom to the top of its line.

Also intriguing is the way that an IBM Solaris codebase might intersect with the Linux codebase that IBM has spent the last 10 years championing. Sun’s licensing choice for OpenSolaris has kept the Linux and Solaris code pools separate from each other, but IBM could change this and allow those communities to merge.

Even better, IBM could license Solaris under the GNU GPL (General Public License) while reserving the right to distribute Solaris code under proprietary licenses as well — an option that, in the case of its OpenOffice.org-based Symphony productivity suite, proved appealing enough to prompt IBM to base Symphony on an aged, but more liberally licensable, version of OpenOffice.org.

As the steward of Sun’s StarOffice, IBM could seed the open-source community while reserving for itself the freedom to cut separate licensing arrangements. In fact, this dual-licensing option is a thread that runs through almost all of Sun’s open-source holdings, including MySQL and Java.

There’s no telling exactly what the result of such a series of IBM open-source moves would be, but it seems clear that the open-source community would be richer for the combination. And, as we’ve seen over the past decade, IBM knows how to extract profit from open source.

A rising open-source tide would lift all vendor ships that opt to embrace it, and given its extensive services business, IBM is sitting on an open-source supertanker.