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An OpenSolaris by Any Other Name: The Q&A

Tis but thy name that is mine enemie.
Whats Mountague? It is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme, nor face, nor any other part.
Whats in a name? That which we call a Rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet
” – William Shakespeare

Brilliant as the bard may have been, my suspicion is that the OpenSolaris community would beg to differ with this particular line of inquiry. At least, if one is to judge by the discussions currently raging.

This debate, ultimately, can be distilled down to a simple question of grammar: is OpenSolaris an adjective, or a noun?

At the present time, OpenSolaris is the former. There is an OpenSolaris project, an OpenSolaris community, and there are OpenSolaris related distributions, but if you visit this page you will not find a tangible “thing” to download termed “OpenSolaris.”

A successful execution on the Project Indiana vision, however, would prompt the question: should it be a noun as well? To explore that, let’s turn to the Q&A.

Q: Let’s get the disclosures out of the way first…
A: Certainly. Sun, the organization where the original Solaris code was produced, is a RedMonk client. More particularly, I know and have great respect for a variety of Solaris and OpenSolaris community members that are of different minds on this question. Otherwise, a variety of Solaris and OpenSolaris competitors are also RedMonk clients, including Canonical, IBM, and Microsoft. That’s it, I think.

Q: For those that don’t follow the OpenSolaris/Solaris worlds particularly closely, can you give us a quick primer on Project Indiana?
A: Fortunately, I’ve already done a Q&A on the subject, which you can find here. The short version, though, is that Indiana is a project intended to result in a binary distribution of OpenSolaris technologies to be released on a regular timeframe, and which will include a variety of improvements such as package management aimed at making it more accessible.

Q: So will the resulting binary distribution carry the name OpenSolaris?
A: That, ultimately, is the $64,000 question. As you might expect, there are a variety of opinions on the matter. Critics of this idea contend that it will unfairly advantage the Indiana bits, wounding – perhaps critically – existing distributions such as BeleniX, Nexenta et al in the process. Some go on to conclude that the likely fallout from the demise of OpenSolaris distributions would be devastating to the OpenSolaris community, spawning disaffected groups of betrayed developers that would depart never to return. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those favoring the branding of Indiana as OpenSolaris point instead to the potential for user confusion, where newcomers to the community are forced to navigate between unfamiliar choices because there is no simple OpenSolaris downloadable image. In between those viewpoints are some that would favor a compromise approach, either by the usage of OpenSolaris as a modifier in the distribution name or, in some cases, by the explicit inclusion of Sun’s brand (i.e. Sun’s OpenSolaris).

Q: Of the anti-OpenSolaris-as-a-noun contingent, are there objections beyond the impact to existing distributions?
A: Yes indeed. While the question of distribution futures seem to be the paramount concern, there are many other issues involved. Trademark, for one. If the name OpenSolaris is ultimately applied to the output of Indiana, the question goes, how would other distributions or related technologies – some of which would undoubtedly be competitive – be permitted to use the term, or not? There are also, as could have been predicted, issues with respect to Sun’s relationship with the OpenSolaris community. For all that it’s dependent on Sun – the overwhelming majority of OpenSolaris developers, after all, are employed by Sun – the relationship between the corporation and the project can be prickly at times. Understandably, the open source project would prefer to not have terms dictated to it. Equally understandably, Sun has interests – both product and trademark – at stake. In as much as those needs align, things have the ability to function smoothly, but there is periodic friction.

Q: And where do you personally stand on the issue?
A: Well, with the necessary if tedious qualification that I do not presume to instruct a community of which I am not a part in how to conduct itself, and speak only for myself, my own view is that both Sun and the OpenSolaris project are best served by having a binary distribution branded OpenSolaris.

Q: Why?
A: Simply put, it’s about users. If I were a member of the OpenSolaris project, my primary mission in life would be to drive adoption of the technology using any and all means necessary. Well, almost any. Part of that response, obviously, must be technical improvement and innovation. Two items which are, not coincidentally, a big part of the Indiana mandate. But that’s only one part of the equation; there is much to adoption beyond the technology. As things stand now, the current array of options is at once bewildering and intimidating to new users. Consider the experience for someone who hears about “this open source Solaris thing.” They visit downloads, and are required to choose between the following:

  • Solaris Express Community Edition
  • Solaris Express Developer Edition
  • BeleniX
  • MartUX mBE
  • NexentaOS
  • SchilliX

In the words of Austin Milbarge: “and how.”

But surely, you ask, the descriptions are sufficient to educate users as to their choices? Well, even if one assumes (where I would not) that users have the patience to successfully navigate the array of options available to them, the descriptions themselves unhelpfully leverage OpenSolaris terms, such as “Nevada” or “/opt/csw.” More problematically, those showing up looking for OpenSolaris are likely to be perplexed when trying to decide amongst distributions that variously claim inclusion of the OpenSolaris “source,” “source base,” “bits,” “kernel,” and “runtime.”

Suboptimal, I think most would agree.

Q: And what of the distributions?
A: Well, to begin with, I think it’s a bit fatalistic to predict that the mere application of a name to the Indiana bits dooms them permanently. Not to mention that whatever Indiana ends up being called, they’ll be forced to compete and adapt to it regardless of what it’s called. If I were behind one of the existing OpenSolaris distributions, I’d be bending all of my efforts to differentiating against what will be Indiana. I might aim for a JEOS-style distro optimized for virtualized scenarios. Or perhaps a mobile and embedded flavor. Even as is, a distribution like Nexenta still has a considerable advantage over the forthcoming Indiana bits, as it is able to leverage existing packages and packaging resources while Indiana – according to my current understanding – will regrettably be forced to reinvent that particular wheel, package by package.

But more to the point, I don’t perceive any of these distributions as entrenched enough to defend at the expense of the user experience. Put another way, the users would be my top priority: the technologies, branding, and so on should be in service of them – not for its own sake.

Q: Implicit in that statement, of course, is the assumption that a multiple distribution world necessarily negatively impacts users…
A: Not quite. The Linux world demonstrates amply the advantages – and disadvantages – to a multiple distribution environment. What I am arguing, instead, is that the OpenSolaris/Solaris world is distinct from that environment, and cannot tolerate the lack of an OpenSolaris branded reference platform, as the Linux world can.

Q: Why is that?
A: A variety of reasons, but principally it’s because Linux and Solaris are really apples to oranges. Obviously they are both operating systems, and competitive ones at that, but the nature of their communities is very different. I would be the last one to argue, as some critics have, that the OpenSolaris project isn’t truly open source or simply open, but the reality at the current time is that vast majority of the development is done by a single organization: Sun. This is a stark contrast with the Linux world, where the development – not to mention brand value – is ammortized across multiple organizations. The Linux and OpenSolaris “brands,” therefore, are very different animals, and what works for Linux is not guaranteed to work for OpenSolaris and vice versa.

The Linux brand had both the opportunity to build slowly and the benefit of being a mutual focus for otherwise competitive organizations (e.g. IBM & Oracle). Solaris, IMO, doesn’t really have either of those.

In one recent conversation on the subject, someone pointed out to me that OpenSolaris is not behind Linux at all in its community development, as Debian only emerged 2 or 3 years after Linux did. To which I say, true, but that was 15 years ago; OpenSolaris does not have the luxury, as Linux did, of funtioning in a relative vacuum (yes, I know about FreeBSD et al, that’s why I used relative) with respect to open source operating system competition.

Q: In a sentence, how does allowing the Indiana bits to use the OpenSolaris name make life easier for users?
A: In simple fashion. If that’s permitted, any user that hears about “open source Solaris” can visit opensolaris.org (which needs a fair amount of work, while I’m on the subject), click “download” and pick a downloadable ISO called “OpenSolaris.” As trivial as that sounds, it’s vital to win over borderline users.

Q: But what’s in a name? Why not just call the distribution “Indiana” or something equally random? Ubuntu, after all, isn’t called Linux…
A: Well, see the comments on Linux above, but consider the educational challenge that represents. Users show up looking for open source Solaris and download something called…Indiana? Which is listed alongside of half a dozen other distributions they’ve never heard of? While you’re educating them on what the various options are and what they mean, they’ve walked out the door and you’re talking to dead air. The story needs to be simple.

Q: What of the claims that the assignment of an exclusive right to brand OpenSolaris to the Indiana bits will irreparably damage the fledgling OpenSolaris community?
A: While I understand them, and have a great deal of respect for some of those that harbor such concerns, I don’t personally subscribe to that notion. I’d readily concede that there would be initial pain for some of the distributions if they were forced to compete with an OpenSolaris branded distribution, I believe that the long term influx of new users would ultimately be of benefit to everyone. The rising tide lifts all boats, and so on. It’s easy to imagine a scenario, for example, where I show up to opensolaris.org as someone completely unfamiliar with the technology, download the OpenSolaris distribution and like what I see, yet pine over the lack of GNU tooks, apt, and Debian packages: wherein lies an opportunity for Nexenta. Maybe I make the jump straight to Nexenta today, but just as likely I can’t navigate the existing options and default back to Linux.

Q: Besides, I thought choice was good? Isn’t community important?
A: Well, that question presupposes that choice and community are the same thing, and that’s a leap, in my experience. It is true, certainly, that choice is generally understood to be welcome: the alternative, after all, being the lock-in that users instinctually fear. With good reason.

But it is also true that choice has negative consequences. As r0ml explains so eloquently in this deck (PDF warning), choice means that “decisions require more effort, mistakes are more likely, and blame is more severe.” It’s the first point that I see as the real concern with respect to OpenSolaris, but they’re all relevant.

So while it’s true that the biggest community wins – at least as far as I’m concerned – it’s not necessarily true that the biggest community is the one offering the most choices. In some cases, in fact, the reverse might even be true. I don’t want to choose between different flavors of WordPress, for example, unless there’s a compelling reason to do so – as is true with WordPress MU.

Q: Well, what of the trademark concerns?
A: That would indeed be a critical question, because while as stated above I’m for a singular branded OpenSolaris distribution, granting it exclusive license as an adjective would be – to me – a serious problem. Fortunately, however, it’s my understanding that the Sun folks have worked things out such that trademark can be extended to outside projects, with the hows to be worked out in future.

Q: Anything more to say?
A: Well, there’s a great deal that I’ve glossed over here simply as a function of time, but if there are specific questions, objections or comments folks would like to throw out there, I’m all ears.

Categories: Open Source, Platforms.