Sun preaches open standards key to connected enterprises

Sun evangelist Simon Phipps said open standards will foster the growth of the Internet in today's connected world.

NEW YORK -- Sun Microsystems' chief technology evangelist, Simon Phipps, told attendees at this week's Linux on Wall Street Conference that the growth of the Internet depends on open standards.

The audience, made up of IT professionals, consultants and vendors, however, took the message with a grain of salt, considering Sun's commitment to Unix and its late entry into the Linux market.

Naresh Kattel, a Unix support group manager at a mutual fund management company that is considering adopting Linux, said that most companies run Linux on Intel-based servers because they come with a faster chip and cost less than the Sun Solaris Unix servers.

"It's fascinating, because they [Sun] have to balance out not getting on the bandwagon and also not dropping their bucket, which is full of Sun things," Kattel said.

He found Sun's enthusiasm about Linux interesting, if not 100% convincing. "Sun wants to say, 'You know what? You can probably run Linux on some of our low-end servers, but high-end servers -- if it's running good for you now [on Solaris], why would you want to [go to] Linux? Because they haven't been proven yet,'" Kattel said.

Adam Greissman, CEO of N.Y.-based Universal Data Interface Corp., a Web services middleware provider, said his company is considering open-sourcing either some or all of its product line. "We see [open-source] as a tremendous and important growth area within the IT community at large," he said.

However, Greissman said, "A question for an institution is: if the benefits are this clear-cut, why isn't everyone doing it? It might be that the barrier to acceptance is not cost benefit, but time -- that no matter what they do here, it's going to take 10 years. Or it might mean there's something else they're not talking about."

Phipps' keynote focused on the importance of free standards and open-source methodology, especially because enterprises are connected internally and externally more than ever. He explained that technology is promoting connectivity through increased bandwidth and the growing dominance of Web services.

"Overall, we're moving toward a world of fractal architectures," Phipps said. He explained that we are "moving into a space where there are networks within networks within networks." He depicted a layered network composed of multiple "self-similar" layers.

"The real reason these networks succeeded is not because of Metcalfe's law, [which states that the usefulness, or utility, of a network equals the square of the number of users], but because of the introduction of open standards," Phipps said. "The key to the growth and movement toward the fractal world of the future is the endearment of software developers to the idea of shared free standards."

Phipps cited the work of New York University Law professor Yochai Benkler, who stresses that "commons-based peer-production" is the principle at the heart of open-source, and that we've become too focused on its artifacts, rather than its methodology.

Phipps said open-source is "not about people smoking drugs and living in the backwoods. It is about people who are working to share software that is in common to create the foundation for each of their business needs. The results are typically high-quality results. I would suggest to you that the reason why you are also interested in open-source and Linux in particular is not because of the word 'free,' but rather because of the word 'quality.'"

Phipps outlined some misconceptions about free standards, including those about licensing being the most important part of open-source. Phipps said that the GPL serves as a facilitator, but that the "key facet of open-source is the development model," which encourages people to share their progress in development.

The second misconception is a misunderstanding of the word "free" as it pertains to software. Phipps said the term means "free as in freedom" or "free as a bird," not as in "free lunch." "The word 'free' is a facilitator," he said. "It makes the development commons happen, but the deployment still costs you money -- and the people who are doing the development still have to eat."

Another misconception Phipps pointed out is the idea that open-source software is only for Linux. Open-source is a methodology that is producing "great software for all platforms," he said, mentioning as examples GNU/Linux, Apache, Mozilla and OpenOffice.org.

Phipps then talked about the factors that are important to users considering open-source. These factors include choice (of features, support, platforms and so forth), quality, security and cost.

Phipps went on to discuss Sun's involvement in open-source projects, which includes providing support and sponsorship for OpenOffice.org. He said that Sun is doing open-source because the company has discovered it to be a "base" from which it can "innovate, create and rapidly evolve."

Among the issues Phipps said some businesses had with using open-source was that managers "could no longer grab a developer by the collar and drag him into a conference room and beat him against the whiteboard until he did it right -- they actually had to also participate in the community."

He pointed out that open-source software could benefit businesses in increased return on investment (ROI), better quality (fewer bugs and better design) and avoiding lock-in to proprietary software.

He also said that, concerning the financial services industry, "Wall Street companies would rather go buy stuff" than develop everything in house, and that open-source offered "the ultimate degree of choice" for stuff to buy.

Phipps said that Sun is currently involved in working on multi-architecture blade systems, the N1 self-managing computing architecture, grid computing environments, Java Web services and distributed service systems.


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