The Observation Deck

Month: September 2017

As had been rumored for a while, Oracle effectively killed Solaris on Friday. When I first saw this, I had assumed that this was merely a deep cut, but in talking to Solaris engineers still at Oracle, it is clearly much more than that. It is a cut so deep as to be fatal: the core Solaris engineering organization lost on the order of 90% of its people, including essentially all management.

Of note, among the engineers I have spoken with, I heard two things repeatedly: “this is the end” and (from those who managed to survive Friday) “I wish I had been laid off.” Gone is any of the optimism (however tepid) that I have heard over the years — and embarrassed apologies for Oracle’s behavior have been replaced with dismay about the clumsiness, ineptitude and callousness with which this final cut was handled. In particular, that employees who had given their careers to the company were told of their termination via a pre-recorded call — “robo-RIF’d” in the words of one employee — is both despicable and cowardly. To their credit, the engineers affected saw themselves as Sun to the end: they stayed to solve hard, interesting problems and out of allegiance to one another — not out of any loyalty to the broader Oracle. Oracle didn’t deserve them and now it doesn’t have them — they have been liberated, if in a depraved act of corporate violence.

Assuming that this is indeed the end of Solaris (and it certainly looks that way), it offers a time for reflection. Certainly, the demise of Solaris is at one level not surprising, but on the other hand, its very suddenness highlights the degree to which proprietary software can suffer by the vicissitudes of corporate capriciousness. Vulnerable to executive whims, shareholder demands, and a fickle public, organizations can simply change direction by fiat. And because — in the words of the late, great Roger Faulkner — “it is easier to destroy than to create,” these changes in direction can have lasting effect when they mean stopping (or even suspending!) work on a project. Indeed, any engineer in any domain with sufficient longevity will have one (or many!) stories of exciting projects being cancelled by foolhardy and myopic management. For software, though, these cancellations can be particularly gutting because (in the proprietary world, anyway) so many of the details of software are carefully hidden from the users of the product — and much of the innovation of a cancelled software project will likely die with the project, living only in the oral tradition of the engineers who knew it. Worse, in the long run — to paraphrase Keynes — proprietary software projects are all dead. However ubiquitous at their height, this lonely fate awaits all proprietary software.

There is, of course, another way — and befitting its idiosyncratic life and death, Solaris shows us this path too: software can be open source. In stark contrast to proprietary software, open source does not — cannot, even — die. Yes, it can be disused or rusty or fusty, but as long as anyone is interested in it at all, it lives and breathes. Even should the interest wane to nothing, open source software survives still: its life as machine may be suspended, but it becomes as literature, waiting to be discovered by a future generation. That is, while proprietary software can die in an instant, open source software perpetually endures by its nature — and thrives by the strength of its communities. Just as the existence of proprietary software can be surprisingly brittle, open source communities can be crazily robust: they can survive neglect, derision, dissent — even sabotage.

In this regard, I speak from experience: from when Solaris was open sourced in 2005, the OpenSolaris community survived all of these things. By the time Oracle bought Sun five years later in 2010, the community had decided that it needed true independence — illumos was born. And, it turns out, illumos was born at exactly the right moment: shortly after illumos was announced, Oracle — in what remains to me a singularly loathsome and cowardly act — silently re-proprietarized Solaris on August 13, 2010. We in illumos were indisputably on our own, and while many outsiders gave us no chance of survival, we ourselves had reason for confidence: after all, open source communities are robust because they are often united not only by circumstance, but by values, and in our case, we as a community never lost our belief in ZFS, Zones, DTrace and myriad other technologies like MDB, FMA and Crossbow.

Indeed, since 2010, illumos has thrived; illumos is not only the repository of record for technologies that have become cross-platform like OpenZFS, but we have also advanced our core technologies considerably, while still maintaining highest standards of quality. Learning some of the mistakes of OpenSolaris, we have a model that allows for downstream innovation, experimentation and differentiation. For example, Joyent’s SmartOS has always been focused on our need for a cloud hypervisor (causing us to develop big features like hardware virtualization and Linux binary compatibility), and it is now at the heart of a massive buildout for Samsung (who acquired Joyent a little over a year ago). For us at Joyent, the Solaris/illumos/SmartOS saga has been formative in that we have seen both the ill effects of proprietary software and the amazing resilience of open source software — and it very much informed our decision to open source our entire stack in 2014.

Judging merely by its tombstone, the life of Solaris can be viewed as tragic: born out of wedlock between Sun and AT&T and dying at the hands of a remorseless corporate sociopath a quarter century later. And even that may be overstating its longevity: Solaris may not have been truly born until it was made open source, and — certainly to me, anyway — it died the moment it was again made proprietary. But in that shorter life, Solaris achieved the singular: immortality for its revolutionary technologies. So while we can mourn the loss of the proprietary embodiment of Solaris (and we can certainly lament the coarse way in which its technologists were treated!), we can rejoice in the eternal life of its technologies — in illumos and beyond!

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