A question was asked by writer Chris Mellor, after a opinion article in The Register: "What should Oracle do with Sun?" To understand what should be done with Sun, one must understand what Sun's role was in the computing ecosystem, observe the effect of competition, and understand gaps in the market.
Sun's Solar System: Sun Microsystems played in many different overlapping markets sets.
- Sun commercialized graphical workstations market (may not have created it, but really drove the market) with bundled software applications.
- Workstations were later killed as Microsoft leveraged it's graphical windows interface to kill off other desktop product offerings, assembling a high-cost portfolio of applications (whose cost were not much different from UNIX workstations) - except UNIX desktops never had an front-office suite.
- The movement to Ultra-Thin Clients from Sun was an attempt to hold the desktop market, being able to create a new platform, capable of running proprietary Windows applications, as well as Open Standards and Open Sourced applications.
- Sun's purchase of open-source integrated Office type application and creation of OpenOffice was the attempt to place a foot-hold back in the desktop market (again) - recognizing that Microsoft Office effectively made UNIX workstations irrelevant and Microsoft used the MS Office integrate to drive Microsoft Windows-only based Back Office products to push Solaris out of data centers.
- Telephone carriers like AT&T used to manufacture their own [Western Electric] 32 bit CPU's for their SVR4 based 3B2 computing systems and use those systems for internal processing.
- Sun helped to create The Internet, bundling the features that telephone company providers desired, such as SVR4 symmetric multi-processing and standards based interfaces.
- Desktop Sun Workstations were stacked in racks to make the first clusters, they were re-packaged into rack units. Soon, 32 bit proprietary desktop platforms were re-cased and stacked in racks, and started serving telephone company and internet loads, which were Sun's domain.
- Pressure was placed on Sun by bundles of open sourced products, as software developers created software on standard-less operating systems (i.e. Linux) on top of proprietary firmware and hardware platforms (which became viable as 16 bit desktop processors gave way to 32 bit processors.)
- As desktops achieved 64 bit processing, and Windows pushed Sun out of the desktop market, Sun's acquisition SPARC licensee Afara Websystems, and open-sourcing their first processor (for any vendor to share) attempted to push back into web serving loads (where one open-sourced T1 CPU could out-serve as many as 4 or more other proprietary processors.)
- The use of high-throughput and power conserving carrier-class servers continue to be pumped out of Sun, and later Oracle, in the form of T2, T2+, T3, and finally with the T4 SPARC processors, which were compatible with AT&T SVR4 Solaris.
- The desktop workstation market saw bundled windowing systems, bundled open systems TCP/IP networking, bundled instant messaging (talk), bundled email (SMTP), bundled simple standard text processing (vi, textedit, dtedit, etc.), bundled standard print processing (lp, lpr), added open source simple news group collaboration (NNTP), added open source web server software (Apache), and unlimited user communities - at a reasonable per-unit cost.
- Companies like Novell and Microsoft released proprietary networking stacks, proprietary operating systems, proprietary desktop environments, per-user licensing fees, costed email clients, with costed email server software, costed print server costs, per machine software charge, etc. Businesses found themselves more likely to build a proprietary software stack of what was available in the market, leveraging UNIX on the back-ends (client-server days.)
- As desktop providers, like Microsoft, used their operating system as a way to take over the desktop application market, soon it was determined that they could take over the server application market. They released free crippled proprietary desktop products, Server applications, once released upon UNIX (mail servers), would only be available on Windows servers with proprietary protocols. Collaboration tools like News Groups.
- Java was the "olive branch" offered to the UNIX community, to provide a common software platform, recognizing that proprietary Microsoft Windows effectively made UNIX standards irrelevant and provided an ecosystem for competition with Linux.
- Sun and other UNIX vendors standardized on real 32 bit platforms with flat memory models, as PC's continued to play with 8 and 16 bit processors.
- As the proprietary OS desktop wars raged, with proprietary 16 bit processors becoming proprietary 32 bit, Sun and other workstation vendors needed to find a new magic bullet. An Open SPARC consortium was founded, where multiple vendors could cooperate & compete, by implementing their own processors, which complied to a single compatible specification.
- The inability to bring several open SPARC CPU designs to market placed Sun on the tail-end of general-purpose computing systems for a number of years. This contributed to their demise, and consumption by Oracle
- Proprietary CPU vendors canceled lines of processors and emulated the radical movement by SPARC, coring-out & threading out, bring their designs to parity in throughput.
- Sun/Oracle gained time to build a new core, ultimately realized in the SPARC T4, and consolidating more functionality (soon to be realized in the SPARC T5.)
The fortunes of Sun Microsystems was increasingly dependent upon Oracle. Oracle had their hand in the decline of Sun Microsystems, by over-milking the cow, and making their platform uncompetitive in the enterprise. For the same performance, Oracle charged a premium under SPARC Solaris, and thus drove the enterprise market off of Solaris.
Sun had engaged into partnerships with Postgres, bundling the product into their Solaris Operating System support, for various ISV's (through which more hardware could be sold.) Sun had also purchased MySQL, to also become a primary ISV vendor support channel (through which more hardware could be sold.) These movements were not necessarily enough, to sway the tide.
Oracle, unfortunately, had their fortunes tied to Sun Microsystem, so Oracle had to buy Sun out, in order to basically survive. The end of Postres support occurred, but Oracle invested more resources in making their database run faster under SPARC Solaris than under any other platform.
Oracle's Education on Sun's History
Interestingly, the new owner, Oracle, can see from the history, that people are more interested in cost than they are in Open or Open Source. If they cared about Open, proprietary desktop applications, proprietary Microsoft Windows, proprietary bios/firmware, and proprietary Intel CPU Architecture would never have eaten Sun's (or other vendors') Open Lunch.
A movement to break into the standard-less Open Source arena was attempted with the creation of OpenSolaris. The new driver was mid-range storage at a terrific price-point. OpenSolaris created new competitors at the low end, in the storage areana, which Oracle did not want to have to wrestle with, so they re-closed Solaris with 11. OpenSolaris did expand Solaris mind share into Open Source arenas.
It is pretty clear what Oracle will do with Sun - Oracle will go proprietary with Sun, to compete with the other proprietary vendors, who ate their Sun's lunch. The market prefers cheap & standardless on proprietary or proprietary on cheap proprietary, or cheap & standardless proprietary on cheap proprietary.
There is value in expensive on proprietary (mixed with standardless open source), if there is enough benefit seen to the consumer, as seen with Apple iPod, iPad, iPhone, etc.
Joyent's Education on Sun's History
Various OpenSolaris distributions have formed around a new Open Source project, where they can continue to share their code contributions upstream to a project greater than their individual entities. OpenSolaris splinters need to realize the move to Cloud is needed.
Kudos to vendors like Joyent. Joyent's effort to consolidate Solaris developers and port KVM (Kernel Virtual Machine) to OpenSolaris was rewarded by Gartner by being recognized in their "Magic Quadrant", when Oracle killed Xen on Solaris.
Illumos's Education on Sun's History
There is limited life expectancy for the OpenSolaris splinters, if all they do is commoditize storage, unless they add something of value. The loss of SVR4 and POSIX features from Illumos as years move ahead is concerning, since they lose the historical value proposition that Solaris offered for carrier providers. Somehow, it appears no one in Illumos is concerned about carriers, but considering that UNIX was created by the carriers - this could be a failure to recall some of their Computer Science 101 history by some of their core developers.
Illumos became lucky with the contributions from Joyent, which keeps them on-par as far as virtualization. Without clustering on ZFS, Oracle and Illumos are both way behind. After Illumos adds file system clustering (they must, to remain relevant as a third-party storage vendor), they could still be at a dead-end, unless they find some other value to contribute to the market (since Linux also has KVM and Illumos is also lacking Xen.)
What Oracle and Illumos Have Not Learned
Various high-end storage vendors have been adding clustered file system, to existing file systems, some have even beat Oracle to bundling a ZFS port with Lustre on a non-Oracle operating system! This places ZFS in Solaris ans Illumos both at great risk or losing relevancy in the Solar System that Sun had carved out for them.
The Oracle Thin-Clients (i.e. SunRay's), being served from the cloud, would be a good start for the Solaris community, since they have something to serve (i.e. Oracle applications, Joyent vitrual desktops, etc.) Illumos still has an opportunity to serve SVR4 POSIX operating system desktops, if they choose to. It is possible that both the Commercial Solaris community with (open SPARC) and Open Source Illumos community (with proprietary Intel) will both decide to cede the ground entirely to Apple, leaving the communities without an ARM presence.
The market is still pretty much defined by the work that AT&T and Sun had done, historically. If Oracle and Illumos abandon their positions, the known universe will continue to degrade from standards-based systems into proprietary commodity based solutions - which may be the new universe what Oracle desires to play in. Where this leaves the rest of the market, that is a good question, but The Sun has not collapsed into a black-hole yet - it is still quite observable, no matter how much people continue to try to ignore it in the sky.