Oracle introduced the biggest update to its Solaris operating system in nearly a decade Wednesday. By all accounts it was a classy event, held at Gotham Hall in New York. We can’t tell you much about the launch though because the press was not invited.
The truth is that no Oracle bigwigs can even talk to Wired about Solaris because the company is now in its regular six-week-long quiet period, imposed at the end of each quarter so that no market-moving information accidentally slips out.
On a video replay of the launch, Oracle President Mark Hurd calls Solaris 11 “the first cloud OS,” and said things like, “With this OS: Game over.” At one point he jokes about the event’s low-key marketing, forcing producers to rerun a cheezy 10-second drumroll-with-fluffy-clouds Solaris 11 video just for laughs. Later he says that the software update “reflects our R&D commitment, long run, to this very important part of our portfolio.”
Scheduling such a low-key Solaris launch during a quiet period would have never happened at Sun, but in the two years since Oracle bought the Unix-maker, a lot of things have changed.
It’s hard these days to conceal the fact that Solaris, once the darling of the dot-coms, seems to have all of the sex appeal of an IBM minicomputer.
Hurd may call Solaris the first “cloud OS,” but Solaris isn’t really a player on the kind of cutting-edge cloud data centers run by companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook. According to Jonathan Eunice, principal IT adviser with industry research firm Illuminata, Solaris is becoming the stuff that makes Oracle’s database run really fast on Oracle’s hardware. “Solaris’ pitch, especially as Oracle has spun it, is, ‘We’re a superior enterprise play … so our competition is the mainframe; it isn’t the cloud.’ And that’s colored everything they do,” he says.
“The most negative view is that Solaris is now Oracle firmware,” says Eric Schrock, once a star engineer at Sun and Oracle, now the manager of the application engineering team with Delphix, a database virtualization company based in Menlo Park, Calif.
In its heyday, Sun Microsystems was a company that made rock stars out of engineers, including founder Bill Joy, public key encryption pioneer Whitfield Diffie, and James Gosling, the creator of Java. Even lesser-known developers such as Schrock’s former colleague Bryan Cantrill were considered rock stars in their own right.
Cantrill invented a feature, introduced in Solaris 10, called DTrace — a kind of magnifying glass for geeks that gives them a close-up view of what’s going on beneath the hood of the operating system when things go wrong. It was something new, and it proved to be so useful that Apple grabbed its open-source code and started using it in its Mac OS X.
Today he doesn’t see a lot groundbreaking developments coming out of Oracle. At Sun, engineers had a lot of power to influence the direction of products, but now that’s just not the case, he says. So the people who would write the next DTrace have simply moved on.
“The innovators are definitely gone,” he says. “So with some exceptions, you are essentially left with the custodians … Oracle itself is so out of step with what makes innovation exciting that there are few of those folks left.”
Cantrill, like many of Sun’s freewheeling engineers, really didn’t mesh with Oracle’s top-down culture. “I have never encountered an entity with less empathy or humanity or complexity than Oracle,” he says. “It was soulless at its deepest level.”
Schrock puts it more diplomatically. “Sun was pretty unique for a company of that size to value innovation in the way that it did, really to the detriment of anything else,” he says. “If what you were doing was innovative and cool then you could go do it. Oracle was really the complete opposite. I don’t think innovation is at the core of the company. It’s a very savvy business company, but their core business is around assembling parts.”
Soon after the acquisition, Cantrill, Schrock and many other Solaris developers started looking for new jobs.
Companies looking for top talent were quick to pounce. “That was like the fruit truck falling over on the freeway. It really was,” says Jason Hoffman, the man who hired Cantrill and several other Solaris engineers at Joyent, a maker of cloud software.
But even Cantrill has a kind of grudging respect for Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s business acumen. “Larry’s real skill in life is that he’s a monopolist and a goddamned good one,” he says.
The Solaris launch event — press-free, but loaded with customers from the financial services industry in New York — reflects Oracle’s focus on getting in the trenches with customers, something that Sun didn’t do enough. And it foreshadows the low-key future of Solaris.
This new, humbler Solaris operating system doesn’t need to displace Linux as the king of cloud computing to make Oracle money. It doesn’t need to win the hearts of hip new developers, but it does need to keep Wall Street happy. If it can run Oracle’s database and middleware so well that it steals a few bucks in server sales from HP or IBM, that may be enough.
The way another Sun refugee sees things, if Solaris is just one part of a finely tuned hardware and software platform that’s going to run a blazingly fast database, that’s still a good thing. “Oracle isn’t too interested in it as a standalone product anymore, which frankly probably makes sense,” says Ian Murdock, who until the acquisition was vice president of emerging platforms at Sun’s Cloud Group. “I can’t imagine that Oracle really wants to be in that business.”