At the dentists office earlier today, I was reading Business Week and came across a short interview with Scott McNealy about the future of the IT business. He compared data centers to airplanes, and basically made the point that companies don’t build airplanes, they rely on plane manufacturers to do so. It just so happens that when I got back to work I saw a weblog entry discussing McNealy’s point: Pre-Integrated Airplanes. I don’t think the analogy holds up very well, but that being said, I think we are seeing a trend in the industry toward turnkey manufactured, integrated systems. How this is playing out is bad news for Sun.
What we’re seeing is that people are using commodity hardware, and more and more often, commodity software to abstract away everything that doesn’t provide business value. For example, I recently encountered a company that is in the business of making software to provide a specific network service. A big chunk of their product is a Web application written in Java. They don’t sell a WAR file though. What they sell is a rack mountable Linux box running Apache, Tomcat, webmin, MySQL, and a bunch of other open source packages and a few hundred kilobytes of code that they produced themselves. So if you want to deploy this service in your company, you buy their box, give it power and network connectivity, and you’re off and running. If you’re Microsoft, Sun, or Oracle, I don’t see how such services are good news.
Open source software is the commodity software part in this stack of components. It’s free, it’s totally hackable, and you don’t have to sign any kinds of licensing deals to use it, as long as you abide by the license for the software itself. An alternative to appliances like these are Web services and Web applications, which are also often built on a foundation of open source software. My advice to Scott McNealy would be to be careful what you wish for.