In an apparently uncontested move earlier this month, Enterprise Linux and JBoss vendor Red Hat announced it's assuming the stewardship of the open-source Java development project OpenJDK 6 -- an effort to extend the serviceable lifetime of the existing Java 6 platform.
The company did not mince words, saying it took this step "to continue to help drive the future of Java and of OpenJDK."
The change sets the stars of enterprise SaaS more in alignment, as the company behind JBoss, the leading open-source middleware package, makes a play for leadership, if not outright control, of the runtime platform upon which JBoss depends.
The three principal middleware platforms that are critical to any SaaS deployment are JBoss, IBM's WebSphere, and Oracle's Fusion. There was a time when JBoss was automatically considered to have the advantage.
The whole purpose of middleware is to enable communications between software components through standardized interfaces, so it only makes sense for middleware to be produced through an open-source community process. In addition, Java was, at one time, considered the applications platform with the smoothest on-ramp for developers. Some would argue SaaS exists because of Java.
But ever since Oracle's acquisition of Java creator Sun Microsystems in 2010, there’s been the outstanding question of just how "open" Java can continue to be. Granted, a language platform does not have to be open-source to be practical or successful, but an interface should be. While Sun was actually flattered that Google would want to emulate the Java runtime for its Dalvik mobile runtime platform, Oracle has taken the opposite stance, defending its position that any commercial interpretation of the Java virtual machine requires licensing.
That defense has kept the open-source community on pins and needles ever since Oracle entered the picture. OpenJDK is one open-source implementation of the Java runtime, and for many enterprises, it remains the free alternative to Oracle’s high-priced Java SE, costing as much as $15,000 per processor (see Oracle’s January 2013 price list
in this PDF).
In October 2010, IBM said it would join with Oracle in stewarding OpenJDK. That move led to the dissolution of another open-source Java implementation, Apache’s Harmony.
It also led to a skeptical reception by some in the community, especially after a rewriting of OpenJDK’s bylaws stacked the board with vendor representatives, reducing the community to a non-executive role.
While the matter may seem like petty squabbling on the surface, it actually has a direct impact on the evolution of SaaS, including the near term.
Unless Red Hat wants to direct its Enterprise Linux customers to Oracle in order for them to download a Java that runs with their operating system, they need a Java implementation that can be legally and freely distributed. And it seems odd somehow to have Oracle and IBM take charge of managing Red Hat’s only free alternative. You might think those two companies would find it in their best interests to stall.
Coincidentally, "stalled" almost perfectly describes the state of Java. Along with the inclusion of a bypass that enables users to execute unsigned code, the state of security for the latest Java 7 has been riddled with more holes than a plot for a Transformers movie. As a result, enterprises have been reluctant to make the upgrade.
Oracle extended support for Java 6 as long as it felt it could, but finally made its final update last month.
Now, Red Hat’s move may be perceived not just by the community, but by customers as well, as a way to save Java’s evolution from derailment. Specifically, this helps by more closely aligning it with the key component that makes Java both useful and affordable in the enterprise.
Al Hilwa, IDC's program director for applications development software, tells me the move places Red Hat closer to the driver's seat, if not directly in it:
It means that customers may begin to associate Red Hat as a company more involved in the leadership of Java in general, and may look favorably on the value of its support offerings. I would say this has a positive mind share and business effect in the long run for Red Hat and its JBoss offerings.
What, I asked Hilwa, does this say for the continued role of IBM and Oracle, which are not officially out of the OpenJDK picture?
For the key Java players, they all win if Java is seen as a cross-vendor standard. IBM is already perceived as a powerful player in Java, and its participation in OpenJDK and investment since 2010... has been a big plus for Java. I don’t think Red Hat leading on OpenJDK 6 takes anything away from that.
While Oracle may own the intellectual share of Java, Red Hat may very well have just placed a bid for the mind share of its supporters. It could be the bid they were looking for.