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Cloud computing is the new open-source for Sun Microsystems, which has promised to reveal more next month about a cloud platform it's building.

Sun's chief executive Jonathan Schwartz and cloud computing chief technology officer Lew Tucker Tuesday painted a vision of the future, where developers in big companies purchase cloud services using a credit card instead of building their own computing infrastructure or having to go through lengthy IT procurement cycles to buy services.

The executives compared cloud to open source, where code for products such as Sun's MySQL are downloaded per developers' needs without jumping through corporate hoops.

With "cloud computing we finally have that next step in the evolution [of the web], in that with card and a great idea you can compete with Google and Yahoo! and not have to worry about how you run a data center," Tucker told SugarCRM's annual developer and customer conference in San Francisco, California.

According to Schwartz: "As we talk to customers outside the purview of the CIO we see an awful lot of cloud activity going on."

Sun's CEO compared this to meetings he's had with chief technology and chief information officers in years past, people who swore there was no open-source code inside their companies but were proved wrong on closer examination of their IT infrastructures.

Hoping to capitalize on this, Tucker said Sun is building its own cloud and promised "further news" at the company's CommunityOne conference in New York City on March 18. A New York event should give developers working at Sun's customers on Wall St the opportunity to attend.

It was a promise clearly intended to excite interest given the current industry fixation with clouds as much as to prove to those outside Sun it will deliver something, as neither Tucker nor Schwartz provided more details. Schwartz, though, made it clear Sun wants to make money from the web-front end as much as from the data center running the cloud and storage.

Their promise follows more than half a year's corporate shuffling and restructuring around cloud. Last July, it emerged chief sustainability officer Dave Douglas had become Sun's senior vice president of cloud computing while a major corporate restructuring last November saw developers from the software group pulled into cloud computing. That saw former operating systems chief Ian Murdock named vice president of cloud-computing strategy.

Ultimately, open-source might be an unfortunate metaphor for Sun, given that the company's ability to monetize its own open-source software is - at best - unproved.

Sun's business remains dominated by servers and storage, and software is a tiny percentage of revenue despite Sun having spent the past few years opening its code in a belief this would create a developer market it could monetize.

By its own numbers, Sun presents a mixed picture of the uptake that was to have paved the way to revenue. Schwartz told SugarCON Sun's GlassFish middleware gets between 20,000 and 30,000 each day. That's fewer than half of MySQL, which Sun bought, which boasts between 50,000 and 80,000. That's in line with what we estimated Sun was getting from OpenSloaris last year: 5,300 a day.

By contrast, OpenOffice gets 500,000. Sun is a "significant" contributor, and OpenOffice is available from Sun.com. However, such is the level of industry support and adoption for OpenOffice - with backing from companies such as IBM - this cannot be seen as a Sun-only project.

If you want an idea of what a really successful open-source project looks like, look at Firefox 3. That earned a Guinness World Record on a single day last June when it hit more than eight million downloads. Outside of that, downloads have been consistently high to take market share from Microsoft's Internet Explorer. ®

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