Sun accused of hardball open source project tactics
Weighs ex-employee's claim
Neil Wilson, a recently laid-off Sun Microsystems employee and a former owner of the OpenDS project, has accused his ex-boss of using strong-arm tactics to keep control of his project.
In an open letter Wilson said he's finally gone public to "clear the air" having kept quit for fear of potential retaliation from Sun. Retaliation in this case meant lost severance.
Wilson helped found OpenDS, which aims to build a free, open-source directory service. Written in 100 per cent Java, it includes a directory server and such related services as directory proxy, virtual directory, namespace distribution, and data synchronization. Wilson served as project architect, and claimed to have contributed "more code than anyone else."
He and four other OpenDS committers were laid off when Sun closed an Austin, Texas, facility in late September and moved the Directory Server engineering group's activities - which included OpenDS - to a facility in Grenoble, France. The other OpenDS project owners were Stephen Shoaff, Don Bowen, and David Ely, and OpenDS community manager Trey Drake.
In an open source project, "owners" are the participants who establish the governance scheme, set the projects goals, guide the community effort, and resolve disputes among project contributors.
According to Wilson, the group planned to continue working on OpenDS after the layoff. But in mid-November, they clashed with Sun executives over the project's governance. According to Wilson, they were informed of Sun's intention "to change the OpenDS governance policy so that the project was controlled entirely by a Sun-selected committee."
Then, during a conference call, Sun "demanded that the owners approve a governance change that would grant Sun full control of the OpenDS project. During this call, we were threatened that if we did not make this change we could face immediate termination and loss of all severance benefits."
The soon-to-be former Sun employees decided, Wilson wrote, they couldn't, in good conscience, approve the change, but didn't want any trouble about their severance. "After first trying to resolve the issue through more amicable avenues," Wilson continued, "we were ultimately compelled to resign our ownership and end our association with the project on November 19, 2007."
Sun insists that, though some executives were probably playing hardball in this exchange, no one was ever asked to leave the community. And in his letter, Wilson said that he believes this clash was not representative of Sun's true open source strategy, but was "a relatively isolated incident brought on by middle management acting of their own accord."
At press time, Wilson had not returned our calls. You can read his entire letter here.
Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open-source officer and ombudsman, was reluctant to talk about the incident, because he said he's still looking into it. But he did want to set the record straight on a few points.
"I don't think that Neil has said anything that's precisely untrue, but he has been selective about what he has said," Phipps told The Register. "He hasn't mentioned, for example, that the governance policy was first changed in April, and that Sun simply wanted to change it back."
It appears the project owners did change the governance of the OpenDS project in April - months before the layoff - effectively writing Sun out of the governance picture. The project's initial governance scheme established Sun as the ultimate arbiter of the development process.
The original line read: "The OpenDS project has single, overall Project Lead. This Project Lead, who is appointed by Sun Microsystems, is responsible for managing the entire project, and is the final arbiter of all decisions." In April that line was changed to read: "The OpenDS project has single, overall Project Lead. This Project Lead, who is appointed and removed by a majority vote of the Project Owners, is responsible for managing the entire project, and is the final arbiter of all decisions."
This change (1739) can be seen on the project's version control system.
"One could argue that it was a good decision or a bad decision, but the fact is, the fiduciary - which is Sun - was not consulted before that change was made," Phipps told El Reg. "You would expect Sun employees to get fiduciary approval before removing Sun's stake in the governance."
Not only were the proper Sun executives not informed of that change, Phipps claimed, but it wasn't posted on the public lists, so neither the community nor Sun management knew about it. The change didn't even come to Sun's attention until the layoffs were announced in September.
"It was just a small textual change, and it went undetected by Sun execs and the community until after the [layoff] was initiated," Phipps said. "At that point, as people were doing the housekeeping, they discovered the change. With all of the project owners laid off, it left Sun with no say in the project."
Wilson and his colleagues had elected a Sun employee, Ludovic Poitou, "as an act of good faith (and without any prompting from Sun)," as a fifth project owner. After the group resigned from the project, Poitou reversed the changes made in April to the original scheme.
"Look, there's always room for improvement, and there probably are places where we're not doing open source right," Phipps allowed. "But this is not one of them. I think OpenDS has operated in pretty good faith. If the guys had continued as Sun employees and not been laid off, I think they probably would have had a much more reasonable attitude about this, and the whole matter could have been resolved amicably. It's been unfortunately complicated because of that layoff."®