Former Employee Says Sun 'Strong Armed' Control of OpenDS Project

Lora Bentley

A former Sun Microsystems employee has accused Sun Microsystems of using "strong arm tactics" to maintain control of an open source project he and his partners once owned. Neil Wilson was laid off in September when Sun moved its Directory Services engineering group -- including the OpenDS project -- from Texas to France. Recently, Wilson wrote an open letter to the project community and to his former company.


In it, he says:

I must now regrettably inform you that I have been compelled to end all involvement with OpenDS. I have resigned all roles that I held in the project and have rescinded my Sun Contributor Agreement. I will no longer contribute code, documentation, bug reports, suggestions for improvement, or advice of any kind.

His resignation from the project, along with those of four other OpenDS project owners, came as the result of a dispute over project governance, according to Wilson. By way of background, he explains:

On November 14, 2007, a member of executive management within Sun's software division contacted one of the recently-laid-off OpenDS project owners and 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 four former-Sun owners discussed this and decided that we could not in good conscience approve the requested change as we did not believe that it would be in the best interests of the project, but we were also not willing to risk the considerable financial loss that could result if Sun decided to make good on that threat. After first trying to resolve the issue through more amicable avenues, we were ultimately compelled to resign our ownership and end our association with the project on November 19, 2007.

Responding to Wilson's letter, Sun's chief open source officer, Simon Phipps, told Reg Developer


I don't think that Neil has said anything that's precisely untrue, but he has been selective about what he has said. He hasn't mentioned, for example, that the governance policy was first changed in April, and that Sun simply wanted to change it back. ... One could argue that [the first change] 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. You would expect Sun employees to get fiduciary approval before removing Sun's stake in the governance.

Not surprisingly, Phipps says even if the situation unfolded as Wilson tells it, the tactics he alleges are not typical of Sun's broader open source approach. But here's the thing -- Wilson says as much himself, according to Reg Developer:

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."

If that's true, why go to the trouble of an open letter with a drawn-out explanation? Why not just say, "as of such and such date, I will be ending my involvement with OpenDS," cut your losses and move on?


It's been said before that I don't see enough of the gray sometimes. Maybe this is one of those instances. But I don't see the point of airing one's frustrations in an open letter unless the situation evidences a systemic problem that bears investigating.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 4, 2007 5:32 PM Anonymous Coward Anonymous Coward  says:
It's entirely possible that there is more to the story that Wilson is either able or willing to publish.In an open source community, it makes sense to reveal flaws in project governance in an effort to have them corrected.Seems to me, without Wilson's open letter, Sun wouldn't be under the same kind of pressure to correct their position. Reply

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