Interview: Ken Drachnik on Sun's GlassFish OSS App Server

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 25, 2008

Last week, as part of a dual-promotion between OStatic and Sun Microsystems, OStatic introduced a program through which Java developers can get a year of free hosting for applications powered by the open source GlassFish Application Server and MySQL--both from Sun.  GlassFish is an app server project for the Java Enterprise Edition (Java EE) platform, and is based on source code donated by Sun and Oracle. Its servlet container employs a derivative of Apache Tomcat. We checked in with Ken Drachnik, marketing manager for open source software infrastructure products at Sun and a co-founder of GlassFish, about GlassFish and open source issues.

OStatic: What excites you about getting involved in open source?

Ken Drachnik: There are many reasons to get involved in open source software. The majority of people who join are users of the software that either have a feature they want included or a bug that impacts their business and they want it fixed. Other reasons include: working with the experts in the area (GlassFish employs THE experts in enterprise Java), to expand one's development skills or to better learn the software so one can develop a product / business that runs on top of or with the open source code.

OStatic: How did GlassFish come about?

Ken Drachnik: GlassFish was the first proprietary software product that Sun open sourced. We were initiating development of Java Platform, Enterprise Edition 6 (Java EE 6) – the next version of enterprise Java--at the time that open source software was really starting to expand. We had the option of continuing development in a proprietary way or starting an open source project, so we decided to go open source. Since Java EE 6 was new technology at the time, we felt that we would have a good chance of developing a community around the new code.

The name GlassFish was chosen because it implied transparency of development. GlassFish are fish with clear/transparent flesh that allows you to see the inner workings of the fish. The GlassFish open source community is the same because it allows anyone to participate and see what is happening in the community.

OStatic: Aside from providing development resources and basic infrastructure, how has being a part of Sun helped the GlassFish project?

Ken Drachnik: Sun is the spec lead of the Java EE Java Specification Requests (JSRs) which means Sun engineers are the experts in enterprise Java. So having them participate and drive the community gives GlassFish credibility that it would not have otherwise.

Sun is a large company that has an existing software business in addition to its open source offerings, so we have spent quite a bit of time working on our open source governance models to ensure our communities are open to all and utilize the Open Source Initiative (OSI) approved open source software licenses.

In a large company, the development of governance models involves quite a few people and takes quite a bit of time, so we are slower than startups to release our code into open source. Also, when you have a lot of legacy code that you want to
open source there is quite a bit of work involved making sure that Sun has the
legal right to open source all the code. In those cases where we don't have that right, we have to either find an open source equivalent or develop new code – all of which takes time.

OStatic: Besides Apache Tomcat, what are some of your closest competitors?

Ken Drachnik: Unlike Tomcat, GlassFish is a full Java EE server, so it has all the capabilities of supporting large, highly scalable applications with the administrative support and uptime required by large enterprises. GlassFish is the fastest open source application server available today (according to SPECjappserver 2004 tests) and has a very simple administration console that makes it easy for users to start and stop instances of the application server and manage clusters.

We also have an update center that helps automate the task of updating the application server and other products from Sun. Also, there are a number of associated software components that are part of GlassFish that give it an edge over other implementations. These include Project Metro for Web services interoperability between Java and .NET environments, and Project SailFin for SIP servlet technologies to name a couple.

OStatic: What types of people and companies adopt your product?

Ken Drachnik: Developers, System Administrators, IT managers and hackers all use GlassFish. I have had one guy demonstrate to me his photo sharing site he developed on top of GlassFish, and at the other end of the scale we have Google and American Express as members of the governance board for GlassFish.

GlassFish is in production at financial institutions, large manufacturing organizations, e-commerce sites and universities. As we launched the GlassFish community, nearly all the members were from Sun, since we donated the code to the community. Since then we’ve had several enterprises join, most notably Oracle, which donated its Top Link Essentials persistence code, and later on Ericsson donated the SIP servlet technology.

OStatic: What technologies does GlassFish use?

Ken Drachnik: GlassFish is the reference implementation for Java EE 5 so it's the source for all those technologies. A complete list can be found at

OStatic: Some of our readers are individual open source "hackers" and developers from small startups. What aspects of GlassFish would appeal to this crowd?

Ken Drachnik: GlassFish is easy-to-use and easy-to-manage. Hackers want software that they can start using out of the box and that functions well. If it takes too much time or tweaking to get the basic software to do what they want, the hackers  will just move onto some other piece of open source code.

The latest version of GlassFish is also small and fast. With a kernel of about 100k and a startup time on the order of a second, a hacker can test and retest an application on GlassFish very quickly.

OStatic: Can you give us some insight into the GlassFish road map?

Ken Drachnik: GlassFish V2 (update 2) is the current release, and is based on Java EE 5. We have an upcoming release scheduled for Q4CY08, GlassFish V3 Prelude, that will support OSGi architecture but still be based on Java EE 5.

In the first half of 2009, we expect to release the next version of GlassFish that supports OSGi and will include the Java EE 6 technologies. Foremost among these is the concept of profiles, which allow developers to use only those JSRs that are relevant to their applications.

The first profile will be a “Web” profile that includes the Web container but
removes many of the enterprise technologies that do not apply to Web applications,  making Java smaller, faster and more simple to implement in these cases. Other profiles (which will be defined by JSRs) are expected to cover Telco and maybe even finance.

OStatic: In your estimation, how large is the GlassFish community?

Ken Drachnik: We have a group of engineers that do nothing but evangelize GlassFish. They travel to college campuses, user groups and open source conferences worldwide speaking and demonstrating the benefits of GlassFish and enterprise Java. Sun also has a very strong campus ambassador program that recruits engineering students at universities to promote Java.

GlassFish is downloaded worldwide. Last year GlassFish was downloaded more than 4.5 million times from countries all over the world. It was downloaded in Asia, Brazil and of course Europe, the U.S. and Africa. We estimate that more than 7,000 developers are members of the GlassFish community based on mailing list activities.

OStatic: How do you monetize GlassFish?

Ken Drachnik: The open source GlassFish bits are free to use, deploy and redistribute. Sun creates a fully supported version using the same bits that includes full documentation, translation into multiple languages, training and indemnification.

We sell support and subscriptions for the “enterprise” version of the application server that is called the Sun GlassFish Enterprise Server. We also sell support for an OEM version of the GlassFish Enterprise Server to partners who embed it into
their equipment and appliances.

OStatic: What, in your opinion, are the biggest challenges facing the open source movement?

Ken Drachnik: The open source movement is thriving. With companies like MySQL, Canonical, and foundations like Apache, the developer community has been given access to much of the code that runs today's infrastructure. Going forward though, it is up to those open source companies to execute a business model that allows them to continue to fund their support of the open source projects. Unless these commercial companies can thrive, their support of the open source communities will wither.