openSolaris 2008.11

Now for something completely different...I have been wanting to look into something other than the mostly Debian-derived Linux distributions I've tried recently.

Now for something completely different...

I have been wanting to look into something other than the mostly Debian-derived Linux distributions I've tried recently. Now, because of a job prospect (yes, I am still going to be unemployed as of 31 May...), I decided to take a look at openSolaris. I have a rather long history with Sun, as I worked for their very first Swiss distributor, and I was involved in importing one of the first Sun-1 workstations into Switzerland. I haven't touched one in many, many years though.

I downloaded the LiveCD ISO image and burned it to a CD. Very routine, exactly like it is for the Linux LiveCD images. I was busy doing something else on my main laptop (S6510), so I decided to try opensolaris first on the S2110. That's a bit risky, because it has an AMD CPU and ATI graphic adapter, which have sometimes been problematic with Linux installations, but why not give it a big test right away?

I was a bit pleased and impressed that the LiveCD booted properly on the S2110 with no fuss. But that feeling didn't last long... it didn't seem to be able to understand the disk partitioning. Hmmm. Back to the web, search the Solaris documentation and FAQs... it turns out that Solaris doesn't understand Extended Partitions. At all. Period. It must be installed to a Primary Partition, and if you have an Extended Partition anywhere else on your disk, it is a black hole to Solaris. That's not too great...

So, rather than install it to a partition on the current drive, I swapped the disk drive for another (the original from that laptop actually, smaller than what I am using now). I kept the Windows XP partition on that drive, and gave Solaris another Primary Partition for installation.

Once the LiveCD is up and running, there is a "Device Driver Utility" on the desktop which will tell you what hardware devices it sees, and whether it has the drivers for them. That's a nice touch, it's good to know at the beginning. Running it on the S2110 revealed that Solaris doesn't have a driver for the Broadcom 4401 Ethernet adapter, but it does have drivers for the Atheros Wireless adapter... that's a bit of an odd situation as well, most everything else I have tried has been the other way around, if there were a problem. It also doesn't have a driver for the ATI AC'97 Modem, but that doesn't bother me as much.

I went ahead with the installation anyway, just to see how it would go. It was reasonably fast, didn't ask too many questions and had good help for what it did ask. When it was done I rebooted, and the S2110 came right up running openSolaris. Not bad. It looks reasonably familiar, as it should since it is using a Gnome desktop, but there are lots of differences, large and small, so there is clearly going to be a significant learning curve.

I went to check which display driver it was using for the ATI graphic controller, and was shocked to see that it is still running version 1.3.0 of the X server! None of the Linux distributions I have installed are using that any more - a few have still got 1.4, most have 1.5, and Ubuntu 9.04 is already on 1.6! But I guess as long as it works, it's not that big of a deal... don't go looking under the hood thinking you can make a lot of changes that you've made on other Linux systems, though. Oh, and by the way, it is using the "ati" driver, not the proprietary "fglrx" driver, pretty much what I expected.

openSolaris on the x86 platform uses the GRUB boot loader, so I wanted to look at how that was configured. It took a bit of digging to find the configuration file - no, it's not in /boot/grub/menu.lst, even though the man page implies that it might be there. Once I found it, I discovered that they have made a number of Solaris-specific extension to GRUB, which probably make it nicer to use, but are likely to present a problem if you want to set up a multi-boot system with other Linux distributions. I decided to put that off for right now - besides, if Solaris doesn't understand Extended Partitions, I'm going to have to rethink some of my disk layouts.

The lack of a network interface made further exploration on this system difficult, so I decided to move on. The S6510 is still busy, so the next candidate is... the HP 2133! I didn't really expect openSolaris to perform very well, or at all, on that difficult little system, but figured it was worth a try. Much to my surprise, the LiveCD booted right up, with a decent looking desktop at 1024x768 resolution! Running the "Device Driver Utility" showed that the only thing in the 2133 that Solaris couldn't handle was the Broadcom 4312 WiFi adapter. No big surprise there. The disk partitioning on the 2133 looks like this:

- Primary, Win XP Pro - Primary, Ubuntu 9.04 - Primary, Linux Swap - Extended, lots of other Linux distributions

The Ubuntu 9.04 installation is expendable, since it is still in Alpha test, so I decided to go ahead and install there. As with the S2110, the installation went smoothly, and when it was done the Mini-Note booted right up with openSolaris, and the wired network connection came up as well. Good stuff!

Shortly after booting, a message came up saying that there were updates available for installation. I ran through that, it seemed quite easy, and in about 10 minutes it was done and asking for a reboot. It seemed to hang during shutdown for reboot, though. More about that later.

By this time the S6510 was finally available, so I decided to move on to it. This time I swapped out the disk drive and gave openSolaris the entire drive, 120 GB, rather than keeping a Windows partition intact. I was particularly curious as to how it would partition the disk, if it would separate /, /usr, /home or what... much to my surprise, it didn't seem to do any of that, it just created one huge partition, which the Linux installations see as "unknown", I suppose it is the Sun ZFS file system. Come to think of it, it didn't even create a swap partition... must be handling that within its own partition as well. Whew. I certainly have a lot to learn here.

The LiveCD booted just fine in the S6510 - in fact, I tried it both with and without the port replicator and external monitor, and it got the display right both ways (1280x1024 on the external monitor, and 1280x800 on the laptop). Running the "Device Driver Utility" revealed... uh-oh... it doesn't have a driver for the Marvell Gigabit Ethernet adapter. Surprising. Sigh. That puts a crimp in things, working without a wired network connection can be tedious.

I went ahead with the installation, and it went just as easily as it had on the other two. After about 15 minutes it was ready to reboot, and on reboot it came right up just fine. The display was, again, just right both with and without the external monitor. It announced that there were wireless networks detected, which is good news since I already knew that the wired adapter wasn't going to work. This system has the largest (and nicest) displays, and the openSolaris desktop looked quite good on them.

At this point I took a lunch break, and when I came back in a little less than an hour, the main battery and charger leds on the S6510 were blinking in a strange way that I had never seen before, and the cooling fan was running full speed. It looked like something had been running, and caused the laptop to overheat. As that is my primary laptop, I couldn't afford to take much of a risk with it. I rebooted, power cycled, and disconnected/reconnected the power, but the lights stayed the same. I finally gave up, swapped the disk drives back, and booted Ubuntu, and now all is well. It may be that the system was just overheated, and it would have recovered if I had just left it alone with the openSolaris disk installed, but the more important question is why it happened at all. As the farmer said when his mule fell dead in the field, "it's never done that before"!

In summary, my first impression of openSolaris is very mixed. Parts of it looked good, even very good; the LiveCD booted and installed on all three of my laptops quite easily, which is not often the case. The desktop looks good, and from what I can see the utilities and administration programs are good, although often quite different from what I am used to with Linux and other Unix versions. Therein lies the largest part of the problem, at least for me - it doesn't seem to "play well" with other distributions. Lots of things are different, in ways both large and small. It will take a considerable amount of learning, to say the least. It doesn't include a lot of things that I would like to have, even in the openSolaris repositories, but for things like OpenOffice and Adobe Flash, it does tell you that you can download and install them yourself. That's better than nothing, for sure, and a bit better than some of the Linux distributions which make it difficult or impossible to install outside software. The fact that it can't deal with Extended Partitions on the disk is truly a pain.

Unfortunately, it is not convenient for me to leave it installed on any of my laptops at the moment. So I have set aside the disks it is on for the two Lifebooks, and I have already reinstalled Ubuntu 9.04 on the Mini-Note. I will probably go back to try openSolaris some more in the future - especially if the job prospect involving it heats up.

jw 20/3/2009

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