Over the weekend, I had the chance to take a look at Sun Microsystems' latest OpenSolaris 2009.06, which it released during last week's JavaOne conference. The last time I had a look at OpenSolaris, it was just over a year ago, back in May of 2008.
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Much as it is with community Linux releases such as Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora or OpenSUSE, OpenSolaris 2009.06 is an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary improvement over the initial 2008.05 build. All the major open source packages have been refreshed, as it is to be expected, and for the most part, OpenSolaris provides a comparable user experience to most LinuxAs with the previous release, OpenSolaris 2009.06 is delivered as a live CD image, so you can boot and use the operating system from a CD without having to actually install it on your system, as it is with Linux distributions like Ubuntu. For the most part, installing OpenSolaris is just like installing Ubuntu -- boot the system with a CD, and from the default desktop, click on the "Install OpenSolaris" icon, which launches a wizard based install. After installation, the OS boots from a GRUB-based bootloader, just like Ubuntu Linux. .
Also See: OpenSolaris 2009.06 Gallery
So if OpenSolaris works just like a Linux desktop OS, why not just use Linux? That's a complex question to answer.
Linux excels primarily because it is adaptable to many system configurations and can run on the lowest power, embedded CPU architectures like handheld devices and USB keychains all the way up to virtual instances on mainframes. Its wide array of hardware and device support and versatility makes it the veritable Swiss Army Knife or the Leatherman of Open Source.
However, the Linux Kernel and accompanying userland binaries that form modern Linux distributions were developed using toolsets and code entirely in the the Open Source world, using source contributed from thousands of developers, and was designed over time to emulate the functionality of UNIX without using actual UNIX source code, so the maturity level and reliablity of the code in the Linux kernel and the accompanying libraries and toolsets varies considerably. This is not to say that the code that Linux uses is inferior, but the Linux codebase is significantly newer -- as in under development in a much shorter timespan -- than that of UNIX overall, which started in the late 1960s.
OpenSolaris, while also an Open Source operating system like Linux, comes from a commercial UNIX pedigree and blends both mature UNIX SVR4 kernel code developed by Sun Microsystems for its Solaris 10 enterprise server OS that was originally proprietary (now Open Source under a combination of licenses including CDDL and LGPL) with a similar mix of Open Source tools and binaries that Linux uses. So in a sense, it is the best of both worlds.
Where Linux excels at adaptability to many different computing architectures and has broad device support, Solaris excels in stability and scalability -- it is able to run on much larger monolithic systems, on servers with dozens of processors with up to 32 cores apeice. Its enterprise-proven 128-bit Zettabyte File System outperforms and outclasses any Open Source file system driver which currently exists in production status on any Linux-based OS, and its mature and fast networking stack (now with full network virtualization support with Project Crossbow) makes it ideally suited for enterprise server applications. In addition to full support for 32-bit x86 and 64-bit AMD64 and x86-64 chips, and Sun SPARC processors (new in this release), OpenSolaris 2009.06 also sports one of the first kernels on any OS to support all the extensions in Intel's most newest Nehalem 64-bit microarchitecture in the latest Xeon 5500 processors.
Solaris' merits in the enterprise space are well known. However, how does it stack up as a desktop OS when compared to mature projects such as Ubuntu, OpenSUSE and Fedora?
Certainly, from a pure GUI and basic app standpoint, OpenSolaris is on parity with any of the other contenders, because it comes with the same software used on its Linux brethren -- the latest GNOME, the most current browser (possibly even bleeding edge, as the Firefox in OpenSolaris is 3.1 beta 3) a recent 2.24 build of the Evolution mail client, Pidgin Instant Messenger 2.5.5 and OpenOffice 3.0 (installable through the Package Manager application).
OpenSolaris' GNOME also supports the COMPIZ 3D compositing window manager for supported 3D accelerated video hardware that is compatible with Solaris, which has greatly been improved from previous versions -- now virtually all of the major nVidia, ATI and Intel graphics chipsets are supported with native vendor drivers.
OpenSolaris has also added some interesting ZFS filesystem snapshot support to the GNOME Nautilus filemanager, which allows you to go back in time to a previous version of a user's home directory in the event files get deleted. If you're going to outfit a powerful workstation with an Open Source OS for in-house Java or web software development, OpenSolaris would be an excellent choice.
However, while I wouldn't hesitate to recommend OpenSolaris to a UNIX-head or a power user with prior Linux experience, OpenSolaris is still a bit a way from declaring itself a major competitor to Ubuntu, OpenSUSE or Fedora as a mainstream community Open Source OS for regular end-users. While I generally found the browsing experience to be fine with Solaris, and I was able to make sites such as Vimeo, YouTube, Hulu and CBS TV sites stream video content smoothly, I had to do a manual install of 's Flash 10 plugin, requiring some footwork at the Solaris command shell to extract the necessary library object file and move it to the /usr/lib/firefox/plugins directory. (EDIT: This apparently can be avoided by installing Flash after the fact using the Package Manager. However, I would reccomend to the OpenSolaris team that Firefox's default "Plugin missing, click here to download" messages be replaced with something more helpful.)
I also noticed some significant performance issues with the Solaris implementation of Flash 10 when several embedded flash video objects tried to load on a single web page simultaneously, effectively rendering Firefox unusable and completely hogging the processor on my Dell Inspiron 530 with 4GB of RAM and an nVidia GeForce 8500 GT, my regular Windows 7 and Linux desktop testing system. Either this is an architectural issue with the Flash 10 implementation on Solaris or it's a minor bug which needs to be addressed by Adobe, but it was still a showstopper if I tried to load the Tech Broiler homepage in OpenSolaris. This problem doesn't happen in Linux or Windows with the same version of the browser, so it's definitely not a page coding issue.
For playing regular multimedia files, OpenSolaris comes with the Totem media player and appropriate browser plugin support to enable playback of embedded media, which out of the box is fairly useless unless you pay for Fluendo codecs which cost 28 Euros. OpenSolaris provides full support for the Codeina Web Shop which allows you to purchase these (legal) plugins so you can play .AVI, .MP3, and different MPEG formats including Xvid. I didn't bother to go through with the purchase, but I have to assume it works. Alternatively I unsuccessfully tried to install mplayer and VideoLAN's VLC from external repositories using OpenSolaris' 2009.06 improved GUI Package Manager, but they appear either to be out of date with the current OpenSolaris build or the repositories are down.
Which brings us to the matter of overall software support. From a 3rd-party software repository package support perspective, OpenSolaris 2009.06 is more or less at the same level as it was a year ago -- woefully behind that of the Linux distributions. This is to be expected, as the amount of developer participation in the OpenSolaris project pales to that of Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora and OpenSUSE. While some of these issues can be mitigated via the use of virtualization tools such as VirtualBox, which enables Linux and Windows to run under OpenSolaris as virtual machines, it bears the question -- why not just run Linux as a workstation instead If you want access to all those Open Source tools?
There is also the issue that many Open Source developers have in the past been uncomfortable with the fact that while OpenSolaris uses many of the same GPL, Apache and Mozilla-licensed components in its userland as Linux distributions, the base Solaris operating system is licensed under CDDL, an Open Source license that is completely incompatible with the GPL, the software license used for the Linux kernel and many other popular Open Source software packages.
This is actually an area where I hope that Oracle with its purchase of Sun Microsystems can swoop in and do some serious good -- if OpenSolaris was licensed under GPLv3 instead of CDDL, and the OpenSolaris project was given 501c3 not-for-profit status as an independent entity from Oracle/Sun, I think we'd see many of Ubuntu and Debian's packages ported to Solaris much quicker, this closing a lot of the compatibility gap between Solaris and Linux and making a worthwhile desktop alternative for power-users and end-users alike. That being said, OpenSolaris has recently launched the Source Juicer site, an initiative that is roughly analogous to OpenSUSE's Build Service for Linux, which in theory will allow source packages and binaries to be built and added to the official repositories much faster.
OpenSolaris 2009.06 is indeed a significant release for the project and is an excellent enterprise workstation and server OS, and I'm looking forward to tracking future progress of the developers working on it, particularly when Oracle decides what it's going to do with it going forward and how it will manage the project compared to Sun.
Have you played with the latest OpenSolaris 2009.06 release yet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.