OpenSolaris: What Ubuntu wants to be when it grows up

What would Ubuntu be like if it were an OS for grown-ups?This week at its CommunityOne event in San Francisco, Sun will release its May 2008 build of OpenSolaris (2008.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

What would Ubuntu be like if it were an OS for grown-ups?

This week at its CommunityOne event in San Francisco, Sun will release its May 2008 build of OpenSolaris (2008.05) the Open Source operating system based on the source code of the Solaris 10 enterprise UNIX OS, the first to be designated with "Production" support offerings. While very much community software and not yet at the level of polish for end-user adoption that many of the latest Linux distributions are now enjoying -- shows promise and enormous potential as an enterprise-class UNIX desktop and server with an Ubuntu-like flavor.

(See screenshot gallery of OpenSolaris 2008.05 Release installation and UI.)

Also: Commercial Open Solaris Ships (Paula Rooney)

Founded as an Open Source project by Sun Microsystems in June of 2005, and originally created as a clearing house for releasing CDDL licensed Solaris code for others (such as Nexenta and Sine Nomine) to produce Solaris-compatible operating systems, OpenSolaris recently refocused its efforts in the last year and launched Project Indiana, Sun's equivalent to Red Hat's Fedora or Novell's OpenSUSE -- where leading and bleeding edge enhancements to Solaris 10 can be tested and proofed by the Open Source community at large. To give Indiana some legitimacy, Sun hired Debian GNU/Linux founder Ian Murdock to lead the project, in the hopes that his Linux roots and community ties would improve OpenSolaris adoption.

Open Source UNIX x86-compatible operating systems are nothing new. The various BSD OSes have had a loyal but niche following for years. FreeBSD , NetBSD and OpenBSD are the major derivatives. Not surprisingly, ideological differences and personality clashes between FreeBSD's founders and contributors have created fractionalization and compatibility issues between the various BSDs, which has confused the landscape and limited BSD's adoption. To further complicate matters, Apple has even released the source code of Mac OS X's BSD-based UNIX core as the "Darwin" project and an installable distribution for Darwin even exists as GNU Darwin.

Despite a loyal following among research academia, vertical systems integrators and some Internet service providers, the BSDs never really caught with end users like Linux has. To further add to BSD's woe, no BSD-based OS has made significant inroads into the enterprise - only the System V based UNIX OSes, such as Sun's Solaris, IBM's AIX and HP's HP-UX now occupy that coveted mid-range and high-end space. Before pursuing its litigious path of self-destruction, even SCO's UnixWare and OpenServer System V OSes for x86 had some decent vertical penetration into the retail industry. And before they abandoned their native IRIX System V platform for Linux, SGI also had a large toehold in the supercomputing and CGI industry.

Still, OpenSolaris is the first and only System V-based UNIX to have been released into Open Source. However, it uses the CDDL license, a MPL-derivative which is incompatible with the GNU GPLv2 license that Linux uses. This has prevented Solaris source code from co-mingling with Linux, and has also set up a virtual "Mirror Mirror" universe of OpenSolaris developers that don't really cooperate with the general Linux population at large. As a result, porting and packaging efforts of major Open Source projects and software to Solaris have been relatively slow when compared to the many releases and fast adoption of the various Linux distributions. However, there has been some recent indication that Sun might release Solaris into GPLv3, which would cause a watershed of activity on the platform, as many packages and projects which run on Linux distributions are going in that direction as well. While somewhat wishful thinking but not completely out of the question, a GPLv2 release of Solaris would eventually bring about true "Unixfication" of the two platforms.

All this history aside, I'm very impressed with the OpenSolaris 2008.05 release -- clearly, Ubuntu's success has rubbed off on the OpenSolaris crowd, and thus it has adopted a lot of that Linux distribution's look and feel. End-users for the most part should feel right at home with OpenSolaris, with its up-to-date GNOME 2.22 interface, the very same that powers Ubuntu Hardy Heron's. The installation system boots as a Live CD, just like Ubuntu, and installs with only a few mouse clicks. Many new configuration applets and end-user programs have been added, making Solaris a much more "livable" environment than its big brother, Solaris 10. Firefox, the most current and stable version has been pre-installed and is even capable of running sites that use Adobe Flash. I had no problems with videos on YouTube and Google Video, or manipulating photos on Picnik or Adobe Photoshop Express. Battlestar Galactica replays on the Sci-Fi channel rewind website ran just fine too.

I did have some issues, however, getting Adobe's Acrobat reader installed, as they haven't built an x86 Solaris version yet -- only for SPARC. OpenSolaris provides an Open Source alternative to Acrobat in the form of evince. My suggested solution to the SPARC to x86 problem -- one which is going to plague Solaris x86 for some time until all of this package stuff is rationalized -- is that Sun should bulk license Transitive's QuickTransit software, from the guys who built the PowerPC to x86 "Rosetta" compatibility layer for Mac OS X. In fact, I'd get them to quick port an Ubuntu Linux to Solaris X86 version for OpenSolaris and have that installed as well.

Beauty is not only skin-deep. OpenSolaris employs the very same enterprise-proven high-performance Solaris 10 kernel that powers the biggest and baddest Sun boxes, and has the stability and monolithic scalability to match, something that commodity Linux desktops and servers -- while far more stable and sprightly than Windows OSes -- lack in comparison. In addition to the Solaris 10 kernel, OpenSolaris makes use of Sun's advanced 128-bit Zetabyte File System or ZFS, which permits "pooling" of storage on networked Solaris-based systems, as well as Solaris 10's native "containers" for OS-based high performance virtualization. Like its Linux cousins, OpenSolaris and Solaris 10 is also Xen-hypervisor enabled as both a virtualization domain and guest.

As a separate free download, Sun also provides VirtualBox (which was recently acquired as a result of the Innotek purchase) as host-based virtualization for Linux and Windows compatibility, similar to VMWare's Workstation 6.

With all these advanced enterprise UNIX features though, OpenSolaris still isn't quite as polished as its Linux cousins. For example, to get something as simple as SAMBA working, it requires creating a ZFS storage pool in the command line interface and executing a bunch of Solarisy-mumbo jumbo in addition to downloading SAMBA thru the OpenSolaris package manager, IPS (IPS is similar to other network aware package managers such as Debian's and Ubuntu's aptitude, or Fedora's YUM). On Ubuntu or any other Linux distribution, this is as simple as making an edit to /etc/samba/smb.conf and restarting the /etc/init.d/samba daemon. This is even easier to with most Linux-based configuration GUI's where you don't even need to touch the command line to make basic stuff work.

Additionally a lack of compiled packages when compared to Linux can also can make for a frustrating experience. While IPS is an excellent system and the Package Manager GUI on OpenSolaris is workable (although I would have preferred they ported the Debian/Ubuntu package GUI, Synaptic, instead of reinventing the wheel with a 1.0 flaky interface) and the pkg command itself is pretty robust -- the main OpenSolaris repository only has about 1200 unique packages on it, which is a pittance compared to what is available for Ubuntu, OpenSUSE or Fedora. While 3rd-party IPS repositories such as Sunfreeware and BlastWave are sprouting up, it will take a long time for OpenSolaris to gain comparable inertia and an end-user following until the system is at package parity with popular Linux distributions.

Nevertheless, OpenSolaris 2008.05 is a major milestone release for the project and their efforts should be commended. I've upgraded one of my servers to the system and I look forward to tracking further bi-annual milestone releases of the fledgling Open Source OS.

What's your take on OpenSolaris? Talk Back and let me know.

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