Solaris on Intel left in the dust

Although Sun doesn't plan to release a Solaris 9 version for Intel, leaving Solaris 8 Intel users in a sticky position, there are plenty of alternatives.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Back in June 1993, I oversaw PC Magazine's review of the first version of Solaris on Intel. I was impressed. Over the years, however, as it became clear that Solaris on Intel always lagged behind Solaris on SPARC and lacked driver support, I grew to prefer Linux, BSD, and Caldera Open Unix (formerly UnixWare) as my Unix choices for Intel-based servers.

Still, many network administrators have deployed Solaris on Intel. According to Sun's Graham Lovell, director of Solaris product marketing, more than 1.2 million copies of Solaris under the Free Solaris program have been downloaded, and "the vast majority--approximately a million--has been Solaris 8 on Intel."

It's easy to understand why. If you already knew Solaris, or its BSD ancestors, Solaris on Intel made a fine, inexpensive application and file/print server for both Windows and Unix systems with little or no learning curve.

Now, though, Sun has deferred bringing Solaris 9 to the Intel platform. However, Lovell, says that "if the business environment changes, Sun will port Solaris 9 to Intel."

A Sun reseller who prefers to remain anonymous thinks that Solaris 9 will arrive on Intel when "pigs fly," and I side with him. With Linux making large in-roads into Intel-based servers and Sun doing well running Solaris on its own SPARC-based servers, it's hard to see Sun investing more in Solaris on Intel--especially when you consider that the install user base for Solaris on Intel is relatively small.

Sun will continue to make Solaris 8 on Intel available for at least two years and then support it for five more years with bug fixes and patches. That's good, but it doesn't include such server necessities as drivers for new equipment. For a driver for a new storage area network, for example, Lovell suggests that network administrators look to the open source community for its software.

I don't think you need to rush to move to something else, but I do believe you'd be wise to start thinking about it. After all, changing server operating systems is never something you want to do quickly. And in the long run you don't want to trap yourself into a slowly decaying operating system.

So where do you go? Graham thinks that most administrators can stick with Solaris 8 on Intel. I'm not so sure. As a plain-Jane file/print server, Solaris on Intel will be fine until you upgrade your hardware. And if you use Solaris on Intel for applications, eventually you'll be unable to run the most current versions of your application programs, because their developers won't be porting them to the shrinking Solaris on Intel market.

There's always the Solaris on SPARC alternative. But SPARC servers tend to be more expensive than their Intel equivalents. However, if you depend on applications or application servers on Solaris, this is really the smartest way to go.

If you want basic file/print services and the Intel platform, you could go with Linux. I think, though, that if you're already a Solaris pro, you might be happier going with one of the BSD operating systems; the command syntax of Solaris has more in common with the BSDs than it does with Linux.

You should also consider Caldera's Open Unix. Caldera CEO Ransom Love says that "customers who purchased Solaris did so because they needed its high-end capabilities. Solaris customers can maintain the same level of availability of Unix than Linux on Intel while getting the benefits of Linux." I tend to like this path myself. Open Unix is, as Ransom indicates with his availability comment, more stable, and has shown that it can handle enterprise-sized loads in its former life as UnixWare. It's also compatible with most Linux software. The downside of such a move is that making the switch from Solaris to Open Unix wouldn't be easy. There are Open Unix equivalents to Solaris' programs, but moving applications between the server operating systems is likely will be more difficult than simply moving from Solaris on Intel to Solaris on SPARC--and you'd still need to buy new application software.

If Solaris-specific applications are why you're running Solaris on Intel, run, don't walk, to Solaris on SPARC. If that's not the case, I think BSD works well for file/print,and Open Unix is for administrators who want a high-availability, enterprise-level Unix that runs on the Intel platform.

Steven has written about technology for more than 15 years. He was previously a programmer and network administrator for NASA and the Department of Defense. Steven is also currently chairman of the Internet Press Guild.

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