Sun hopes for Linux-like Solaris

Through Project Indiana, Sun wants to give Solaris a Linux feel to try to woo an influential developer crowd.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
SAN FRANCISCO--In an effort to spur adoption of Solaris, Sun Microsystems has begun a project code-named Indiana to try to give its operating system some of the trappings of Linux.

The project is one of the items on the to-do list of Ian Murdock, founder of the Debian version of Linux and, as of March, Sun's chief operating systems officer. Though he wouldn't confirm the name of the project, Murdock--who's from Indiana--discussed the project's essence at the JavaOne conference here Monday, and Sun spokesman Russ Castronovo confirmed the name.

Sun has been trying for years to restore the luster of Solaris, a version of Unix that peaked in popularity in the late 1990s, but that since has faced a strong challenge chiefly from Linux. Sun has worked to reinvigorate Solaris by boosting its performance, offering it as a free download, making it an open-source project called OpenSolaris, and pushing a version that runs on servers using Intel's and AMD's mainstream x86 processors.

Linux and Solaris are cousins that stem from the same Unix heritage, if not from the same source code. But Linux fans simply have a hard time trying Solaris, Murdock said Tuesday.

"It's too unfamiliar. There's a gulf," Murdock said in an interview. "We need to make it familiar to people who know Linux inside and out."

Sun is smart to try to bridge the gap, said RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady. It would solve Solaris' problems, ease people's transitions from Linux to Solaris, and save Sun efforts in reinventing the wheel.

"How do you reach areas where you're falling short? By leveraging pre-existing technology. That's the open-source way," said O'Grady, an Ubuntu Linux user who found Solaris harder than it needed to be.

"It's too unfamiliar. There's a gulf...We need to make it familiar to people who know Linux inside and out."
--Ian Murdock, Sun's chief operating systems officer

Project Indiana has the attention of Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz, who dangled the Project Indiana name before blog readers last week, saying Sun employees are asking about it but that Murdock said it's still secret.

Programmers, who today often use Linux, are an influential group that Sun wants to reach: "The developer desktop is the gateway to so many interesting places where Sun makes its money," Murdock said. "Sun needs to have a better experience for developer workstations, which means laptops."

Basic operations, such as the "ls" command to see a listing of files in a directory, behave differently in Solaris, and Solaris lacks Linux tools for packaging, downloading and installing software such as Debian's apt-get, Murdock said. And Linux's installation process is much better than that of Solaris, in part because of better hardware support, he said.

Sun wants to embrace some Linux elements so "we make Solaris a better Linux than Linux," Murdock said, quoting Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, whose latest start-up, Ning, uses Solaris.

People are interested in Solaris technology such as DTrace, which lets administrators peer deeply into running software to uncover performance bottlenecks, and ZFS, file system software designed to make storage systems more reliable and easier to manage. But good luck to Linux fans trying to kick the tires.

"Even if you're spectacularly interested in these technologies, you can get derailed quickly," O'Grady said. One gripe in particular is Solaris' "20-year-old shell," basic command-line interface software that doesn't even support keyboards' backspace key, he said.

Linux has the advantage over Solaris when it comes to hardware support, Murdock said. But there's a barrier to code-sharing between the two projects: currently, the core "kernel" software of Solaris and Linux is under different open-source licenses, meaning that software from one project generally can't be moved to the other.

However, Schwartz has talked frequently of the possibility of releasing Solaris under the GPL that governs Linux, which--if both operating systems use the same version of the GPL--would theoretically permit code sharing.

There are technological limits to cross-pollination between the two operating systems as well; Linux driver software to support a particular piece of hardware can't simply be copied to Solaris to enable support. But Murdock believes it would be possible to plug in such support through the use of "shim" software that could smooth over the interface mismatch.

It's a tricky balance to adopt elements of Linux while preserving Solaris technology and advantages such as the promise of backward compatibility, which guarantees old software will run on new versions of Solaris.

"As we make Solaris more familiar to Linux users, we don't (want to) lose what makes it more compelling and competitive," Murdock said.

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