Will OpenSolaris 2008.11 Attract Linux Users?

by Charlie Schluting

OpenSolaris' second release introduces a number of new features along with UI refinements that may entice Linux users to give the new offering a try.

It is finally here! OpenSolaris 2008.11, released the first day of 2008.12, is now available. This second OpenSolaris release comes with even more software packages than before, more hardware support, and a few nifty features revolving around ZFS. In this article, we review OpenSolaris 2008.11 and cover some of the new features they’ve added. Last month’s overview of OpenSolaris itself is a good starting point for the uninitiated.

The question we cannot avoid is, “can it replace Linux?”

Figure 1 - the OpenSolaris login screen Yes, yes it can. The install is identical to all other Linux distros, and it uses the familiar GNOME desktop. OpenSolaris on the right hardware is basically the same as running Linux, from a casual user’s perspective. See Figure 1 for an example of the standard login screen.

Provided that you have supported hardware, there’s no reason you can’t run OpenSolaris on your desktop or laptop; we all know it runs as a server very well. All the same software is available, but by default only a subset has been adopted so far. If you use the “pending” and “contrib” repositories, you gain access to thousands of other software packages that are destined for “main” soon. To enable these, just add a new repository in Package Manager: http://pkg.opensolaris.org/contrib.


Figure 2 - the OpenSolaris package manager The package manager, Image Packaging System (IPS), is something that has been missing from Solaris for years. Most Solaris server administrators installed blastwave.org’s pkg-get program, and used it to install open source software much like debian’s apt-get. This worked well, but was not supported by Sun. To have a fully supported and vendor-authorized Solaris server, you had to rely on the packages Sun provided. Now, they provide IPS and the Ubuntu Synaptic lookalike frontend called Package Manager as seen in Figure 2. You can easily and quickly install 1500+ packages (the default number in the main repository) at the click of a button. For server administrators, there’s the pkg command that does the same thing.

Wow, Cool!

IPS also lets you update the entire system, much the same way that Linux package managers work. As we mentioned in our previous OpenSolaris article, this is how you now install “patches,” which are really just package updates now (think: Linux). There are no more patches from Sun you need to download, everything here operates the same way Linux distros with package management have done it for years.

Figure 3 - Open Solaris boot environments The really interesting part, however, is that it’s much safer in OpenSolaris to update the entire system. We all know that things can go horribly wrong at times. IPS will create a new “boot environment,” or BE, which is essentially a ZFS snapshot of the root file system, before making any changes, as seen in Figure 3 . If things don’t work out as planned, you can just select the previous BE from the GRUB menu upon boot and you’re back to the pre-update state. Now that is cool.

Figure 4 - the Open Solaris Time Slider Other ZFS automation in 2008.11 comes to us in the form of Time Slider. Just like Time Machine in OS X, you can schedule automatic backups and visually recover files that were deleted. Unlike OS X, OpenSolaris leverages ZFS to take snapshots instead of just copying your files to another device. That is good and bad; you have snapshots (like shadow copies in Windows) which save tons of space, but you also have no backups. In the future, expect this addressed with the new ZFS replication support that was recently added. As seen in Figure 4, Time Slider is very easy to enable.


Other updates in OpenSolaris 2008.11 include:

  • For sysadmins, two interesting additions:

    • Project COMSTAR: the new storage server project. At this time, only Fibre Channel is supported, but iSCSI support is coming.
    • Auto Install: a JumpStart-like installation system to automate OpenSolaris installs, but much simpler than JumpStart.
  • Desktop features:

    • GNOME 2.2.4: a very new version with an amazingly beautiful default theme.
    • Print Manager: with automatic detection. Still not using CUPS, but this is planned for a future OpenSolaris release.
    • Firefox 3: the latest Firefox Web browser, and Thunderbird mail client.
    • Songbird: the iTunes clone for Linux is now available in the main repository.
    • Tracker: the desktop indexing and search tool for GNOME now runs by default.
    • OpenOffice 3: available in the repository, but is not installed by default.
    • Suspend to RAM: works now for a very limited set of computers.

This new set of features for OpenSolaris is definitely a step in the right direction. We only hope that they do not get bogged down in the cool new projects and neglect the main contributors to success: being more Linux-like in the userland. New features are great, and Time Slider is the premiere example of really neat advances, but no CUPS yet? No SPARC support until the next release? Only 1506 packages in the main repository? If OpenSolaris spent the next 1-2 years focusing primarily on adopting standardized open source software rather than implementing shiny new features, the project would stand a much better chance of attracting long-time Linux users. OpenSolaris doesn’t need the exclusive community that Solaris enjoyed all these years, it needs the huge Linux community. I think it will happen; the question is, “how quickly?”

So take OpenSolaris seriously, and also try it out. The hardware issue isn’t a big deal for testers, as OpenSolaris runs perfectly in VMware and QEMU+KVM — just make sure you let it hang on to the mouse during bootup and when X starts.

When he's not writing for Enterprise Networking Planet or riding his motorcycle, Charlie Schluting is the Associate Director of Computing Infrastructure at Portland State University. Charlie also operates OmniTraining.net, and recently finished Network Ninja, a must-read for every network engineer.

This article was originally published on Wednesday Dec 10th 2008
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