Time to Take OpenSolaris Seriously?

Sun's backing OpenSolaris with support contracts, so maybe it's time to give Sun's open source OS a second look in the enterprise.

By Charlie Schluting | Posted Nov 7, 2008
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What is better than your favorite server operating system merging with your favorite desktop OS? I honestly cannot think of anything.

OpenSolaris is the open source version of the Solaris operating system from Sun Microsystems (and the OpenSolaris community). Since 2005, both Sun engineers and community coders have hacked on OpenSolaris. What has resulted is a drastically improved Sun OS.

This overview of OpenSolaris article is the start of a three-part series. Next will be a technical review of the latest OpenSolaris, and finally we will end with an IT manager’s strategy guide.

What It Is

What is OpenSolaris? In two words: either Solaris Evolved or Solaris Linux.

OpenSolaris started off in early 2005 as Solaris released under the CDDL license. Most of Solaris, that is. A few small parts are still binary-only and not open source, but the kernel and everything people care about are fully open source. The commotion around the CDDL vs. GPL debate you may have heard is that the two are not compatible. Source code developed under the CDDL will likely never find its way into Linux, which means no ZFS or DTrace on Linux. On the bright side, Linux is finding its way into OpenSolaris.

Ian Murdock, founder of Debian Linux, was hired by Sun to lead Project Indiana. The primary goal of this project was to give OpenSolaris a GNU userland and improved package management system.

OpenSolaris is not really a fork of Solaris, but rather a new development model. Sun has been criticized for jumping on the open source bandwagon for publicity alone—especially after its MySQL acquisition—but in reality, Sun has fully adopted open source ideals. OpenSolaris development efforts are led by Sun engineers, and improvements do make their way back into Solaris itself. The iSCSI Target support project was the most relevant to me. Community development took off, and very quickly we had iSCSI Target support in Solaris 10, Update 4.

Solaris vs. OpenSolaris

It is difficult to say whether OpenSolaris is ready. It is essentially a development snapshot, and was not guaranteed to be stable and enterprise-ready until Sun recently announced that OpenSolaris would enjoy support contracts from Sun and a 6-month release cycle. You can also get OpenSolaris with MySQL on Amazon EC2 now. A 6-month release schedule sounds just like most Linux distributions.

People are often confused when looking at OpenSolaris. Suspicions about Sun’s goodwill are often triggered, for example, when looking at updates for the OS. For a long time, Solaris patches were not available unless you purchased a support contract. Security updates were public, but you had to pay for all others. If we look at OpenSolaris, we find that no patches are available at all. Is Sun pulling a fast one? No, think like Linux users for a moment. The new packaging system allows you to update OpenSolaris to the latest release without having to worry about annoying patches.

Now it is even more difficult to decide which Solaris support strategy makes the most sense. On one hand, OpenSolaris is just Solaris with improvements (major ones), but that also means it is, by its very nature, less stable. At least that is the perception. We’ll delve into the details over the next two weeks in parts two and three of this OpenSolaris series.

What It Isn’t

So where does it fit? Recently a ServerWatch columnist correctly noted that OpenSolaris isn’t being taken seriously.

OpenSolaris isn’t positioned to take over niches Linux has filled, but instead fill in gaps Solaris has had. Package management, more GNU utilities and more GUI tools mostly appeal to Linux users. While Sun isn’t into the desktop market, it recognizes that making OpenSolaris more familiar to Linux users means they will be more comfortable using it in the enterprise, and more likely to recommend its use. This has been a major reason for Linux’s success in the enterprise. Due to the great desktop support and wide adoption, the overall familiarity level across the world with Linux is much greater than any other Unix-like operating system.

It isn’t just hype. OpenSolaris is proving to be a huge success. Regardless of OpenSolaris adoption itself, new features developed in OpenSolaris are quickly making their way into Solaris. Solaris 10 update 6, by the way, finally has ZFS root filesystem support, so you can boot from ZFS now and completely forget about UFS.

In the future, don’t be surprised if Solaris is phased out in favor of OpenSolaris. They may have to adopt a long-term support model like other Linux distributors have because a 6-month release cycle in the enterprise is too quick. In fact, Solaris is that model at the moment, but as OpenSolaris changes too rapidly for everything to be backported in the future, expect to see Solaris go the way of SunOS.

Come back next week to learn about all the new features in OpenSolaris in our review of the OS.


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.

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