Will OpenSolaris 2008.11 Attract Linux Users?

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.

 By Charlie Schluting
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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.

This article was originally published on Dec 10, 2008
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