Well, it may be December, but it is time for the OpenSolaris 2008.11 update, the second tweak of the open source variant of the Solaris Unix platform. With the new release today, it's getting some interesting storage enhancements as well as the usual update additions.
The OpenSolaris project launched its first pseudo-commercial release, code-named Project Indiana, in May, with the goal of getting the open source variant of Solaris humming along in binary form and being used by the development community and other cheapskates who like to play with operating systems but who don't want to pay for them.
Linux is popular, in part, because it is not only free, but distributed in a usable form and for the most recent hardware available on the market. So to compete with Linux, and to get an edge on other commercial Unixes (which are not open source or freely distributed), Sun Microsystems is emulating the distribution methods employed by the Fedora and openSUSE development communities, which create the code that eventually becomes the commercially supported releases from Red Hat and Novell, respectively.
The difference is this: Sun will actually support OpenSolaris in a commercial environment through paid support contracts, while neither Red Hat nor Novell do so with their development releases. (Ubuntu has a much more sensible approach, supporting all of its releases and offering long-term support for users who want to install the software and not mess with it much for a couple of years.)
The initial Project Indiana release, OpenSolaris 2008.05, was only supported on 32-bit and 64-bit x64 platforms and was targeted mostly at developer and student desktops, according to Charlie Boyle, director of Solaris product marketing. With OpenSolaris 2008.11, Sun will shoot for production and data center environments as well.
The first new feature to help with this goal is called Distribution Constructor, which allows a system administrator to set up a box and its application stack and spit it out as a bootable CD image that can be installed on other machines.
This distro constructor is not, by the way, based on the Image Packaging System that itself controls the OpenSolaris project. So it is not like the Open Build System that Novell uses to manage openSUSE and can be used to build and distribute their own openSUSE stacks. The update to OpenSolaris also now has an automated installer, which allows a lights-out install over a network rather than forcing an install over a CD running locally on a box.
Boyle says that Sun is psyched that 2008.11 will be the first operating system with full feature support for Intel's future "Nehalem" mutlicore processors, which are expected some time in the first quarter of 2009 (it's looking like late March). The Nehalem chips will range from two to eight cores, have integrated memory controllers, and a new point-to-point interconnect called QuickPath Interconnect that is akin to the Opteron-HyperTransport dynamic duo.
With May's OpenSolaris release, the Unix operating system could boot on a Nehalem box, and these patches were subsequently added to the October update of Solaris 10. But today's OpenSolaris rev has full support for the Nehalem chip and its related chipsets. Boyle says that Intel and Sun engineers worked together to get Nehalem support into OpenSolaris, and that the next update to Solaris 10 (due early next year) will have this support backcast into it.
How much of an edge will this give Sun? It is debatable, but Sun thinks it is significant. "It is hard to say," Boyle concedes, "but I think we will have a sustained advantage because we are not doing this once and then stopping."
OpenSolaris 2008.11 will also include broader support for the suspend/resume hardware features in laptops as well as 3D graphics cards.
On the storage front, ZFS has already been designated as the default root file system, now that it has been proven in the field, for both OpenSolaris and Solaris 10. But it is not particularly easy for newbies not used to the sophistication in modern file systems to cope with. That's why Sun has added a graphical tool for the Gnome graphical user interface, called Time Slider, that allows end users to make snapshots of their data and move backwards and forwards in time.
"You can now take advantage of the benefits of ZFS without understanding file systems, snapshotting, or complex command lines," says Boyle.
Further in storage enhancements, OpenSolaris 2008.11 includes the Comstar storage framework, short for Common Multiprotocol SCSI Target. This is software that provides a Fibre Channel interface that allows a server running OpenSolaris and ZFS to look like any old storage area network to other systems on the network.
Without the Comstar software, an OpenSolaris box looks like a target using data from a SAN instead of a source of data as a SAN. (Sun's recently announced "Amber Road" storage products are a superset of the combination of Solaris, Comstar, and ZFS.) Boyle says that future OpenSolaris versions due in the next six months will include support for the iSCSI protocol as well as other unnamed protocols.
OpenSolaris 2008.11 uses the Gnome 2.24 graphical user interface, and sports the Firefox 3.0 browser and the OpenOffice 3.0 office automation suite. The distro includes the NetBeans application development tools as well as Eclipse alternatives, and also has the Songbird music player, the Transmission BitTorrent client, the Tracker desktop search tool, and a slew of other applications.
With today's update, Sun is also adding several new repositories that will be opened up so OpenSolaris participants can see pending and contributed code bits as well as development and final releases. In the past, Sun had one repository, according to Boyle, which means that applications that had not yet been added to the distro were not available for download to users.
The Contrib repository, with its thousands of applications, fixes this problem. There is also another repository called Sun Extras, where users can easily find code that is not controlled by Sun and that is not necessarily open source - think of video drivers, fonts, RealPlayer, Macromedia Flash, and Sun's own VirtualBox hypervisor.
Finally, the OpenSolaris project is adding a new support repository that gives users with a support contract access to interim fixes for all various OpenSolaris and Solaris releases.
Sun is also expected to announce a partnership with Toshiba today that will see the laptop maker distribute OpenSolaris on selected models of its machines, probably around January. (The details are still being worked out, according to Boyle.) This will be the first deal to put Solaris or OpenSolaris on a non-Sun machine that is fully supported and pre-installed at the factory.
Sun does not yet have any such deals on other PCs or servers, although it does have OEM agreements with IBM and Dell to sell and support Solaris on servers and HP will install it on selected ProLiant and BladeSystem servers if customers want to pay for that service.
The one thing that OpenSolaris 2008.11 does not have, however, is support for Sun's own Sparc processors. But this is apparently in the works for the next release. It is not clear how far back OpenSolaris will eventually run on Sun's UltraSparc and Fujitsu's Sparc64 systems, but clearly Sparc support is an important thing for the data center and Sun has been able to support its most recent Solaris commercial releases on very old UltraSparc iron.
Sparc support is important. While two thirds of the downloads of the Solaris 10 binary version went on x64 iron for the first two years that it was free - and therefore x64 support was the right place to start if you wanted to get developers and students fired up - in production environments, Sun has lots of Sparc iron out there. The word on the street is that OpenSolaris 2009.04 is the next scheduled update - which means April 2009 - but Sun has not confirmed this. ®