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Sun’s OpenSolaris Review

With the new Crossbow network virtualisation system and VirtualBox supported, OpenSolaris wets appetites for upcoming Solaris features.

Sun Microsystems’ OpenSolaris 2009.06 offers organisations a look ahead at the features that will grace future versions of Sun’s Solaris operating system, a role that’s comparable to the one that Fedora Linux plays in the Red Hat user community.

Unlike Fedora Linux, the freely available OpenSolaris comes with the option of paid 24/7 support from Sun which is a vital factor for companies tempted enough by the system’s unique new features to let OpenSolaris loose in their production environments.

Perhaps the most compelling such feature to debut in OpenSolaris 2009.06 is the new Crossbow network virtualisation system. Using this system, administrators can provide individual network services or virtual machines with their own virtualised network adapter and stack. In this way, multiple network-facing services can share a single physical network adapter while abiding by resource allocations set by their administrator.

During my tests of OpenSolaris, I was able to use Crossbow along with the operating system’s Containers feature to create a virtual network with a pair of host systems and a router system, and to adjust the link speeds and other attributes of the virtual network adapters as I wished.

COMSTAR, which I did not test, enables administrators to turn systems running OpenSolaris into a multi-protocol SCSI storage target that can take advantage of the management benefits of Sun’s ZFS file system. The current OpenSolaris release can expose LUNs via Fibre Channel and SAS, with support for an iSCSI provider scheduled for release early next year, which should enable enhanced performance over the system’s current iSCSI provider.

In addition to offering an early look at upcoming Solaris features, a role that Sun’s unsupported SXCE (Solaris Express Community Edition) also serves, the OpenSolaris project is the foundation for deeper organisational changes for Solaris. Where SXCE will appear very familiar to long-time Solaris users, OpenSolaris is designed to appeal to new users, such as those accustomed to using Linux.

Improves on Solaris

One of the most dramatic differences between OpenSolaris and Solaris is in the former’s software packaging system, which has undergone a handful of performance and functionality improvements since the last OpenSolaris release. For example, OpenSolaris’ packaging system now consumes less memory, and the system’s graphical package manager boasts a faster start up time.

I was happy to see that the package manager now allows for searching across multiple package repositories at once, but I still find it more difficult to work with multiple package sources in OpenSolaris than in most Linux distributions I’ve tested, due in part to a general lack of cohesion.

During my tests, I subscribed to a handful of repositories beyond the default OpenSolaris package source, including the Sun freeware, Blastwave, and OpenSolaris Contrib repositories, each of which contain some overlapping packages that tend to install themselves in different parts of the system.

I set out to compile the application Gnote, a clone of the Mono-based Tomboy note-taking application that’s unavailable on OpenSolaris due to a lack of Mono packages for OpenSolaris. Tracking down the dependencies for Gnote involved going to multiple repositories, while the overlap and installation site issues I mentioned above made it more difficult for me to troubleshoot the process than it would have been on most Linux distributions.

Sun has complemented OpenSolaris 2009.06 with a Web service, called Source Juicer, for collecting and building community-contributed packages. I’m hopeful that this will improve the state of package availability on the distribution.