Lighting a fire under Solaris

Two significant upgrades are coming to Solaris this year, but Linux remains a fearsome rival.

Sun Microsystems plans to release two significant updates to Solaris this year, promising a range of improvements as it tries to keep the operating system competitive.

For many years, Solaris has been the most widely used version of Unix. But much wind was taken from the operating system's sails by the quick arrival of Linux and the equally quick departure of Sun's prestige when the dot-com boom turned bust. Now Sun is trying to reinvigorate the operating system with advances in performance, networking, reliability and data storage.

Already, the company has matched three advantages Linux has: It has made Solaris free, open source and usable on x86 processors. (Intel's Xeon, Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron and other x86 chips sell in vastly higher quantities than Sun's Sparc chips.) Now the company is looking to get ahead and is working on a long list of features that touch most aspects of the server operating system.

"They're pushing the envelope," Tony Iams, an analyst at Ideas International, said about Sun's aggressive research and development efforts for Solaris.

Peder Ulander, Sun's vice president of software marketing, said the company plans to announce in May one significant update to Solaris. The revamp, set to ship in June, will deliver new self-healing abilities, a high-security extension and the high-reliability ZFS, or Zettabyte File System, he said.

A second update is set to add Xen virtualization software, which helps run multiple operating systems simultaneously, and to add BrandZ technology, which enables software to run in separate, independent compartments atop a copy of Solaris. This release is likely to be announced in November and to ship by the end of the year.

Even with the x86 push and millions of users, it's not clear whether Sun will be able to keep its edge, Iams said. "Whether they're maintaining a gap with Linux that's sufficiently strong is another question," he said. Competitors such as Novell's Suse Linux "are really pushing to fill in some of those holes that are left."

Take Sun's performance analysis tool, DTrace. "Linux has something similar that's rudimentary called SystemTap, but DTrace is way ahead of that," Iams said. However, Linux is moving fast and likely will answer the challenge, he said.

Aiming for high volume
Among Sun's motives for making Solaris free and open source is the hope that the operating will make its way into customers' operations through the back door--the way Linux already did--as programmers download and try it. And there's some evidence of success: So far, more than 4.5 million licenses of Solaris 10 have been registered, Sun said.

Sun has tickled the interest of some developers through the OpenSolaris project, though Linux has far broader community involvement. So far, three products combine OpenSolaris with higher-level software packages: Nexenta , Schillix and Belenix.

The x86 push is also directed at spurring the distribution of Solaris in high volume. After years of shunning the technology, Sun now actively develops and promotes x86 servers.

The market for servers with x86 chips has grown faster than the overall server market, and the machines are becoming ever more capable. And with AMD and Linux entering the market, it's become more competitive as well. These factors convinced Sun to fully support Solaris on x86 as well as Sparc.

Sun is fixing shortcomings where Solaris-x86 doesn't match up to Solaris-Sparc. One June improvement will add "predictive self-healing" to Opteron machines. With it, Solaris can automatically shut down processors, memory or the input-output components.

Even with the x86 server embrace, reclaiming lost momentum isn't easy. A survey of 814 members of the Independent Oracle Users Group showed an increasing preference for Linux over Solaris, when polled in January.

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