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Commentary: Sunny days for Solaris?

Solaris 10, Sun's long-awaited upgrade, looks to be the best vintage since version 2.6, offering solid value to customers.

Commentary: Sunny days for Solaris?
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET News.com
November 15, 2004, 8:15AM PT

by Richard Fichera, Vice President

Operating systems are like fine wines, with some releases being better than others.

Solaris 10, Sun's long-awaited upgrade to its Solaris operating system, looks to be the best vintage since Solaris 2.6, a release


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that was consumed with gusto by its customer base and still remains in production more than seven years later. Solaris 10 is a major functional upgrade to Solaris 9 and offers several major features that should be of significant value to a wide range of customers. It features a differentiated approach to virtualization, very granular performance optimization tools, an advanced file system, and full support on systems running processors from Advanced Micro Devices, effectively removing any price-performance issues for low-end to midrange Sun systems.

Forrester strongly recommends that current Sun users contemplating a migration to Linux evaluate Solaris 10 on AMD Opteron-based systems and that all current Solaris users evaluate the potential benefits of upgrading to Solaris 10.

Solaris 10 is the culmination of several successive releases of Solaris, some of which laid the groundwork for the new release but did not deliver impressive new user-visible functions or benefits other than support for new hardware. With Solaris 10, Sun brings together several streams of development in a product that offers solid value to customers.

Solaris Containers
Perhaps the most dramatic new feature in Solaris 10 is Solaris Containers, a form of operating system virtualization technology that offers most of the advantages of multiple separate virtual operating system images while maintaining a single image to manage.

Containers create a private, isolated execution space for each application within the context of a single master operating system instance, each with its own local variables and proxy copies of global variables, IP address, security permissions, file system view and so on. Sun claims that in addition to being lightweight in terms of resource overhead, containers are also extremely dynamic, capable of being created in under 10 seconds. Resource allocation is granular, in single-digit percentages of CPU, physical memory and I/O. Containers are managed by the Solaris Container Manager, which creates and deletes containers and defines container resource policies.

Containers remedy a significant deficit of Sun relative to Hewlett-Packard and IBM, and the combination of hardware partitions and containers offers users considerable flexibility in deciding on how to host multiple applications on a single system. The competitive environment surrounding operating system virtualization is getting complex and includes fully virtualized operating system image technology, such as VMware, Microsoft Virtual Server, IBM and HP virtual operating system technology, and technologies such as Sun Solaris containers and Softricity, which provide secure proxy namespaces running on top of a single operating system image. The former approach offers--in theory--better isolation, while the latter offers the convenience and cost of only managing a single copy of the operating system, because all the virtual partitions run under a single OS instance.

Containers also offer a tangible value add for Linux users, because a Linux program can run inside a Solaris 10 Container, either as an isolated application or alongside a Solaris application.

DTrace
DTrace is an integrated, real-time tool for performance analysis and diagnosis. It provides granular kernel and application monitoring capabilities and run on live applications as well as in development. It contains integrated event management and scripting capabilities and can deliver detailed information about the operation of a Solaris 10 for performance analysis and application debugging. By substituting a low-overhead integrated monitoring capability for specialized instrumented kernels and so on, Sun puts a robust tool in the hands of its power users. Sun claims that so far it has not seen less than a 30 percent performance gain from using DTrace, though increases are often much higher and can be realized with an investment measured in four to 16 hours of effort.

To the best of our knowledge, this is a unique capability in the industry. DTrace is also a major tangible value-add for Linux, since it can be used to analyze a Linux program running under Solaris.

ZFS file system
ZFS is a new file system that combines a volume manager and a file system with essentially unlimited file capacity. In addition, ZFS adds significant data protection and integrity features, including full end-to-end check sums, with Sun claiming "19 nines" data reliability. In addition, Sun claims 70 percent to 80 percent reduction in file-system administration time through automation of common tasks, such as setting up and managing volumes. While 128 bits may be excessive, it does address real user demands for larger than terabyte file systems. ZFS will be included with the standard version of Solaris 10, but Sun will also include the standard UFS file system for those who do not want to cope with the new technology.

Linux runtime environment
Under the name of Project Janus, Sun has implemented a Linux binary compatible runtime environment as part of the Solaris kernel. It is not an emulator but rather a system call handler in the Solaris kernel that dispatches Linux calls to standard distribution-specific Linux libraries. Since Sun uses the actual Linux source libraries, they are comfortable with guaranteeing compatibility and correct execution. The first released certification for compatibility is with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.

Predictive self-healing
Sun has made major improvements to error detection and recovery with Solaris 10, which Forrester believes were needed to catch up with its major competitors. Sun now implements a flexible framework for setting error thresholds for CPU, memory, and disk and can then trigger automated responses, including migration of process and data away from the suspect resource. Sun claims that its major differentiation versus similar offerings from IBM and HP is that while there is an extensive set of features defined as defaults, Sun has implemented an extensible framework that can be extended to other services and software. The API (application programming interface) will be published and documented so that users and software makers can integrate these capabilities into their own applications.

AMD system support
A cornerstone of the announcement is full support for Solaris on x86 architectures, with a focus on support for Sun's own family of AMD Opteron-based servers. Sun has committed to a "bug-compatible" release of the operating system with full compatibility across its Sparc and AMD product line, with support for all the Solaris 10 advanced features, including containers, DTrace, ZFS and Janus. Obviously, certain SPARC hardware-specific functions--such as hardware partitions--will not be supported.

Benefit to Sun's customers
The benefits to Sun customers are significant. Sun users now have more flexible options for consolidation with containers, the opportunity to easily optimize their applications with DTrace, and the option to jump to a commodity hardware price-performance curve with the AMD-based systems. Forrester strongly recommends that any Sun customer considering migrating to another environment evaluate Solaris 10 before doing so. For new workload opportunities, Solaris 10 appears to be a fully feasible option, and the combined Sun-AMD and Fujitsu road map will be capable of addressing almost any reasonable computing scenario in the modern enterprise in a very competitive manner.

© 2004, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.