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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.

"While Solaris...currently dominates Oracle sites, it will be sharing that top spot with Linux within the next 12 months," according to the study from the publishers of Database Trends and Applications. The study projected that the 49 percent using Solaris now will drop to 43 percent by January 2007, while Linux will increase from 37 percent to 44 percent.

The x86 push does distinguish Solaris from its Unix rivals: IBM's AIX and Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX. Whereas Sun is aiming for mass usage on x86, those companies are focused on making their Unix products chiefly for expensive, high-end multiprocessor servers, Iams said.

"IBM and HP are mostly concerned about hanging onto their own users, protecting their base," he said.

The next waves of updates to Solaris will come in June and then again by the end of 2006. For years, Sun has released a revamp once per quarter--the pace for Red Hat Enterprise Linux--but now believes a rate half that fast is more practical, Ulander said.

"Six months is easier on our developers and more in line with what customers are expecting from our release cycle," Ulander said. "They want a regular cadence, but not necessarily a cadence that hits so fast that it doesn't give them time to get up to speed."

New Solaris features
Joining x86 predictive self-healing in June will be Solaris 10 Trusted Extensions. Previously, Sun had a separate version of Solaris geared to high-security environments, such as government intelligence agencies. The change to the extensions approach will bring those security features to ordinary Solaris.

The addition of ZFS storage technology also is scheduled for delivery in June, having suffered two delays. It can address vastly larger quantities of data than the current Unix File System (UFS) technology, can better protect against data corruption during transfer, and can make it simpler to create large pools of storage systems shared by many servers, according to Sun.

ZFS, which controls how information is written and read from storage systems has potential, Iams said. But to really be useful, he added, it must be integrated with management software that can use it to automatically adjust storage systems. Solaris computers won't boot from ZFS file systems until the end-of-year update, Ulander said.

Two x86 virtualization features are due in the Solaris update coming by the end of the year. One is support for Xen, "hypervisor" software that makes it possible to run multiple operating systems simultaneously, in separate "virtual machines." These operating systems include Linux, Windows, Solaris, NetBSD and, eventually, NetWare.

The other is BrandZ, or Branded Zones. In essence, this gives a Solaris computer the ability to run software written for Linux in separate compartments, called containers. Sun initially planned to release the software earlier, in a project code-named Janus. But customers weren't happy with that technology's requirement that the Linux applications run side-by-side with Solaris applications, instead of in the separate containers.

Iams believes Xen will prove more compelling for most customers. "Why would they come out with a proprietary mechanism, if they can just use Xen?" he asked. "I see the standard going in the Xen direction."

Another feature, CrossBow, is designed to improve networking. The first phase, due in June and called SoftRings, shares the burden of monitoring high-speed networking gear among multiple processors. That makes it easier for Solaris to keep up with the coming generation of 10-gigabit-per-second networks, Ulander said.

The second CrossBow phase, due by the end of the year, uses virtualized networking. That enables administrators to assign capacity to particular virtual machines or to networking services, such as serving up Web pages, Ulander said.

Another feature, Yosemite, will improve one type of networking called User Datagram Protocol, which is often used to send messages across conventional Internet Protocol networks. Applications such as Tibco Rendezvous get a 15 percent to 20 percent performance boost out of it, Sun said.

Sun also plans several improvements to the DTrace monitoring tool, which lets administrators investigate performance issues in running programs. New versions of DTrace will be able to monitor NFS (Network File System) data transfers; isolate its scope to software running only in one container or run by a particular user; and do a better job of scrutinizing higher-level software written using Java, PHP, Ruby, Python and Perl, according to the company.

All the development work has brought around some skeptics. Solaris' future earlier appeared "not bleak, (but) increasingly niche and high-end," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady wrote in a March blog posting. Now, having seen the fruits of technology development and the open-source work, he's more enthusiastic.

"I'm fairly positive on the prospects for Solaris," O'Grady wrote. "It's really made remarkable strides in a short period of time."