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Sun opens 'Indiana' chapter of OpenSolaris

Sun has released the first fruits of a new, more Linux-like attempt to make something useful from its open-source Solaris effort.

Sun Microsystems has released the first results of a project to give its open-source Solaris effort a Linux-like programming approach and a stronger connection to other parts of the open-source movement.

Late Wednesday, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based server and software maker released for download Project Indiana, now formally called OpenSolaris Developer Preview. It's the precursor to a supported product due in early 2008 that's slated to be called OpenSolaris 3/08.

In the long run, Sun hopes to make Solaris more digestible to a larger audience, much of which is familiar with Linux but not with noted Solaris features such as DTrace diagnostic tool and the ZFS file system.

A screenshot of the OpenSolaris Developer Preview booted from a LiveCD and running on a Dell laptop. CNET reporter Stephen Shankland details his experience with the software below. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"We have made it easier for new users to come into Solaris and be more or less immediately productive," said Ian Murdock, whom Sun hired in March to lead Project Indiana. And Solaris should benefit from exposure to the broader open-source world, he hopes: "It's not so much about bringing Linux into OpenSolaris as it is about opening up Solaris so it can better bring in all the technology the open-source community develops."

Murdock is pleased with how fast Project Indiana arrived. "We can't understate how quickly we have moved from articulating the future direction to actually starting to deliver on it."

Things might have moved fast in the last six months, but the rest of the open-source world too has been changing rapidly in the nearly three years since Sun started releasing the first source code underlying its Solaris version of Unix. In that time, Ubuntu rose from nowhere to become a significant force in the Linux market while OpenSolaris has largely remained a hodgepodge of scattered projects.

Sun worked to introduce outsiders to OpenSolaris, and a few efforts sprouted up to package it into something useful. But Sun didn't initially spearhead a unified effort to assemble these bits and pieces into the equivalent of a Linux distribution--an installable and usable collection of core components, utilities, and higher-level software.

Project Indiana changes that by bundling several features from Sun with others from outside efforts such as Nexenta into a single CD that can be run and used to install OpenSolaris.

"Ultimately, the goal is (to) deliver both Sun and non-Sun innovation to the market in as integrated and rapid a fashion as possible," Murdock said. OpenSolaris updates will arrive every six months, and following the footsteps of Red Hat and Novell, the fast-moving software project will be gradually transferred into the full-fledged Solaris, which develops at a slower pace but features long-term commercial support.

Growing pains
But retrofitting an open-source movement to the previously proprietary Solaris isn't an easy process. For example, OpenSolaris began within Sun and still is dominated by its programmers, whereas Linux started as a grassroots effort and is much more decentralized. Although there's an OpenSolaris Governing Board, Sun holds the Solaris and OpenSolaris trademark, and Murdock himself announced on Tuesday that Project Indiana would get the OpenSolaris name.

"For all intents and purposes, Indiana is OpenSolaris in binary form," that which a computer can run directly without help from a programmer, Murdock said in a mailing list posting. He disagreed with the view that the term could refer to a small collection of core components on which others can build their own OpenSolaris variants: "Given that much of the world already assumes OpenSolaris is an operating environment...OpenSolaris must be something new users can download and install."

But that decision didn't sit well with some, including Joerg Schilling, the leader of the SchilliX OpenSolaris-based distribution project begun two and a half years ago.

"The chance for a single OpenSolaris distro as a joint effort from Sun and the community has been missed, because Sun was not ready for this at the time when it had been possible," Schilling said in one OpenSolaris mailing list posting. "It is most unprobable that Indiana will be the OpenSolaris distribution of the community as it was not 'the community' that did decide to start the project."

Another cultural issue has been Sun's explorations of whether to offer Solaris under the General Public License (GPL) that governs Linux. Currently Solaris is governed by the Community Development and Distribution License, which precludes easy code sharing between the two operating systems, but Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz and others have floated the GPL idea.

The response by some in the Solaris community who see Linux as undesirable was one of revulsion. Ultimately, the governing board voiced its disapproval of dual licensing, arguing that there are downsides but "little, if any, benefit to dual-licensing OpenSolaris...aside from possible short term good press for the project."

That suggests that not everyone will be excited to see Solaris with a Linux face, as Project Indiana shows. The OpenSolaris Developer Preview features the stock Gnome user interface and GNU tools widely used in the Linux realm. That means command-line options run as they do in Linux, down to the command options, Murdock said, though the classic Solaris environment is another option and older scripts will run in the new environment.

But Murdock thinks Sun has struck the right balance.

"The existing community of users is very passionate about Solaris," he said. "We're having to be very cautious in how we thread the needle there."

My test drive
I can confirm that Sun has made major progress in making Solaris accessible. I've installed Linux successfully many times, but when I first tried Solaris Express Community Edition in 2005, I gave up after several hours of struggles that didn't even yield a useful command-line interface.

On Thursday, however, booting the new Project Indiana CD took me 2 minutes and 10 seconds on a Dell XPS M1210 laptop, complete with the graphical Gnome interface.

Bear in mind here that I'm no guru, so my earlier problems could have been anything from obvious to obscure, but either way, this is a big improvement. And although I'm not the target market, it's certainly progress that somebody who's not a Solaris sysadmin can get it working.

However, not everything was flawless. In an inversion of the usual troubles, the operating system balked at using a wired network connection while working smoothly with my wireless adapter. Also, the fonts are ugly, with an un-antialiased capital U. And the operating system noticed but failed to mount a USB drive I inserted. For a better look at Indiana, though, check sites such as Blastwave.

Shiny new features
Indiana features several new features that Sun eventually plans to bring to Solaris proper. Among them:

• A "live media" installation that lets people try out OpenSolaris by booting it from a CD or flash drive. The software can be installed after that boot process if desired, and extra packages can be installed through downloads. This feature came from the Nexenta work, Murdock said.

• The xVM variant of the Xen virtualization software, which lets multiple operating systems run on the same computer. Xen today relies on Linux software to provide a virtualization foundation, but xVM uses Solaris in its stead.

• A new software packaging system that works like Debian's apt tool, letting users more easily download software updates from the Internet that lets the computer automatically handle finding and retrieving other secondary components that are required.

• A new graphical installer called Caiman that's designed to be easier to use.

• The ability to boot from a ZFS hard-drive partition. Solaris currently uses the older Unix File System, but Sun ZFS includes more advanced features for data protection, large-scale storage systems, and networking.