Sun Microsystems' OpenSolaris 2009.06 offers organizations 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-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 virtualization system. Using this system, administrators can provide individual network services or virtual machines with their own virtualized 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 multiprotocol 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 slated for 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 organizational 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.
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 startup 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 hitting up multiple repositories, and the overlapping 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.
When I last tested OpenSolaris, I was disappointed to find that while Sun's own desktop virtualization product, VirtualBox, supported the distribution as a host operating system, OpenSolaris seemed relegated to second-class support status. Most importantly, I could not expose USB devices to guest machines, nor could I share host folders with guest machines. Both of these gaps significantly limited the usefulness of VirtualBox. I was happy, then, to see that on OpenSolaris 2009.06, USB support for guests worked as expected, as did shared folders.
I still found that fonts in the VirtualBox interface rendered poorly under OpenSolaris compared with Linux or Windows hosts, and I would love to see VirtualBox take fuller advantage of OpenSolaris-specific features. In particular, the combination of VirtualBox and Crossbow could make OpenSolaris the go-to host environment for Sun's desktop virtualization product.
I tested OpenSolaris 2009.06 on the same Lenovo Thinkpad T60 with 3GB of RAM and an ATI X1300 graphics adapter that I used to test the previous version. Unfortunately, I again experienced problems using the Thinkpad's Intel 3945ABG wireless adapter on my home wireless network. My OpenSolaris system would repeatedly lose its connection to the access point link, requiring me to restart the system's NWAM (Network Auto Magic) daemon or toggle the Wi-Fi hardware switch on the machine before connecting.
OpenSolaris is freely downloadable from opensolaris.com, but for those who wish to deploy OpenSolaris in production settings, Sun offers commercial support for the distribution in three levels: basic support, which starts at $324 per system per year, standard support, which starts at $720 per system per year, and premium support, which starts at $1080 per system per year. You can find the details of these support subscriptions here.