OpenSolaris 2008.11, the second major release of Sun Microsystems' freely-licensed, Solaris-based operating system, hit the Web late last year packed with feature enhancements that illustrate that Sun isn't about to cede the platform stage to Linux, as brothers-in-Unix such as IBM's AIX and Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX have done.
Taking a cue from popular Linux distributions, Sun's OpenSolaris improvements center around a bolstered software package management framework that includes both client-side tools for installing and updating applications, and back-end facilities for channeling community packaging efforts into the project.
In my tests, I found Sun's package management framework, which is anchored by the still-young Image Packaging System, much improved from the facilities that shipped with Solaris 10. However, while Sun is on the right track here, I found the software tools less streamlined and the breadth of available software packages less broad than what I've come to expect from Linux distributions such as Ubuntu.
The other key area in which OpenSolaris shows both improvement and the need for further improvement is in the repackaging of Sun's industry-leading, server-focused technologies for use in more general-purpose scenarios. One of the most eye-catching features of OpenSolaris 2008.11 is its new Time Slider tool, which wraps the snapshotting capabilities of Sun's ZFS file system in an elegant and useful tool for accessing previous versions of files and directories on one's system.
For OpenSolaris to vie successfully for larger mind share among the Linux/Unix developer community at which it is aimed, Sun must expose more of Solaris' unique functionality in the way that the company has done with Time Slider.
For instance, no matter how well Sun and the OpenSolaris community organize their software packaging efforts, there will be a significant amount of software that won't run on Solaris. It's possible to run Linux software from OpenSolaris using the platform's branded containers feature, but this Linux-on-Solaris option, called BrandZ, requires a significant amount of fiddling to get up and running.
For those interested in learning more about Sun's platform, OpenSolaris can serve well as a desktop or notebook workstation, provided that the system supports your hardware. The distribution's installer disk is a LiveCD that makes it easy to test whether OpenSolaris supports your gear with very little investment.
OpenSolaris includes most of the default desktop software that ships with a Linux distribution, including the Firefox 3 Web browser, OpenOffice.org 3 productivity suite, and the GNOME desktop environment, with its range of included applications.
As with the Linux-based distributions from which OpenSolaris takes its organizational cues, OpenSolaris can also be used as a server operating system, running applications downloaded through IPS, installed via the traditional Solaris SVR4 package system, or compiled directly on the machine.
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 two levels: essential support, which starts at $324 per system per year, and production support, which starts at $2,160 per system per year. You can find the details of these support subscriptions here.