Sun: Coders key to Solaris' rise

Special report: Sun will court developers to make Solaris as ubiquitous as its Java programming language

Sun has ambitious plans for the commercial and open-source versions of its Solaris operating system, hoping to achieve for Solaris the kind of ubiquity already enjoyed by Java. To come close to reaching that goal, Sun needs to reach out more to developers and endeavor to overcome some long-held prejudices against the OS.

Sun's Java programming language, which debuted in 1995, is present in most of today's PCs, mobile devices, and embedded systems. The vendor is now seeking that same kind of omnipresence for Solaris, its flavor of Unix. Sun intends to take the operating system into markets where it hasn't traditionally been a force, such as desktop and embedded systems, according to Marc Hamilton, vice president of Solaris marketing at Sun. The vendor is also keen to position OpenSolaris as a real alternative to Linux.

"There's an enormous momentum building behind Solaris," said Ian Murdock, chief operating platforms officer at Sun. He joined Sun in March after serving as the CTO of the Linux Foundation. Murdock's also the creator of the Debian Linux distribution and is keen to take the lessons he's learned in the Linux community and apply them to Solaris.

Sun is preparing to release OpenSolaris binaries early next year in a distribution code-named "Project Indiana" that will be similar to Linux distributions. The work, which is getting under way in the OpenSolaris community, is aimed at creating a single CD installation of the basic OS and desktop environment, giving developers the option to install additional software from network repositories. Developers also will be able to create limited releases of the distribution targeted at attendees of a particular event.

The whole idea behind Indiana is to build more of a developer community around Solaris, Murdock said. "How can we lower the barriers to programmers and run OpenSolaris as an ideal open-source operating system not originating from Sun?" he asked. Indiana will also enable faster release cycles with a new version appearing every six months.

With Indiana in place, Sun will adopt a two-tier development model, Murdock said, establishing a clear path from Indiana and OpenSolaris -- for developers and early adopters -- to Solaris, which will be largely used by more conservative enterprise users. The challenge will be delivering what's effectively a single Solaris platform to two very different communities, he added.

Sun has already managed various versions of Java, including mobile, standard, and enterprise editions of the software. But whereas with Java the challenge was getting developers interested in a new technology, with Solaris, Sun needs to appeal to people who may have had previous negative experiences with the OS.

Founded in 2004, online messaging security provider DigiTar begun life as an all-Linux shop using Suse Linux, according to Jason Williams, CTO and COO of the Boise, Idaho, company.

"We had a very anti-Sun bias," he said, dating back to the frustration he and a colleague experienced in college trying to use Solaris 8, which they quickly abandoned in favor of Suse. However, DigiTar ran into problems with the way Linux handled a storage subsystem in 2005. With OpenSolaris freely available, they tried out the OS and it worked well. "Solaris has resolved a lot of issues that Linux is just getting hit by," Williams said.

Over time, DigiTar has made use of new Solaris features such as DTrace and ZFS (Zettabyte File System), which have helped the company quickly pin down the locations of performance bottlenecks and better optimize the system. "Our experience with Solaris has been very evolutionary," Williams said. "We came for one thing, then other benefits emerged."

"We very much want to move to Indiana," Williams said, because it will fix two immediate issues DigiTar has with OpenSolaris: Ease of use and ease of installation.

The company's keen to migrate all its software to Solaris, but compiling applications on Solaris has always been a little different from compiling on a GNU Linux distribution. Today, about 60 percent of its software runs on Gentoo Linux, versus 40 percent on OpenSolaris. Indiana will support GNU userland, the part of an application that requests system activities from the operating system kernel, making it easier to move Linux applications to Solaris. The other feature Indiana offers over previous versions of OpenSolaris is its packaging so it can be more easily installed.

Williams is impressed by the community that's already grown up around OpenSolaris. "It's the most productive community I've ever been a part of," he said, with a posted query drawing 4 to 5 informed responses within an hour from both third parties and Sun engineers. Sun's approach to open source is "very mature and adult," Williams added, largely because Sun engineers are used to fielding customers' questions and know it's important to respond rapidly.

In order to win other converts, Williams recommends that Sun go back to school. "The key thing they need to do is get back into the colleges," he said. "That's where we formed our opinion of Sun." Making Solaris easy to use and highlighting useful tools such as DTrace could go a long way toward wooing developers, Williams added.

Sun is encouraging more use of OpenSolaris in universities with plans to add 500 more Campus Ambassadors around the world to the several hundred that were already in academia, Hamilton said. The Ambassadors are students who receive free training and support from Sun and then establish open-source developer communities in their colleges and evangelize OpenSolaris and Java to their peers and teachers.

Williams also recommends letting Indiana "splinter" so that developers can freely create their own distributions and further spread the Solaris technology. Sun hopes that if it establishes Indiana as a reference platform for OpenSolaris, people are less likely to seek out or develop other distributions, Hamilton said.

"With Linux, what happened was there was a void and people filled it," Murdock said, referring to the large number of Linux distributions in the market. "Everything we do here is to allow for flexibility, so there is the possibility of multiple distributions."

Going after developers is only one of several strategies Sun is pursuing to raise the profile of Solaris. The vendor's also keen to increase the number of hardware platforms on which the OS is available on. Earlier this month, in a deal that would have been unthinkable a few years back, IBM, one of Sun's main hardware rivals, agreed to redistribute Solaris OS and Solaris Subscriptions for some of its System x and BladeCenter servers.

From IBM's perspective, the move is in line with its pledge to offer users a range of operating systems and also will enable the vendor to make money on support calls involving Solaris running on IBM hardware. Hamilton said Sun's in discussions with about 40 original equipment manufacturers to make the OS available on their hardware. The companies include smaller hardware vendors that operate in particular geographies, but he's also interested in having IBM-like relationships with HP and Dell.

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