Will Illumos bring OpenSolaris back to life?

A new, independent development project for the Solaris kernel may herald a new life for the troubled OpenSolaris community

Tuesday saw the launch of the Illumos Project, heralded last week in a message on the OpenSolaris mailing lists. The announcement caused much excitement, with many assuming it was a fork of OpenSolaris or another OpenSolaris distribution.

Illumos is neither. It is in fact a project to create a fully open-source-licensed version of the Solaris operating system and networking consolidation -- the closest Solaris comes to a "kernel project." It's a downstream open source project, happy to contribute upstream but resolutely independent. As such, it is a thoroughly good thing and a breath of fresh air.

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It's a good thing because it unblocks the potential of the OpenSolaris community to have a fully open source free software commons at its heart and creates the possibility of a new operating system that carries forward the legacy of Unix yet is fully independent. The founders have already worked hard to create a bootable version of ON, including rewrites of closed portions of libc and the most critical utilities and drivers. Now the project is launched, they are looking for participants who will work on the lock manager, crypto, labeld, and remaining drivers. As I've written before, open, multiparty communities are the key to the future of open source.

It's a breath of fresh air because after half a year of stonewalling and silence from Oracle from everyone in a position to carry OpenSolaris forward, the conversation in the community had spiraled lower and lower from concern to conjecture to complaint and finally beyond into ad hominem. Indeed, project founder Garrett D'Amore told me he played it quietly up until now as there was too much complaining and not enough getting things done. He wanted there to be actual code available on opening day and not just promises.

It's clearly beyond just promises. As well as all the new code, the new project is supported by key OpenSolaris community vendors and members. Storage appliance vendor Nexenta -- who employ Garrett -- has its own OpenSolaris distribution along with a growing staff of former Sun engineers to support it and have committed to using Illumos. Cloud hosting company Joyent -- whose recent hire of DTrace co-inventor Bryan Cantrill (who has also written about Illumos) signals a positive engagement with the technology -- uses OpenSolaris in production. That support, along with the other positive support from respected Solaris and OpenSolaris leaders, means Illumos could well be the restart OpenSolaris needed, as long as its founders can deliver on the promise.

I've seen a project like this succeed before. When the OpenJDK project was announced to deliver an open source Java platform, members of the existing open source Classpath community were delighted but remained concerned Sun would not make a priority of getting the remaining closed portions replaced. The community started the IcedTea project, a fully Free downstream of OpenJDK and offered to contribute everything upstream. It was that action that meant OpenJDK soon became a fully open source project with all Free software in it.

Illumos has similarly invited Oracle to participate or even just to accept upstream the rework done by the Illumos project. Time will tell whether Oracle responds positively or whether Illumos becomes the new, independent heart of the former OpenSolaris community. Either way, count me among its fans!

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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