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Category: OpenSolaris

In 2005, Sun released the source code to Solaris,  described then as the company’s crown jewel. Why do this? The simplest answer is that Solaris had been losing ground to an open source competitor in Linux. Losing ground was a symptom of  economics. Students who had once been raised on Solaris were being inculcated with Linux knowlege. The combination of Linux and x86 were good enough and significantly cheaper; new companies for whom the default had once been Sun/Solaris/SPARC were instead building on x86/Linux. OpenSolaris along with x86 support were specifically intended to address this trend. Indeed, the codename for OpenSolaris was “tonic” — the tonic for Solaris’ problems.

To that end, OpenSolaris was on reasonably stable footing: open source had become expected for an operating system,  source code availability was a benefit to traditional enterprise users (especially with the advent of DTrace), and the community would attract new users. But then Solaris lost the plot. Users chose Solaris because it is a — or perhaps the — enterprise operating system. OpenSolaris was intended to broaden the appeal, but that notion was taken to such extremes as to lose sight of the traditional customers of Solaris, and, indeed, the focus that makes Solaris both unique and great.

OpenSolaris  June 14, 2005 – August 13, 2010

We launched Solaris 10 in 2004 with an impressive list of features — ZFS, DTrace, Zones, SMF, FMA, Fire Engine — all highly relevant for enterprise users. You can find a company that has bet its business on the success of each of those features. In the wake of OpenSolaris, the decision was made (and here I can no longer use the active voice because by then I had left to start Fishworks elsewhere at Sun) to have an explicit focus on building an operating system for developers — which is to say, for their laptops. This was an error, but a predictable one. Once Solaris was free to download and use, revenue recognition for the Solaris organization which has always been difficult to measure became even more indirect. The metrics were changed: the targets for management bonuses became not revenue, or enterprise users, but downloads. Directly or indirectly much of the focus for the Solaris organization shifted to address that straightforward goal. The mistake was that OpenSolaris didn’t need to find users, they found Solaris. In trying to build a community, the new direction for OpenSolaris weakened the very principles upon which a thriving community would have been based.

The very name “OpenSolaris” got confused, diluted, and poluted. OpenSolaris was a source repository, a community, and a distro (although purists still insist that Indiana is the appropriate name for that part) intended to “close the familiarity gap” with Linux. Moreover, new projects that shifted efforts away from enterprise uses (read: paying customers) to focus on the laptop also rallied under the banner of “OpenSolaris”. In a way Oracle’s acquisition of Sun saved Solaris from itself; the marching orders became much clearer: address enterprise users, ship Solaris 11 (something that should not have taken 6 years). As for OpenSolaris, that decision too was likely simple for Oracle, never an overt fan of open source. Had “OpenSolaris” simply meant a code base and user community, I think there’s a good chance it would have been allowed to live. Burdened, however, with the baggage of the Indiana distro and sundry projects incomprehensible to Oracle management, OpenSolaris was in a politically untenable position. Mike‘s “Friday the 13th memo” merely made it official — Solaris was to be closed source once more.

Sun’s efforts with OpenSolaris  were, at best, a mixed success. Quietly, however, an ecosystem of companies grew out of the technologies in OpenSolaris. Notably Joyent uses Zones and DTrace as significant differentiators; Nexenta builds very heavily on ZFS; as I’ve mentioned, Delphix, my new employer, builds on OpenSolaris as well. There are many more that I know about, and still more that I don’t. These companies chose OpenSolaris so they could use the innovative technologies that simply aren’t available anywhere else. And they did so in spite of a common trend towards Linux with its familiarity, and broad compatibility — the innovation in Solaris was more valuable and, in some cases, enabling for the company’s business.

illumos  August 3, 2010 –

The danger for those companies has long been that Oracle would pull the rug out from under them; only the foolish had no contingency plan. The options were to give up on Solaris or maintain a fork. Happily illumos has stepped in to offer a third path. Garrett D’Amore and Nexenta graciously started the illumos project to carry the OpenSolaris torch. It is an ostensible fork of OpenSolaris (can you fork a dead project?), but more importantly a mechanism by which companies building on those component technologies can pool their resources, amortize their costs, and build a community by and for the downstream users who are investing in those same technologies. Rather than being operated by a single corporate interest, its steward will be a 501(c)(3) non-profit in the model of the Mozilla Foundation.

I was pleased to announce at tonight’s SVOSUG meeting that I’ll be joining the illumos developer council, I was delighted to accept when Garrett offered me the position. My bias for illumos is that the main repository will focus on reliability, performance, and compatibility while taking a conservative approach to new features and functionality. As much as possible, I’d like the downstream users — the distributions, appliances, and platforms — to make the decisions appropriate to their uses and only adopt large-scale changes into the trunk when there’s broad consensus among them. The goal must be to build a project that is readily useful to everyone and to allow our collective efforts to be shared as easily as possible.

What’s the future of Solaris? For many it will be Solaris 11 in late 2011. But for others, it will be illumos either as the firmware for an appliance (not unlike what we built at Fishworks in the 7000 series), the platform for your web applications, or as a general purpose operating system. The innovation in Solaris has always flowed from the creative individuals working on the project. Keep your eyes on illumos; Oracle ending OpenSolaris is no surprise, but in doing so they have broken their own monopoly on Solaris and Solaris talent.

Ian Murdock has left the Linux Foundation to lead the operating systems strategy here at Sun. The last few years have seen some exciting changes at Sun: releasing Solaris 10 (which includes several truly revolutionary technologies), embracing x86, leading on x64, and taking Solaris open source. That a luminary of the Linux world was enticed by the changes we’ve made and the technologies we’re creating is a huge vote of confidence. From my (admittedly biased) view, OpenSolaris has been breaking away from the pack with technologies like DTrace, ZFS, Zones, SMF, FMA and others. I’m looking forward to the contributions Ian will bring from his experience with Debian, and to the wake-up call this may be to Linux devotees: OpenSolaris is breaking away.

The good folks over at LugRadio (that LUG; not the other LUG of course) invited me on their show to answer some of their questions about OpenSolaris. You can find it in the latest episode. Check your volume before you start playing the episode: the first reference to masturbation is approximately 6 seconds in.

Understandably, the LugRadio guys didn’t have much exposure to OpenSolaris, but they were certainly interested and recognize that it represents a pretty exciting development in the world of open source. Mostly I addressed some of the differences between Solaris and Linux. They seemed quite keen on Nexenta and I recommend that Solaris and Debian users alike try it out. There’s one small correction I’d like to make regarding my comments on the show: I erroneously claimed that Solaris 7 — the first version of Solaris to support 64-bit processors — came out in 1996. In fact, Solaris 7 came out in November of 1998 (64-bit support having been first integrated in October of 1997). That cuts our 64-bit experience to 7 or 8 years from the 10 that I claimed.

On a vaguely related note, I’ll be in London speaking at the OpenSolaris user group meeting on 12/19/2005. That’s after a tromp accross Europe which includes a DTrace cum Java talk and an OpenSolaris BoF at JavaPolis in Belgium.


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Actually, Fall, Winter and Spring of code. Sun just announced the Solaris 10 Univesity Challenge Content. That’s right, it’s a challenge and a contest and with three times the staying power of single season of code. Apparently in a modern day treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Google ceded the rest of the year to Sun. Perhaps this was the real beef of the recent Sun/Google agreement.

This is actually pretty cool: be a college student, do something cool on OpenSolaris, take a shot at winning the grand prize of $5k and a sweet box (I imagine there might be prizes for other interesting entries). There are some ideas projects on the contest/challenge/seasonal coding page ranging from good (MythTV), to mundane (support for inkjet printers from Epson), to confusing (internet gaming — I thought online gamling was its own reward), to inane (“A joystick driver – for gaming”, oh for gaming? I’ve been using it for system administration). Here’s my list off the top of my head — if you want more ideas, feel free to drop me a line.

Work on an existing open source project

  • pearpc runs ppc applications on x86. I started working on porting it over and was able to boot Darwin.
  • valgrind is very cool (I’ve only just seen it). It would be great to port it or to use pieces like KCacheGrind and plug in DTrace as a backend.
  • Port over your favorite application, or get it running in some emulation environment of your own devising.
  • Make something go faster. MySQL, Gnome, mozilla, some random system call, whatever; there’s a lot of inefficiency out there.

Write something new (using cools stuff in Solaris)

  • I’d love to see more dynamic languages with native DTrace support. We’ve already got support for Java, php, Ruby, and Perl in some form; make it better or add support for some other language you know and love (TCL, python, scheme, LISP, ML, etc.).
  • Build another kind of analysis tool on top of DTrace. We’re working on a Java binding which is going to make this easier.
  • Write a device driver for your favorite crazy device (which I assume is your new iPod nano or something; you’re such a hipster Apple fanboy).
  • Build a tool to simulate a distributed environment on Zones and use DTrace to monitor the communication. WARNING: your distributed systems professor will be your new best friend.

That’s what I’d do, but if you have a better idea, go do that instead.


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Today at EuroOSCON, I attended a introductory talk on svn by Chia-liang Kao. I was hopeful that svk might address some of the issues that I thought would prevent us from adopting Subversion for OpenSolaris. In particular, Subversion requires a centralized repository whereas svk, which is built on top of Subversion, provides the distributed revision control system that we’d need. After the talk, my overall impression was that svk seemed to lack a certain polish, but after struggling to phrase that in less subjective terms, I’m coming around a bit.

I got a little nervous when the first example of svk’s use was for keeping the contents of /etc under revision control. The big problem that svk solved was having random directories (.svc, SCCS, whatever) in, for example, /etc/skel. Talk about trivia (almost as relevant as a demo implementing a weblog in Ruby on Rails). I guess it’s nice that svk solves a problem for that particularly esoteric scenario, but wasn’t there some mention that this might be used to, you know, hold onto source code? Was that actually the design center for svk?

Fortunately we did get to the details of using svk for a source code repository. I think this is just my bias coming from teamware, but some of the mechanisms seem a bit strange. In particular, you do svk mirror to make one kind of copy of the main repository (the kind that’s a “local repository”), and svk checkout to make a different kind of copy (the kind that’s the “working area”). In other words, you have a tree structure, but the branches and leaves are different entities entirely and editing can only be done on the leaves. I guess that’s not such a huge pain, but I think this reflects the origins: taking a local revision control system and making it distributed. Consequentially, there’s a bunch of stuff left over from Subversion (like branches) that seem rather redundant in a distributed revision control system (don’t take branch, make another local repository, right?); it’s not that these actually hurt anything, it just means that there’s a bunch of complexity for what’s essentially ancillary functionality.

Another not-a-big-deal-that-rubs-me-the-wrong-way is that svk is a pile of perl modules (of course, there’s probably a specific perlism for that; “epocalyptus” or something I’m sure). I suppose we’ll only have to wrestle that bear to the ground once, and stuff it in a tar ball (yes, Allan, or a package). To assuage my nervousness, I’d at least like to be confident that we could maintain this ourselves, but I don’t think we have the collective perl expertise (except for the aforementioned Alan) to be able to fix a bug or add a feature we desperately need.

I want this thing to work, because svk seems to be the best option currently available, but I admit that I was a bit disappointed. If we were going to use this for OpenSolaris, we’d certainly need to distribute it in a self-contained form, and really take it through the paces to make sure it could do all the things we need in the strangest edge cases. As I mentioned, we currently use teamware which is an old Sun product that’s been in constant use despite being end-of-lifed several years ago. While I like it’s overall design, there’s a bunch of work that would need to happen for it to be suitable for OpenSolaris. In particular, it currently requires a shared NFS filesystem, and we require you to be on the host machine when committing a change. Adding networked access capabilities to it would probably be a nightmare. It also relies on SCCS (an ancient version control system) for managing individual files; not a problem per se, but a little crufty. Teamware is great and has withstood the test of time, but svk is probably closer to satisfying our requirements.

Update: But there are quite a few other options I hadn’t looked into. Svk no longer looks like a front runner. If there are other systems you think are worth considering, let me know.

I’ll play with svk some more and try to psych myself up for this brave new world. I’d appreciate any testimonials or feedback, and, of course, please correct all the factual errors I’m sure I committed.


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I just attended Brian W. Fitzpatrick‘s talk on Subversion at EuroOSCON. Brian did a great job and Subversion looks like a really complete replacement for cvs — the stated goal of the project. What I was particularly interested in was the feasibility of using Subversion as the revision control system for OpenSolaris; according to the road map we still have a few months to figure it out, but, as my grandmother always said while working away at her mechanical Turing machine, time flies when you’re debating the merits of various revision control systems.

While Subversion seems like some polished software, I don’t think it’s a solution — or at least a complete solution — to the problem we have with OpenSolaris. In particular, it’s not a distributed revision control system meaning that there’s one master repository that manages everything including branches and sub-branches. This means that if you have a development team at the distal point on the globe from the main repository (we pretty much do), all that team’s work has to traverse the globe. Now the Subversion folks have ensured that the over the wire protocol is lean, but that doesn’t really address the core of the problem — the concern isn’t potentially slow communication, it’s that it happens at all. Let’s say a bunch of folks — inside or outside of Sun — start working on a project; under Subversion there’s a single point of failure — if the one server in Menlo Park goes down (or the connection to it does down), the project can’t accept any more integrations. I’m also not clear if branches can have their own policies for integrations. There are a couple other issues we’d need to solve (e.g. comments are made per-integration rather than per-file), but this is by far the biggest.

Brian recommeded a talk on svk later this week; svk is a distributed revision control and source management system that’s built on Subversion. I hope svk solves the problems OpenSolaris would have with Subversion, but it would be great if Subversion could eventually migrate to a distributed model. I’d also like to attend this BoF on version control systems, but I’ll be busy at the OpenSolaris User Group meeting — where I’m sure you’ll be as well.


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