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11/5/2007
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What Sun's OpenSolaris Means For Open Source

Sun Microsystems has turned its Solaris operating system, which uses the next-generation ZFS file system, into an open-source project; free downloads are now available.

While Linux and all of its various incarnations have seen a great deal of breakthrough attention during 2007, another open-source operating system has been slowly gaining ground: OpenSolaris, Sun Microsystems' remarkable revamp of its flagship server-level operating system.

The origins and development of OpenSolaris are markedly different from how Linux itself came to be, but Sun is banking hard on bringing Linux enthusiasts into the Sun fold. Not just to code for Solaris, but to use it the way they'd use Linux as their desktop operating system, and not just something that runs their servers. And, ultimately, it looks like Sun is hoping to use open-source Solaris as a way to get people to buy Sun systems.

Solaris has long been an established back-room operating system; it's solid, dependable, and sold by a company that's made a major name for itself as a maker of equally solid and dependable hardware.

Now, Sun has turned Solaris into an open-source project along roughly the same lines as what Red Hat Linux does with its RHEL product vs. its Fedora distribution. There will be Solaris, a commercially supported product, and OpenSolaris, a package of source code for the kernel, libraries, and command elements that make up Solaris but aren't by default available as a fully usable product. (Fedora, by contrast, is available as a full product, just not a supported one.)

To that end, other parties are encouraged to take the OpenSolaris core and build a fully developed end-user product from it. Matter of fact, that's already happened: Blastwave and Sunfreeware, to name just two community efforts, have started offering precompiled packages of common apps to run on OpenSolaris, and a number of OpenSolaris-based distributions already are in progress.

Aside from Solaris itself, though, what does Sun have to bring to the open-source table? That can be summed up in three letters: ZFS. Billed as a next-generation file system, ZFS actually is a great deal more than that. It's a meta-storage system, meaning it can contain within it other entire file systems, and can gang together any number or type of storage devices into single, seamless storage "pools." It doesn't matter if you have two, five, or fifty hard drives -- they can all be seen as one giant storage volume, with new hardware added transparently to the pool.

One of the first third parties to make use of ZFS in a broad (non-Solaris) context is Apple, who has hinted strongly that ZFS may be the successor to its own file system on Mac OS X.

So why is Sun so willing to put Solaris (and ZFS, and so on) into the hands of the masses, as it were? Hardware. By making Solaris an open-source product, that does make it possible to run the OS nearly anywhere. But the very best, most professional results -- the results that Sun wants to guarantee through its supported versions of Solaris -- will only be available on Sun's own once-proprietary chipsets, like Niagara.

Solaris will run well on stock AMD/Intel hardware (and even if it didn't, an open-source Solaris would make that all the easier to achieve), but it's meant to blow the doors off everything else when run on Sun's machines. Said hardware's been designed to appeal as heavily as possible to the very people running Solaris right now -- software developers, hosting providers, anyone running "big iron." Or at least moderately heavy metal.

That doesn't mean everyone now running Linux is going to flee the comforts of their Dell Ubuntu desktops (or their servers) and embrace a Sun box. It does mean, though, that Solaris ought to become as important and disciplined a force in the open-source community as folks like Red Hat and SuSE have been -- and, arguably, even more so.

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