Oracle's first update of Sun's Unix includes support for Oracle VM hypervisor and Solaris Zones.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

November 17, 2011

5 Min Read

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VMware Pricing Controversy: Exclusive User Research

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The death of Unix has been predicted many times over many years. Those predictions have been wrong. Oracle intends to make sure those predictions stay wrong for many more years by breathing new life into the Solaris operating system. It recently released Solaris 11, the first new version of the OS in nearly seven years, and it added new capabilities that are likely to keep Solaris chugging away for years to come.

Support for the Oracle VM hypervisor, derived originally by Sun Microsystems from the Xen open source code, has been added to Solaris. That means Solaris can host virtual machines on either a Sparc server or on a standard Intel or AMD x86 server under Solaris 11 for x86. Unix RISC servers are typically more powerful than x86 servers and are still used for large databases or other demanding applications that have high transaction throughput. Support for Oracle VM gives Solaris users both options.

In addition, Solaris includes a second virtualization option, first added to Solaris 10 when it was released in 2005. That's Solaris Zones, a method of dividing up a host server's resources among many applications each in its own software partition, known as a container or zone. For example, a zone would assign an application a share of memory, CPU, network bandwidth, and access to the operating system. A single Solaris host can run "hundreds" of zones, said Markus Flierl, VP of Oracle software development, in an interview.

It's difficult to directly compare how many zones versus full bore virtual machines might run on a same-sized server, but most virtual machine hosts run fewer than 100.

More zones can be run on a single host than VMs because, while each zone contains an application, all the applications make use of a single, shared Solaris operating system kernel. In many cases, they share Solaris root directories, such as /usr and /lib, according to a blogger's FAQ as well. Such sharing does not go on in typical x86 virtualized environments. In VMware or Microsoft Hyper-V virtual machines, each application is paired up with its own operating system. That leaves many operating systems making demands on the host, instead of just one.

A zone has one-fifteenth the overhead of a VMware ESX Server virtual machine, claimed Markus Flierl, Oracle VP of software development, in an interview. Zones also run "without artificial limits on memory," he added, perhaps a swipe at the new 96-GB limit for a virtual machine running under a VMware enterprise license. "With Solaris 11, the options for virtualization have dramatically expanded," he said.

[ Want to see a case where a business adopted "containers" instead of VMs? See 'Containers' Outperform Virtualization For KV Pharmaceuticals ]

Oracle has added virtual environment management features to Solaris 11 as well. A system administrator may virtualize both network and storage resources to go with the zones or virtual machines generated under a single instance of Solaris. The ability to define network and storage resources to work with other virtualized assets makes it easier to set up complete, virtualized environments, said Charlie Boyle, senior director of product marketing.

Because Solaris 11 includes the added virtualization features, it was dubbed "the first cloud operating system" upon release Nov. 11. In this use of the term "cloud," a single Solaris system can operate with more flexible and elastic characteristics and manage more virtualized resources than before; nothing in the announcement indicated that it was it was intended to manage thousands of servers with automated provisioning of end users in a cloud data center.

The ZFS file system is part of Solaris 11, and its data deduplication capabilities mean storage requirements for a virtualized system under Solaris 11 may be reduced to one-tenth their previous level, said Boyle.

Solaris 11 has been engineered to work better with Oracle applications, the Oracle 11g database system and Oracle Fusion Middleware, he added.

Unix has been the sick-old-man of operating systems for so long that some have prematurely written its obituary. Headlines declaring the death of Unix have appeared regularly, but their writers overlook the fact that revenues from Unix servers and software experienced a small uptick this year, according to IDG. It's a market that exceeds $18 billion a year.

Solaris' main commercial competitors are IBM's AIX and HP's HP-UX and they also offer partitioning of servers into containers. Linux competes with Solaris as open source code. Oracle discontinued the community open source version of Solaris in August last year and replaced it with a free version, Solaris Express.

Unix is still the operating system of choice for the largest enterprise databases and other large systems doing a specialized, mission critical workload, as opposed to clusters of x86 servers. For more analysis, see a report on Gabriel Consulting, Survey: The Demise Of Unix Is Greatly Exaggerated .

"There has been a lot of ill-considered press coverage about the 'death' of Unix and coverage of the wholesale migration of Unix workloads to Linux, some of which (the latter, not the former) I have contributed to. But to set the record straight, the extinction of Unix is not going to happen in our lifetime," wrote Richard Fischera, analyst at Forrester Research, on Oct. 26 in "Unix--Dead or Alive?"

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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