When it comes to Unix, Sun’s Solaris operating system shines on the company’s 64-bit SPARC processors. Unfortunately, the picture is less bright for the version of Solaris written for Intel’s 32-bit Pentium family.
Solaris 9 x86 offers two potential benefits: First, the availability of a Solaris version for common, off-the-shelf server hardware gives IT managers a lower-cost platform for deploying Solaris. Second, Solaris 9 can serve as a non-open-source Unix alternative to Linux.
But after testing the most recent, December 2002 update of Solaris 9 x86, my feelings are mixed. Upon close examination, neither benefit is compelling. There’s nothing technically wrong with Solaris 9 x86 — it’s a good OS — but without solid application and hardware support, there’s little reason to deploy it instead of Solaris SPARC or Linux x86.
As a replacement for Linux, Solaris x86 enjoys some technical advantages: a solid OS kernel, built-in Volume Manager and Resource Manager tools that simplify system resource management, a native journaling file system, strong internal security using a built-in secure shell — Kerberos 5 authentication — and an excellent SunScreen firewall. Those security enhancements are new to Solaris 9 and are quite welcome.
But Solaris x86 isn’t particularly scalable and lags far behind Linux and Windows in terms of application availability, including app support from Sun itself.
Wanted: more app support
Sun initially declined to participate in this review and thus didn’t provide ARN’s sister publication,InfoWorld, with a media kit or discs. So I had to start by downloading 1.37GB of data from Sun’s Web site for which I paid a $US20 licensing fee. (You have to pay for the x86 binaries, whereas it’s free to download the SPARC version of Solaris).
After burning x86 to CD, it look a little time to bring up two separate systems — once we found compatible hardware. Indeed, it was an initially frustrating process to find hardware that would run Solaris x86. There was no hardware compatibility list for version 9 on Sun’s Web site, so I resorted to trial and error. Sun later advised me to use the hardware compatibility list for Solaris 8, last updated in February 2002.
My two newest Xeon-based servers, an HP ProLiant DL560 and a Dell PowerEdge 2650, are not supported by Solaris x86. I was able to install Solaris x86 on an old IBM ThinkPad 600 notebook (300MHz Pentium II) and a Dell PowerEdge 2450 server (dual 733MHz Pentium III). On those machines, the installation process for Solaris 9 x86 was fast and easy, on par with recent versions of Red Hat Linux and faster than installing Windows 2000 Server or the Windows Server 2003 beta.
Any administrator familiar with Linux installation will have no difficulty bringing up Solaris, especially now that the default user interface is the Gnome 2.0 found on many Linux distributions, instead of Sun’s own CDE (Common Desktop Environment). New wizards and hardware sniffers truly automate the installation. But on the ThinkPad, I had no multimedia support; the drivers were not available.
Other welcome additions are two graphical administration tools, Resource Manager and Volume Manager, that allocate processor, memory, and storage resources through a Windows-style GUI. In the past, Solaris x86 was stuck with clumsy command-line tools. Sun is to be commended for adding these tools, previously only available on SPARC, to the Intel version of the OS.
On the downside, Solaris x86 is less scalable than its Intel-architecture competitors, with an out-of-the-box four-processor limit.
A spokesperson told me: “Sun is able to respond to OEM and customer requests for eight-way and above.” Red Hat Linux AS, by contrast, supports eight-way servers out of the box; and Windows 2000 Server Datacenter Edition handles 32 x86 processors. Microsoft says that Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition will support 64-way servers; and Solaris on SPARC scales to 128 processors.
Glimmer of hope
The big problem with Solaris x86 is the scarcity of available software. I had few applications to test, even from Sun. The OS does include Sun’s SunScreen firewall, as well as the latest iPlanet directory server. It can also run StarOffice 6.0. However, Sun has not yet ported its J2EE-based Sun ONE Application Server 7.0, Sun ONE Web Server 6.0, or the rest of its Sun ONE stack to Solaris x86. The company does, however, offer them for Solaris on SPARC, as well as for Linux and Windows on x86. That’s a big negative.
More missing software includes Sun ONE Studio 7.0 app-dev suite, which exists on Linux, Windows, and Solaris on SPARC, but not on Solaris x86. The only C++ compilers available right now from Sun are its Forte Developer 6, which came out in mid-2001. Although Sun has publicly committed to bringing its Sun ONE software stack (currently available for SPARC only) over to Solaris x86, the company has not committed to a date or to future simultaneous releases on SPARC and x86. And it has promised that Sun ONE Studio 8.0 release will support both SPARC and x86.
As for third-party apps, they’re few and far between. Forget running DB2 or Oracle. Solaris x86 does include native binaries for Apache or Sendmail, as well as a J2SE 1.4 virtual machine (new to version 9 and a very welcome improvement).
It’s also possible to run some Red Hat Linux application binaries using the lxrun open-source Linux emulator. Although lxrun is included on a companion CD, it’s not supported by Sun. Sun also does not include the lxrun run-time libraries necessary to run software compiled for other versions of Linux. But there is a glimmer of hope: Sun has publicly committed that at some future point, Linux software written to the LSB (Linux Standard Base) will be able to run natively on Solaris x86.
Although Sun’s commitment to the Intel platform with Solaris x86 is laudable, the solution isn’t for the masses. Overall, Solaris x86 is a credible OS that might make sense as a low-end server platform for Sun shops, perhaps as an Apache Web server platform, or for hosting custom applications. It can also be used to drive laptops and desktop PCs as a substitute for more expensive SPARC workstations. But that’s about it.