Monday, May 05, 2008

OpenSolaris 2008.5

OpenSolaris 2008.5 is available as an ISO download (and here as a torrent). It's shipping with the Gnome 2.20.2 desktop, so it will behave quite comfortably for those who are familiar with Ubuntu 7.10, openSUSE 10.3, and other recent distributions from the last six months. I've booted the live CD on europa, and so far everything Just Works.

When OpenSolaris first starts to boot you're presented with a nice Grub screen with three selections; select OpenSolaris (the default), memtest, and boot from the local hard drive. After selecting or waiting for the timeout for OpenSolaris, the next screen is a crude text-based menu to select your keyboard and language. And when I say crude I mean crude. It's defaulted to select English for the keyboard and the language, so a couple of returns (for me) and you're booting into Solaris proper. After the keyboard/language selection it takes a good 30 seconds on europa before the desktop finally appears.

When it finally shows up, the desktop shows just how far OpenSolaris has come in the past year. With the notable exception of the default theme (Nimbus, currently being developed for Java 6), there's very little differentiation between the OpenSolaris desktop and any good Linux/BSD desktop distribution. And that's actually a Good Thing.

Everything seems to work, at least on europa. That includes a decent graphics driver (but not nVidia, which means no 3D out-of-the-ISO), network, mouse and USB. In fact it recognized and automatically mounted my Kingston 4G thumb drive. Notable by its absence was any indication of the Windows XP (NTFS) or Linux (ext3) file systems on europa. I've grown used to Linux's interoperability at the file system level, and if OpenSolaris is missing this, then it's a fundamental mark against it in my book. It at least recognizes VFAT file systems, since the Kingston is formated as FAT32.

In puttering around the desktop I noticed that the OpenSolaris developers believe they can support the Compiz desktop. The Appearance Preferences have the Visual Effects tab. It didn't work for me and my ATI/AMD card, but maybe it will when it officially ships. Of course, I'd like to know if I'd ever be able to use ATI or nVidia drivers. ATI doesn't ship drivers for Solaris, but nVidia does.

How will OpenSolaris fare against Linux and BSD? Only time will tell, and I believe time is against OpenSolaris. Linux and BSD are heavily entrenched with well-understood tools and APIs. OpenSolaris on the other hand is the new kid and is Real Unix, with subtle but important differences between it and both Linux and BSD. I haven't gone deeply into the command line or looked at the other tools, and I haven't played with the programing APIs, but a decision to go with OpenSolaris means a serious commitment to OpenSolaris. OpenSolaris is going to have to work really hard to prove itself better than Linux to effectively compete on the desktop. And Linux on the desktop has matured markedly over the past 15 years.

Update 1

Pulled up a shell. It was bash version 3.2.25.
Invoked java (!). It was version 1.6.0_04, and the JRE only.
Invoked python. It was version 2.4.4, not 2.5.2. Pity.
Invoked Perl. It was version 5.8.4, which is reasonably current.
No gcc (or cc), no Ruby, and older versions of the other tools. I'd have to install OpenSolaris and then attempt to find those tools via its repository. I wonder if I should install OpenSolaris instead of openSUSE on rhea.

Update 2

Booted the live CD on rhea, the system with the nVidia 7600GS and 512MB of memory. I had a hunch about nVidia graphics support, and I wasn't disappointed. The OpenSolaris live CD comes with the nVidia native driver, and when it booted on rhea, the nVidia splash screen was displayed right before the graphic display came up.

The process to enable 3D effects was a bit peculiar. I clicked the advanced radio button on the Visual Effects tab and it churned the live CD for 10 seconds, then came back and told me it couldn't enable effects. Then, about 15 seconds later, 3D effects started working, as you can see in the screen shot above. Perhaps it's how Solaris interacts with the live CD, but it was surprising how it all sorted itself out.

I learned a bit more about OpenSolaris with rhea. Firstly, it needs at least 1GB for the live CD. It was painfully slow in 512MB. This stands in stark contrast to Mandriva 2008.1, Ubuntu 8.04, and openSUSE 11 (the three Linux distributions I've been really tracking), which are quite zippy in 512MB, and even more so once installed (Mandriva). Second, the native nvidia driver notwithstanding, the Solaris kernel doesn't support a lot of features on the nForce2-based motherboards I have. Granted the motherboards a getting quite a bit long in the tooth, but I have no problems with the nForce2 chip sets using just about any current Linux distribution you care to name that comes with a recent 2.6 kernel. As a consequence rhea had no network connection. Europa had a network connection, but that's because I have a four-year-old Intel gigabit ethernet card (82541GI) in the box, a legacy from the time when SuSE 9.3 didn't support nForce2 very well, especially the on-board ethernet. Solaris detected the Intel controller and used it.

Support of legacy hardware (and that's what I've got now) isn't necessarily a problem unless it's your problem. I'd need to try this on more current hardware to get a better feel for hardware support before making any kind of grandiose judgement on the fitness of OpenSolaris (or the lack thereof).

Update 3

Booted the live CD on the Gateway M685. It is a two-year-old notebook with the 17 inch 1680 x 1050 screen, nVidia GeForce Go 7800 video subsystem, 2GIG of DRAM, and a 2GHz Core Duo (not Core 2 Duo). It runs a whole lot better than it did on either europa or rhea, which just goes to prove that current hardware and more memory give a better experience. In fact, I can't tell the difference in performance between OpenSolaris and openSUSE 11, or the installed openSUSE 10.2.

Starting up custom visual effects went correctly this time. This further underscores that 512MB is not enough for the live CD. As you can see below I'm thumbing through a number of windows on one of the desktops using the shift switcher plugin.

One feature that finally (finally!) worked for me is the gears inside the cube effect. I've never gotten it to work in any of the Linux distributions, but it worked like a champ on OpenSolaris. I know it's silly, but hey, if you're going to have eye candy, then it should all work.

Support of Compiz, especially in the Gateway, is the best I've seen to date. And it goes to underscore why OpenSolaris is needed; as a quality leader to the rest of the Linux distributions. I've lost track of the number of features, large and small, that work just fine across several releases only to wind up breaking on the next latest and greatest. OpenSolaris, if it does nothing else, can be a leader in quality, which this release has in spades.

Here's a shot of the nVidia control applet.

And here's an interesting shot of the system monitor. I was intrigued to see that, with the exception of work required to launch an application, that the average core usage was around 2%, and that was with the graphic desktop enabled. This is far less than with any Linux distribution; the lowest I've seen to date is openSUSE 11 beta 2 on this notebook, and that was around 8% at idle.

OpenSolaris shows a lot of intriguing features with this release. It isn't perfect, and it's lack of support of many audio subsystems required for full multimedia (such as the M685's Intel 82801G (ICH7) high definition audio controller) makes this release more suitable for OS geeks and developers than the average Joe Sixpack. But it's definitely a release worth investigating further, and certainly one worth keeping an eye on for future development.