Sunday, 11 January 2009

A review of OpenSolaris 2008.11

I'm always willing to try new operating systems, and naturally it's a plus if they're free and open source. I like the Unix environment in general, and find that it better suits my needs than Windows.

So I guess it was inevitable that I was going to give OpenSolaris a try at some point. For the uninitiated, it's an open source operating system based on Sun's Solaris operating system, which is itself a version of Unix.

OpenSolaris feels very similar to popular Linux distros such as Ubuntu - it boots from the CD into a Gnome desktop with all the same applications as you'd expect to see in Ubuntu - Firefox, Thunderbird and Pidgin. OpenOffice isn't included by default, but is available from the repositories. This similarity is no accident - Sun hired Ian Murdock, founder of Debian, to help them create an official OpenSolaris distribution.

OpenSolaris's implementation of the Gnome desktop has to be the best I have ever seen. Check out this screenshot:

This shows the default theme, Nimbus. I prefer Dark Nimbus:

Compared to Ubuntu, the fonts that come by default are nicer, and no need to worry if you're brown-phobic too! It also includes Compiz by default.

As yet, OpenSolaris only offers the Gnome desktop. Not great if you prefer KDE like I do, but it does mean the whole thing is geared towards one desktop, making it a bit more uniform than most Linux distros - you won't find KDE apps that stand out like a sore thumb!

One downside is that compared to most Linux distros, OpenSolaris can be rather leisurely. It took several minutes to boot up in Virtualbox, and while the installer was no harder than Ubuntu's to use, it took a LOT longer. Installing new software was also very slow.

The graphical package manager is very similar to Ubuntu's Synaptic, and won't cause problems for anyone who's used to the idea of package management. However, OpenSolaris doesn't seem to have the sort of simple update manager that Ubuntu has.

One aspect that would no doubt come in very handy is the new Time Slider feature. Reminiscent of Apple's Time Machine, this feature allows you to automate backups in a simple user-friendly fashion. Sun's ZFS filesystem is undoubtedly extraordinarily powerful, and Time Slider makes it easy for the average user to use it.

This is Unix, so naturally there's a shell. While there was apparently a controversy over their selection of the bash shell, as used in Linux and OS X, over the Korn shell which is more often used in Solaris, I feel they made the right decision. Since bash will be familiar to people who use Linux or OS X, the two most prominent *nixes, it makes sense for them to adopt this.

I think for many people, OpenSolaris may be the open source operating system they have been waiting for. Some people do complain about the fact that there's no one company behind Linux and they get confused by the different distros. If so, OpenSolaris may well be the answer to their prayers. While there are other OpenSolaris "distros" such as Belenix, OpenSolaris is the official distribution. It offers an end-user experience that compares favourably with modern Linux distros. Also, the fact that it only supports Gnome so far means that it's consistent, although I personally would prefer to have the option of using KDE instead.

Also, Solaris is one of a number of operating systems that have been certified as real Unix. While as far as I know OpenSolaris has not been certified as this, it's based on the same code base as Solaris. So if you like your desktop Unix, but don't want to pay the premium for a Mac, you may want to consider this.

Sun have announced plans to offer OpenSolaris preinstalled on some Toshiba laptops. This is nothing short of astonishing considering how long people have waited for preinstalled Linux, and I guess that really shows how much difference one company's unwavering support can make.

If you're in the market for an open source operating system, OpenSolaris is well worth a try. This is only the second release, and it's really shaping up well. It still needs better driver support, and it could do with being faster, but I like what I've seen so far, and I look forward to following the fortunes of OpenSolaris over the next few years.


FarUpNorth said...

A good review. Opensolaris shows promise. It's stable and the Gnome desktop is beautiful. As you said, they need to speed it up. It may well be my future choice of distro.

Walter said...

ok review, but still far fetched to say this is a more consistent OS than the likes of other linux distros.

It is a good start, but is still no where near the likes of Ubuntu, Suse, Linux Mint, Fedora., Zenwalk, etc.

Walter said...

I say this because, because the lack of KDE support means many apps unique to kde that you may require such as amarok (itunes replacement) k3b (one of the best CD/DVD burning softwares in linux), etc would be missing to users.

Also, package managing in many of these distros had gotten much faster, automatic, and easier. Look-wise and consistency in looks, you can already get from a lot of distros like Linux mint, Suse, Pclinux, etc.. So what does Opensolaris add to users and nix world... I say it brings some of the ease of use and applications enjoyed in Linux mixed with some unique stuff to Solaris (im hoping dtrace)

So why it is good., it is far fetched to recommend it over linux distros. I think even the BSDs like PCBSd or desktopBSD do better at competing with linux distros..

vijaydutt said...

The hardware detection capability is an area of concern. I could not connect to ethernet but the wireless worked fine.
Multimedia supports for proprietary media like DVD , Flash , MP3 etc are not present. Ubuntu gives the choice to download non-free codecs from the mediubuntu repository. Opensolaris can implement something like that.
I could not access my FAT 32 partition until I gave up.
To win the hearts and minds of general desktop users Sun must address these issues if it ants to go beyond the server market.

Intelliginix said...

I had some issues with Opensolaris running really slow. In fact it was so slow I didn't even bother to its test container-based virtualization features. I figured what was the point! If the host OS is this slow the containers probably will not perform any better.

George said...

A very good review, thank you!