Sun is continuing to make new steps forward toward a free Unix-like
community by presenting and developing a new version of its desktop
flavored operating system. OpenSolaris 2008.11, released in early
December, enables some of the popular features available in mainstream
GNU/Linux distributions: like live CD install, automatic network
configuration and a user-friendly package manager, in combination with well
known Solaris advantages like ZFS and DTrace.
Probably the biggest issue for an average GNU/Linux user who wants to start
using OpenSolaris is the installation. Fortunately, OpenSolaris managed to
overcome this potential problem by providing a Live CD image which can be
installed to hard drive, simplifying the scary traditional Solaris text
mode installation process. After a live CD is booted, and the OpenSolaris
desktop appears, double click the INSTALL icon to start the installation
The first few steps into the installation in the "next, next" manner
requires minimal input from the user with the traditional accent on
partitioning and partition selection. Partition selection might be a
tricky point since the installer does not show any of OpenSolaris' partition
nomenclature. This leaves partition size and filesystem as the only
attributes for recognition. Compared to the layout in Debian's Gparted,
partition order remains the same, but maximum attention is necessary if
OpenSolaris is to be installed to the hard drive while preserving data in
other partitions. The system is installable only to primary partitions.
The OpenSolaris team managed to improve visual identity in the new release
with characteristic artwork during all phases of system startup, together
with the login screen and desktop themes. The system takes a bit longer
to boot than most popular GNU/Linux distributions, but the difference is
small. The default (and only) desktop is GNOME 2.24.
From the perspective of a GNU/Linux GNOME user, OpenSolaris will look
familiar. Applications shipped in this release by default won't cover all
the needs of average desktop user, mainly because graphics editing and
office programs are absent. Internet and multimedia (if we consider only
free codecs and formats) are managed a lot better, allowing the user to
maintain the most common needs in those areas.
Noticeable differences in GNOME are directly related to one of OpenSolaris'
killer features - ZFS snapshots. A closer look at the Nautilus toolbar
reveals icons which show how this great system capability can be brought to
desktop users. The time slider integrates ZFS snapshots into the file
browser allowing users to exercise this functionality by moving the
slider to the desired point in the timeline. A cron job triggers a snapshot
every fifteen minutes, while the time slider presents them as points in a
graphical timeline. For example, a directory created at 8:45PM and deleted
at 9:00PM can be restored by moving the slider to 8:45, clicking on the
directory and choosing the Restore option.
The Time Slider Setup configuration tool allows users to make additional
settings to this feature, and to turn it on or off.
The package management realm seems to be taken very seriously by the
OpenSolaris team, since it's being shipped with pair of tools for package
manipulation and updates. In the GNU/Linux world this is already a winning
combination. Package Manager provides basic functionality. Installing,
uninstalling, updating, grouping and searching packages is available;
together with repository management. Update Manager will check available
updates, notify the user from the system tray and do the update if
OpenSolaris packages are organized in four repositories on
pkg.opensolaris.org: release, contrib, pending and dev. Only the release
repository is enabled by default, which requires additional user actions if
the other three repositories are needed. There is fifth repository, called
extra, but it becomes available only after registration and login to the
Sun Online Account. This also requires reading to how-to and getting dirty
in shell with SSL certificates.
OpenSolaris 2008.11 was installed on Thinkpad T61 machine for this test and
most of the hardware devices were detected. The Nvidia proprietary driver
was set automatically during the install, so 3D functionality was delivered
out of the box together with Compiz which is stable and fast. The Intel
WiFi controller (PRO/Wireless 4965), bluetooth controller and fingerprint
reader are on the list of supported devices, according to the Device Driver
Utility. This utility should provide information about the detected
devices, and installed drivers or potential problems in this context.
Pretty good driver support is not followed by equal application support
since Bluetooth and fingerprint tools are not installed by default. The
Network Auto-magic Manager applet, available in system tray, is not that
magical since the wireless connection was unacceptably unstable during
testing. This hardware has worked flawlessly in most GNU/Linux distributions. The
usability glitches are mainly manifested by not understanding the purpose
of the close button on notifications (some of them are showing up no matter
how much the close button is clicked). Network manager is way ahead Sun's
magician, so OpenSolaris developers should pay some additional attention
here to make OpenSolaris a usable desktop system.
Laptop support needs improvement too, since it wasn't possible to put the
test system to sleep. Partly functional Thinkpad buttons and problems with
mounting removable devices threw a shadow on the otherwise pleasant
impression that OpenSolaris left during the test.
This version of OpenSolaris clearly demonstrates Sun's strategy to develop
system with strong desktop orientation, but it also shows a few serious
issues which need to be solved. An unacceptably unstable network
connection management system and a lack of packages seems to be the two
biggest problems for OpenSolaris. The policy of not including KDE or
other desktop environments can be understandable to some point, but
complete the absence of QT applications will be a problem for many
The latest OpenSolaris release definitely shows potential, making it
a possible competitor to Linux in future releases.
Currently, good integration
of the ZFS snapshot and ZFS itself are the primary reason for the
average GNU/Linux user to try it. On the other hand, OpenSolaris users
should be very happy with this release since it shows good progress and
improvements over earlier versions.
For now, GNU/Linux remains as the best choice in the free
Unix-like world for those who want a fast moving desktop.
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