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The main purpose of the paper is to structure large and complex topic "Solaris vs. linux" into key subtopics, and suggest that despite being close competitors Solaris and Linux has a lot in common and are least toxic enterprise mix of two flavors of Unix currently available.
The comparison I made (with all its shortcomings) suggests that naive dreams of linux replacing all Solaris systems or vise versa should be dropped and both linux and Solaris should be considered as not only competing but also complementary OSes. Supremacist view of the part of linux developers crowd should be abolished as naive and unrealistic: it is clear that in some areas linux never was and will never be superior to Solaris (and, for a change, to AIX and HP-UX). This is one of the most interesting observations that unbiased reader can get from reading the paper. Linux strongest point is commodization of good features existing in other flavors of Unix and in this sense it is a pretty backward, reactionary OS ;-). Paradoxically but our exploration of Solaris history suggest that it were the commercial developers who had driven the Unix technology forward for the last 15 years.
In the process of writing the paper the author came to painful understanding of a second important point: the level of complexity of modern OSes far exceeds human capabilities. It is very easy to criticize the paper like this accusing the author in incompetence and sadly enough many such points will be true. In a sense complexity of current OSes really shows the limitations of human abilities.
That's probably why we often love a particular OS and so passionately defend it. It happens just because of the huge investment we made as well as because if you know OS better it will be more stable and reliable in a particular environment. In a way, due to this complexity, differences in sysadmin qualification and historic preferences supersede differences in OSes "native" stability and maintainability.
I never had any illusions as for my knowledge of linux, but what I realized during writing of the paper is that my knowledge of Solaris leaves much to be desired too. I also realized that while they are different in more ways that I thought before starting writing of this paper they are still two closest version of Unix out of any pair retrieved from the linux+solaris+AIX+HP-UX poll . I am really convinced that that difficulties in managing two of them and differences between Solaris and Linux are far less then any other combination of existing enterprise-ready Unix flavors. They tend to complement one another in more ways then any other pairs with possible exception of FreeBSD and Solaris.
At the same time there are obvious differences and it is not that easy to became equally proficient in tow OSes. In no way the author can claims that he completely understands the issues discussed about the two OSes described: both are extremely large and complex products and the author experience with both is limited to several highly specialized areas. But at the same time they are the only that can be used on the same hardware and while linux is dominating X86 hardware installations Solaris on X86 is an interesting option for more critical part of the server park. Especially for the organizations where Solaris represents the dominant part of RISC servers park.
But as always in system administration the devil is in details. Both Solaris and Red Hat and Red Hat and Suse are very different. But I would like to stress it again that they are less different then any other possible combination of Unixes in large enterprise environment and when you need to take sides in order not to get into "three or more flavors of Unix in a single organization" trap you should be aware about that. I can easily see large enterprise datacenters converted rather painlessly to Solaris-linux enterprise Unix mix. Of course that leaves out AIX and HP-UX each of which has its own strong points and the army of devoted administrators. But if Solaris is present, then most often either AIX and HP-UX are present too and the classic situation aptly named "Bolivar cannot carry double" in already mentioned famous (actually mainly among Eastern Europeans ;-) O. Henry story "The Roads We Take" arises in all its dark glory.
I would like also to stress that the acquisition of top level administration skills is a long, expensive process that with the current level of complexity of OSes takes probably not two-three like before but five-six years even for the most capable specialists . That means that such skills represent an important part of the company intellectual capital. And this capital should be treated with care without abrupt and unjustified by real business needs disruptions in cases were such disruptions can be avoided. To quote Linux Torvalds, switching from administering one OS to another is not unlike “performing brain surgery on yourself”.
The complexity of modern OSes had risen to the level when it is almost beyond the capability of single, even very intelligent, person to understand them. That means that top level admin skills can be acquired only during the long time and they represent important part of the company intellectual capital. To quote Linux Torvalds, switching from administering one OS to another is not unlike “performing brain surgery on yourself”.
The most important finding of the paper is that adding a new flavor of Unix into preexisting enterprise mix is a complex operation that has side effects. If Solaris is already present or dominant in the infrastructure preserving Solaris and linux is safer then preserving AIX or HP-UX. And some flavors of Unix need to go if you add linux (cuckoo effect of linux). Otherwise you face the situation with the increased number of Unix flavors used and as we argued above this increase badly affect welfare of system administrators, whose human limits due to the complexity of environment usually are around two OSes and in end of the day they determine the actual costs of the Unix infrastructure.
Often "over-proliferation" of Unix flavors necessitates either split of Unix administrators group into subgroups with each responsible for a particular couple of flavors of Unix (with additional overhead, red tape, and/or potential infighting inherent is such split). So in a sense in order to succeed the introduction of linux should always be a replacement of one of pre-exiting flavors of Unix and in no way it should just an additional addition to the enterprise Unix mix. No matter how many simplistic presentation and naive spreadsheets suggest that just an introduction of linux lead to the savings. those fake saving fail to materialize and quite easily are converted into their opposite.
Side effects and complexity of the task of adding yet another flavor on Unix in a large enterprise environment should not be underestimated. Qualification of sysadmins and of paramount importance for the success of any such, even completely justified, move. Adding linux should mean replacement of one of existing flavors of enterprise Unixes, never a step in proliferation of Unix flavors used
Issues here are complex and negative effects of "over-proliferation" can be profound. Sysadmins need to know the system in-depth to ensure reliable performance (and other things equal that's more difficult to ensure for linux then for other enterprise Unix flavors) and with the current complexity of operating systems even with sufficient training that goal can be achieved only for one or at most two flavors of Unix. Of course much depends on the quality of sysadmins. Like car jocks used to say "there is no replacement for displacement" ;-)
Moreover, if an organization has no high quality specialists it becomes a hostage to the expensive and sometimes unscrupulous consultants from various "professional services" organizations and that tends to drive costs higher and quality of service lower. Unless Solaris-Linux mix is used introduction of linux might logically lead to costs overruns. The relationship between the age of the OS and the vitality of the development team.
While choice is painful in large enterprise environment which introduces linux it is important to decide which of exiting flavors of Unix need to go and from two evils to select lesser.
That means that adding Linux to exiting framework also necessitates the decision of which existing flavors of unix to retire. In my opinion Solaris should stay.
"The guard is tired."
Famous quote from the history of
An important impression the author got from writing this paper is that in no way Linux will manage to replace enterprise flavors of Unix. It needs to learn to coexist with them. While distributed development framework is the essence of open source and provides the strength of Linux kernel development the Linux guard is tired and disillusioned. The dreams of "Cathedral and Bazaar" dissipated on the first contact with the reality. That means that the development more and more converges into traditional "industrial cooperative" framework. It is driven not by volunteers (to call Linus Torvalds a volunteer is some respect a cruel joke -- he is more like a prisoner of his own ambitions and social status of "father of linux kernel") but by salaried employees who are at the same time prisoners of the particular social movement. I wonder how many of the them in the depth of their hard hate "open source crowd". Key developers are dispersed in several organizations that finance this cooperative (instead of traditional team within a single organization, most often in a single location) which make cooperation more challenging, more difficult and more prone to conflicts.
Moreover the linux development is understaffed and overstretched with extremely ambitious and fuzzy goal of "world domination": creating the best OS on the planet for everything from toaster to mainframe. If we assume that kernel and major subsystems development are conducted by a distributed industrial cooperative with costs shared among several large players, then problems facing linux become more clear: as in any cooperative contributions are dependent on the good will and financial health of participants, each of which tends to be slightly suspicious that other do not provide a fair share.
Also fifteen years of development are fifteen years of hard work and it is natural that the initial enthusiasm vanished and sometimes changed into disappointment (or even resentment) and that the focus for even the most devoted members of the core Linux kernel development group including Linus Torvalds himself started shifting and conceptual integrity of the product suffered as a result. Both decisions made and implementations adopted are not as sharp as they used to be at the beginning. Partially because the size of codebase becomes prohibitive and while any change/improvement is possible nothing is simple anymore. Like Larry Wall aptly noted about Perl 5 implementation, working with such a monstrous codebase simply stopped to be fun (that's why he decided to launch an ambitious project to create Perl 6 starting the implementation from scratch). Working with such huge and complex codebase became a hard, exhausting work no matter what salary you get. Huge size of the codebase also tends to block the infusion of new talent.
As I mentioned before, at the end of day it became evident to everybody that open source does not have a monopoly neither on technical talent, nor on innovative ideas, not on the quality of implementation. Sole level of specialization of Linux is quite welcomes. It simply cannot be "all things for all people".
First of all Linux might never be able to reach the stability of Solaris, AIX or HP-UX. Also, while open source in general and linux in particular had its share of innovative ideas (especially in the area of scripting languages were open source dominates) many important innovations for Unix came from traditional channels of innovation. For example, neither VNC, not ZFS, nor Dtrace were products of open source development. The same is true for VMware, Xen and AIX Lpars which legitimized the virtual machine concept. To add insult to injury for open source zealots Xen development was partially financed by Microsoft Research and Microsoft implementation of Python (IronPython) runs faster then its open source counterpart. All those examples suggest that there is nothing that prevents other OSes to surpass linux as the best choice for particular application areas and that competitive threat of linux should not be overestimated. The dream of world domination turned into pipe dream, and if so the question arise are all those personal scarifies endured by key developers outside "linux money crowd" worth the result ? Would they be better using their talent in concentrating of clearly defined areas instead of spreading too thin ? Also it might be better for at least some of then to join more conventional organizations like commercial software startups and get some real money in return for 80 working hours weeks they endured...
Even the idea of creation of universal high quality kernel by geographically dispersed, Internet connected team of high quality specialists in not without problems. As Napoleon said after the Battle of the Sands that two Mameluke usually could defeat five French solders, but 100 French usually could defeat 500 Mamelukes (or something to that effect). His point was that proper organization, talented management and discipline helps to win battles even if individuals involved on the other side are more motivated, better trained and equipped, but less well organized and suffer from the lack of discipline. That does not mean that the corporate environment is a paradise, it has its own well-known problems, but still this quote has some relevance to open source development of complex products like Unix kernel [Bezroukov1999a, Bezroukov1999b]. Also mail list as the main methods of communication proved to be inferior to a real room with a blackboard were two or more developers can freely discuss their ideas or even to a traditional corporate teleconference. It provokes too much ego-related infighting and that makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. I like better the “virtual water cooler” concept using IRC that Canonical seem to push, but it is not without problems too. Virtual is not always better then the real thing. In open source literature similar kind of problems are usually discussed under the banner of "difficulties of herding cats" ;-). See for example How to Herd Cats and Influence People - linux.conf.au 2007. As Tom Hanrahan, OLSL head of Linux engineering noted [Hanrahan2004]:
As far as how you manage it, you do have to think more in terms of how you influence the direction things are going rather than dictating how things are going. I guess that's the sense you have when you talk about herding cats or having organized chaos.
Also the age of the OS does matter. Historically no OS managed to grab significant additional market share after more then ten years of development as at this point novelty of OS, if any, starts to disappear and the focus automatically switches from occupying new territories to defending the currently occupied turf and providing compatibility with previous generations of the OS. There can be exclusions, but still this rule usually holds. And success brings its own problems: not only the compatibility with previous versions might soon become a huge problem for linux (the first profound effects of which probably might first be visible in the slow pace of switch from RHEL 4 to RHEL 5). More dangerous problem is that focus shifts from principal things to superficial polish and system became heavy from bells and whistles (that's another way to note the loss of conceptual integrity). In a way the problems with new versions of linux enterprise distributions are very similar to those that Microsoft faces with the development of Windows: accumulation of fat due to the introduction of new unnecessary features and bell and whistles like innumerous generations of more and more cute animated icons (note the waist of efforts and problems for users introduced by changes on the icons and other "balkanization of interface" type of improvements in Office 2003) and the problem of motivating users to move to the new version (for example from Windows 2003 server to the forthcoming Windows Vista server). In large enterprise environment when new version does not provide compelling advantages over the old many people feel that upgrade does not worth it and until support of the older version lasts will stick to the old version.
Moreover, after ten years of development any OS can be legitimately called "a legacy OS" as warts and driven by compatibility requirements compromises start to affect the architectural integrity. In general OSes behave not unlike humans: any chronic health problem that can be attributed to architectural (or in case of humans genetic) deficiencies become more pronounced with the age.
In short linux is not a magic bullet and in the large enterprise environment the OS has a lot of issues and first of all in the area of stability as well as related and even more important problem of conceptual integrity. So it will co-exist with other Unixes and never will be able to replace all existing commercial flavors of Unix. And some level of specialization is already occurring with Linux mainly used in areas were issues of stability can be resolved by introducing the redundancy like in internet-facing Web servers.
Therefore the claim that linux is a revolutionary OS was OK for 1992-1998. First versions on linux starting from 0.1 were really the smallest "semi-POSIX compatible" OSes known, the tiny and fast OSes capable of running GNU applications on regular 386 PCs using minimum of resources (4M or even 2M of RAM was OK). Also a fit of reengineering a kernel, capable of running most GNU applications from published specifications, the book Design of the Unix Operating System by Marice J. Bach and series of William and Lynne Jolitz's papers in Dr. Dobbs Journal in one year by a student should also be commended although it is far from being revolutionary in a pure technical sense and looks more like a Guinness record.
But this claim is largely unsubstantiated in year 2006 and later. Linux now should be properly called "legacy OS" belonging to the same category as Solaris and Windows. Actually Windows NT is an OS that is younger then Linux as it was first released in 1993 and was available for Intel IA-32, MIPS, Alpha and PowerPC architectures (actually Windows NT 3.51 was ported to SPARC too, but the product was never sold).
Of course none of those operating systems stands still and there is not much left in Linux kernel 2.6 from versions 1.x, or 2.0. But the underling framework of ideas remains intact and the same is true for Solaris. Both represent Unix Renaissance, both are true descendants of the same OS paradigm created in AT&T many years ago, which in turn was inspired by ideas pioneered by Fernando Corbato and which were acquired by AT&T researchers during their participation in Multics project in late 60th of the last century (AT&T withdraw from the Multics project in 1969; A year later DEC introduced the first PDP-11 (PDP 11/20) and that was the computer architecture on which Unix matured. BTW the PDP-11 was a phenomenal success very similar to PCs success decade later and that definitely contributed to Unix success similar to Intel CPUs successes huge contribution to linux popularity: rising tide lifts all boats.
Also due to the age of OS, Linux kernel development now faces the problem of change of the guard as
the "regime" of Linus "kernel" Torvalds cannot last forever and after more then
fifteen years of development any OS developer starts losing edge. Kernel
development requires phenomenal sacrifices in terms of personal time and
commitment and for the old guard that also by-and-large gone. Now with each new
version of kernel they are probably thinking
"Do I want to push this big rock up a hill again?"
It might be that
Linus Torvalds is closer to the status of another retired dot-com millionaire
with his own small park of Mercedeses and yacht that most people suspect. Solaris is past
this cycle as Bill Joy, who
in his Berkeley years
"outcoded" the entire AT&T (
As other vendors now invest serious efforts on grabbing low end Intel-based servers market share linux might never grow significantly beyond the current share, leaving Red Hat with a cash flow problem that might negatively influence the quality of support of respective distribution. Fallout from the Microsoft-Novell pact recently led to layoffs in OSDL (nine out of 28 staffers), the only cooperative venture between large vendors devoted to Linux kernel architecture development. CEO Stuart Cohen resigned saving OSDL approximately half-million dollars in salary. Hiring lawyers instead of technical specialists by OSDL made future direction of this cooperative venture between Intel, IBM, HP (and several minor players) even more fuzzy. With the annual budget of only eight million dollars OSDL cannot sit between two chairs. Torvalds is still there, but strategic focus of OSDL is under question. It may be re-tuned for legal combat instead of Linux kernel architecture development. On the other hand Oracle's frontal attack on Red Hat by hijacking the support revenue might be just the first sign of future troubles for "pure play" open source software vendors.
There are several often overlooked positive features of Solaris as an alternative to Linux on x86-64 hardware in large enterprise environment:
Saving money in moving to a new flavor of Unix in large
enterprise environment is a complex task that is heavily influenced by
existing set of flavors. Like with any large IT project benefits
are usually overestimated and costs are underestimated. After magical
number two any addition to the existing Unix flavors mix generally increases
costs in large enterprise environment due to complex interplay of factors
including but not limited to sharp deterioration of Unix administrators
performance in case they are managing more then two. In this case Solaris
represents huge advantage as it is already usually present in large
enterprise Unix flavors mix and can run on x86-64 hardware which currently
has the hightest cost to performance ration.
Despite all this fury of kernel releases and versions of distributions minted each year technically linux is a very conservative OS. In some respects, for example the level and uniformity of integration of scripting into major utilities and applications, it is a backward OS even in comparison with OS/2, which used REXX both as an external scripting language (shell) and macro language for GUI and applications) and Amiga, BE OS, Inferno and even NEXT. The key developer of the kernel lacks any substantial technical vision necessary to bring the kernel and OS on the next level; he is quite satisfied with the status quo provided by POSIX Unix and strives only for numerical dominance belonging to "polisher/optimizer" types among OS (and languages) developers not an "inventor" type. There is nothing revolutionary in linux as an operating system. I became interested in linux around late 1993 and even at this time it was quite clear that this is a very conservative replication of Unix that does not strive to be so much on cutting edge (compare it with Next or OS/2) as being the cheapest available (the least common denominator) on the most common hardware, essentially replicating Microsoft's DOS/Windows strategy in Unix world [Bezroukov2005a]. Strategically nothing in the development of linux changed since 1993 other then the level of investment into development and proliferation of distributions. It remain conservative, somewhat backward OS ("neo-conservative") supported by pretty strong social movement somewhat similar to neo-conservative political movement in the USA. Here is the relevant quote from [Bezroukov2005a]
In a sense it's more like a powerful political campaign, very similar to Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" thing (fight corruption, waste in government spending, tax reform and a balanced budget, etc.) than a technological advance. There are other things that make analogy between Newt Gingrich and Linus Torvalds much less superficial than it looks from the first sight.
For example, both understand that the principal task of the leader is to define a positive "vision" around which followers can cohere, define strategies to achieve this vision, then delegate authority to others to carry out operations and tactics. That's why Torvalds so easily delegates programming part of kernel to other people. As long as he is in a controlling position of leader and configuration manager of the whole kernel who has the final word on what will be included in a particular version, it does not matter much who will produce a particular module or driver. Enjoy your ride as long as you agree that I am the driver.
Prior to becoming the House speaker, Newt Gingrich had spent over a decade writing and speaking about, and organizing around, an eclectic neo-conservative model, which he argued should take the place of Great Society liberalism. In Gingrich's view, his conservative predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had ultimately come up short as a transformative leader because his horizon as a leader had been defined by opposition to liberalism rather than a positive vision of a new order in American politics. "The great failure of the modern Republican party, including much of the Reagan administration," Gingrich wrote in 1984, "has been in its effort to solve problems operationally or tactically within the framework of the welfare state . . . . Real change occurs at the levels of vision and strategy." That's somewhat similar of Torvalds attitude to Stallman. Gingrich reiterated this theme in a 1995 interview:
"You have to blow down the old order in order to create the new order. Reagan understood how to blow down the old order, but wasn't exactly sure what the new order would be."
When Gingrich became speaker in 1995, his overriding goal was to succeed where President Ronald Reagan had failed, by creating a "new political order" in the United States. Sounds pretty similar with the "world domination" rhetoric of Linus Torvalds. Both share extraordinarily ambitions, executive-style understanding of political leadership, and an acute ability to work well with press. Both repeatedly demonstrated willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and take political risks to advance their goals (Linus decision to bless commercial distributors was very unconventional, to say the least, for a "member of a GNU generation").
Compatibility with previous versions of OS for
applications is dramatically better on Solaris. On linux you are
generally surprised if a binary package for any complex application
compiled for previous version of OS works. In Solaris you are surprised if
it does not work.
The article presents some evidence that suggests that due
Solaris might be one of the most interesting from the computer science point
of view kernel among free Unix troika (Linux, FreeBSD/OpenBSD/NetBSD and
"Take two" effect of Linux adoption. The usual consequence of large enterprise adoption of linux
is adoption not one but two major enterprise flavors of Linux (both Red Hat and
Suse). Solaris is not suffering from
this "split personality" problem. In linux the "Unix curse" is
replayed on the level of competition of RHEL (and now Oracle) and Suse distributions: any organization that deploys one flavor of Linux is
risking to introduce the other "real time soon" as it can happen that some
applications are certified only for Red Hat and other only for Suse.
Also, as we observed above, the relative shares of those two distribution in
the enterprise market may well reverse in the future with Novell enjoying
substantial success with Suse 10 along with the pact with Microsoft that
contains provisions important for large enterprise customers and Red Hat
facing the competition with Oracle in capturing support revenues.
Actually Oracle converted a pair of enterprise distributions into troika as its full compatibility with Red Hat might not last more then a couple of years it needs to establish itself (or time for Red Hat to fold).
There is a substantial fashion related component in
enterprise Linux adoptions: such moves are most suitable to "beta
addicts" type of Unix administrator personalities and IT managers. It is
especially attractive to people who want to make a career on change for the
sake of change as well as in "Alice in Wonderland" fashion driven frenzy of highly Dilbertilized
and partially outsourced IT environments. The article tries to demonstrate that in large enterprise
environment rewards for becoming "beta addict" are questionable.
Increasing the number of Unix flavors is even more questionable and usually
nullifies any savings. Also due to the way top
linux distributions vendors compete with each other they are always pushed to
'cutting edge": "the latest and greatest" version of the kernel and major
That means that compatibility suffers and upgrades are more of an adventure then in other, more conservative, flavors of Unix. I would like to stress it again: while quite innovative in its own right that Solaris has much better compatibility record and more smooth patch cycle. The fact that Solaris 10 runs on commodity hardware (cheap Opteron servers now and in late 2007 on new Intel Duo and Quattro CPUs) makes it an interesting alternative for more conservatively oriented IT managers and administrators.
Solaris is a more stable OS, especially in network intensive
tasks. It works as well if not better then Linux on cheap Opteron-based
servers. New T1 CPUs make Solaris on SPARC more attractive and provide a
clean migration path from older UltraSparc models that badly fell behind in
The number of people in large enterprise environment who lost their jobs due to problems with linux stability is a well kept secret, but the danger is real as probably any head of the large enterprise Unix department with substantial linux deployment can attest. Of course, much depends on the qualification of the personnel and carefully tuned Suse or Red Hat server is more stable than the same server with the distribution installed "out of the box". Still the issues are real and linux stability can be called the skeleton in the closet of large enterprise deployments. The safest way to deploy linux is to use it for applications were reliability can be improved by redundancy. It is much more risky to deploy linux in cases where there is no such fallback. Overspecifying hardware so that linux can run with less peak load also helps in most cases and it is easy to do due to the arrival of Duo and Quattro CPUs with faster (1.33Ghz) memory buses.
Some open source applications run on Solaris better then on
linux. Due to the architecture of Solaris kernel and I/O subsystem
there are several open source applications that can run on Solaris better then
on Linux. Among them are Java-based applications (home-field advantage), all
heavily multithreaded applications and possibly open source
Still overall support of open source applications is an Achilles heel of Solaris and it needs to be improved as number of deployments depends of ability to capture the savings from open source applications, not open source OSes.
Solaris 10 on Opteron has better security due to more
uniform utilization of hardware stack protection mechanism, and, especially,
due to zones and RBAC implementations. RHEL
approach to security based on SElinux is questionable both architecturally
(too much overhead) and from administrator point of view (overcomplexity)
and might be an Achilles heel of this linux distribution: overcomplexity
Solaris 10 significantly improves the security of open source applicators due to presence of RBAC, zones as well as built-in protection from stack overflows (this is a temporary advantage that will disappear with more wide adoption of AMD64/EM64T architecture).
Solaris has superior light-weight virtualization capabilities.
That can be additional contribution to improved security and can solve the
"root password hell" problem in large datacenters, relegating zone passwords
to zone administrators who at the same time are application administrators.
Solaris scales better then Linux and generally behaves
better in configuration after 4 CPUS and memories after 16G. One of the
limitations of linux development model is automatic lock-in on mass-produced
low end hardware. That's a natural side effect of the democratic nature of
open source and that's what made linux successful as it essentially repeated
Microsoft story of capturing market share starting from the low end, but in
the Unix world context. Due to inherent limitations of scalability of
open source development, linux can and should be successful on the lower
end, but in midrange and, especially, high end deployments its
attractiveness is much less.
But if you look at larger picture even on low end linux failed to made any significant dent in Microsoft's market share and with successful launch of Windows 2003 server even relinquished some previously occupied territory back to Microsoft (for example on front end Web servers farms). All-in-all it only reenergized Microsoft development team.
Feature creep is less pronounced in Solaris: codebase is not
that bloated. There is a single instance of OS that includes not only kernel
but also GUI and
utilities, not multiple competing distributions, each with their own homegrown set
of management utilities and very unclear survival
"Pure play" Linux vendors might find it hard to
capitalize on support revenue. The question whether Red Hat will successfully withstand
Oracle frontal assault or Novel will manage to capitalize of Red Hat
weakness and became dominant distribution are really a multi-million dollar
questions. Actually if large hardware manufactures like HP and Dell adopt
Oracle Linux there can be a wave of defections from Red Hat on enterprise
level: money speak lower then words.
Still due to GPL there is always a possibility to capitalize on linux distribution revenue by any powerful enough player (GPL installs the law of jungles in this area). Solaris is licensed under a different license. See Nikolai Bezroukov. Labyrinth of Software Freedom (BSD vs GPL and social aspects of free licensing debate) for more information.
Like any OS Solaris is not ideal and has its own set of shortcomings. Some are serious, some are not, but that measn that linux can complement Solaris in large eneterprise enviroment and sucessfully comete with it in several areas where such shortcomings matter most. Among those that matter for large enterprise environment I would like to mention
Solaris has weaker compatibility with Microsoft and
currently Solaris 10 in this area significantly trails Suse due to
series of initiatives Novell and Microsoft recently launched. Level of
compatibility of Solaris 10 with Active Directory is lower then in Suse 10 and configuring AD
authentication is more complex and less well covered in Sun documentation
and blueprints. Essentially Sun brass completely lost a huge
opportunity to capitalize on
Microsoft pact, paying only lip service to improving compatibility with
Windows 2003 server-based infrastructure which is an established member of
any large enterprise IT environment and often the dominant part of IT
This is a blunder similar to abandoning TCL in the past (or not buying VMware) and like in case of any strategic blunder consequences of it might hunt Sun for some time. In view of GPLing Java Sun suit against Microsoft looks like completely misplaced move: why they fought for their intellectual property if at the end they abandoned it completely (GPL is the license definitly suitable for abandonware). I understand an anti-IBM angle of such a move, but having FSF as their best friend is not a strategic business advantage for Sun, no matter how you spin it.
Availability of precompiled and prepackaged open source applications on Solaris is lower then on Linux and Solaris is missing "home field advantage" in this area. Currently Solaris 10 is really inferior to both Red Hat and Suse in this important for enterprise customers area. On large enterprise level nobody is buying Solaris support because the OS itself is freely downloadable, it is the possibility to run high quality open source applications while preserving previous enterprise-class proprietary applications that drives sales. Moreover due to new multiple core CPUs (T1 line) Sun needs to became the top packager of open source applications for Solaris to represent a viable alternative to Linux as there is a significant premium, associated with running many enterprise class proprietary applications on multi-core CPUs: many proprietary software packages count CPU cores in licensing. There are several sub-factors in this area:
Linux now become the major development platform for open source
applications (with FreeBSD as a distant second) and as such has "home field"
advantage for many (but not all) open source applications valuable for large
Even to partially neutralize linux "home
field" advantage Sun needs dramatic improvement of the availability of
prepackaged major open source applications valuable for large enterprises
(let's call them "enterprise one hundred") along with much better
interoperability with Microsoft.
The key player here is Sun compiler development group. Packaging excellent development tools like Studio 11 and creating the line of open source packages based on this compiler (for both UltraSparc and Opteron versions of Solaris) that Sun start doing recently might be a viable step in compensation for this disadvantage as few enterprise users recompile packages before deployment (partially due to weakening of core staff in the process of outsourcing). Of course this step incur for Sun significant costs but I see not other way to enhance viability of Solaris for broad spectrum of "enlightened" enterprise customers who want to use open source but do not want to move to perma-beta, unstable (will Red Hat be around in 2017? Any guesses about Novell position in 2017? ) and fast changing world of linux enterprise distributions when being of cutting edge is considered by distributors to be a major competitive advantage (Red Hat tried to be more conservative with Xen and have found itself under pretty successful PR attack by Novell that inflicted some damage).
Paradoxically with their rush for "latest and greatest" version of linux kernels and key subsystems enterprise linux vendors increased viability of both Sun and Microsoft as the platforms for running key open source applications. For example the share of PHP users who use Microsoft Windows not only as development but also as a deployment platform recently became really visible and this change now is clearly reflected in newer PHP books and offerings of major Web hosting providers.
Currently precompiled open source applications packaging
infrastructure is rudimentary on Solaris and that serves as a major
deterrent for those who really can use Excel spreadsheets in calculation
saving: it is open source applications not open source OSes provide
major savings, if any. List of supported application in case of
Sun in inferior to both RHEL and Novell. As open source applications
became even more attractive on SMP servers
with four or more CPUs this problem recently only increased with the
introduction of Intl Duo and Quattro CPUs.
Sites that create and distribute open source
packages for Solaris need to be
subsidized by Sun and their package selection should be improved
although return on investment for additional open source applications
after first two or three hundred quickly deteriorates. Still even a small investment into such outfits
can provide substantial and immediate improvement is the Solaris
competitive position. The most bright spot for Solaris is http://www.blastwave.org,
the site that has impressive list of more or less up-to date packages
for major open source applications and advanced package technology that
automatically resolved dependencies). There is also older and higher
quality (but without automatic resolution of dependencies)
that contains large number well-selected packages. Despite of very high
quality of packaging the versions available are not always current, some packages
actually are pretty old. That's natural as packaging
of complex applications is a very complex and labor intensive job and it requires both high qualification and
dedication. Adopting BSD-style "compile on delivery" technology (used in linux
space by Gentoo) might be an interesting alternative for Solaris that
can get Studio 11 more visibility with the side effect of improving
the security of
open source applications.
Much better job can and should be done with "out-of-the-box" availability of major scripting languages, for example packaging for Perl definitely should be better and ksh93 should be used as default shell instead of POSIX shell that is used now. Also it's probably time for Sun to drop Bourne Shell and switch all scripts to ksh93 as usage of Bourne shell is the source of unnecessary complexity and incompatibilities in the world when an entry level server often has 2G of RAM and 2GHz CPU.
The top dozen of the most popular enterprise-ready open source applications for Solaris ( including but not limited to apache, Postgress, bind, postfix, Sendmail and scripting languages, especially PHP5 and Python) should probably be included in standard installation and supported out of the box. Some of they already are supported by Sun with Postgress as the most recent addition, but more needs to be done. All others should be at least upgraded quarterly on the software Supplement CD each time Solaris gets its quarterly upgrade.
I would like to stress it again that the importance of solid infrastructure of both precompiled and "complied on delivery" ( BSD-style) open source applications can not be overestimated due to the multicore architecture of latest Sun CPUs (T1 line). This CPU essentially makes SUN a natural promoter of enterprise open source applications.
Maintenance of open source applications not supported by
Sun is a problem for enterprise customers. After discovery of
exploitable vulnerabilities new versions of precompiled packages are not available
within a two-week frame
(and sometimes not available within a month; therefore enterprise
customers which rely on precompiled applications and does not have
ability to recompile sources suffer from this lag).
Linux has a larger "knowledge space" especially noticeable in the number of published books.
While Solaris has much better OS level security, Linux
has better "open source security knowledge infrastructure" including
the information about securing open source
applications, especially those implementing key application level TCP/IP
protocols (HTTP, DNS, SMTP, ssh, Kerberos, etc). Of course those
materials can be adapted for Solaris but linux still has home field
advantage in this area too. Just look at the number of O'Reilly books
that use linux as a platform.
Most high quality tech materials about open source applications are
Linux oriented. Due to this superior knowledge space open source
applications are often deployed on Linux in a more advanced fashion (
examples are typical "out of the box" DNS configurations, Apache
configurations, Postfix is often deployed as a Sendmail alternative, xinetd
is deployed instead of inetd, firewall
integration is "application friendly" with installation options allowing
certain services, etc.) Of course all of them can be replicated on Solaris but
it requires additional effort and sometimes higher qualification of sysadmins.
Here linux has "home field" advantage too.
Solaris suffers in several important for large enterprise administrators productivity areas:
"Out of the box" availability of scripting languages is
inferior in comparison with Linux. In the past Sun brass
adopted and killed TCL which would be the major advantage for the OS (it
was a victim of Java push). Default Perl installation is a step in
right direction but is very limited. TCL and Expect need to be
installed manually. Same is true for Python which is
improving rapidly due to support from Google as well as Ruby which is
the first scripting language with nicer integrated co-routines and
properly implemented exception handling (it is impossible to implement
proper exception handling without co-routines as first class language
construct or with after-though addition which most libraries are already
stabilized; interrupt handler is essentially a stopped co-routine; this
is the fact Gosling never managed to understand)
Quality of default shell (ksh88 in Solaris) is dismal.
Bourne/Korn shell dualism preserved in Solaris outlived its usefulness
long ago. Of course in large company there are always a lot of political
struggle and party of "traditionalists" can be quote strong but the
ability to overcome stupid resistance for changes which time has come is
essentially the test of the IQ of the top brass . Solaris is probably the only major Unix which still widely uses Borne shell for
scripting. Although ksh93 is available as
is rarely used and the version is very old: does not support latest
command line enhancements in ksh93 like usage of arrow keys in C-shell
fashion. Bash is not fully integrated into the OS (cannot be used
as role shell) and is somewhat buggy (long lines overwrite itself from
the beginning and attempts to type a long command became a really
PAM availability and capabilities are lacking
in comparison with Linux. Ports of most interesting linux PAM
modules is long overdue. Despite pioneering the concept Solaris in
now lags behind Linux in this area.
Availability of productivity enhancing command line
tools, especially orthodox file managers is lower. For example, Midnight
Commander essentially became linux only application and works not so
well on Solaris. Prepackaged version of deco and other lightweight
OFMs are difficult to find.
Packaging is weaker. It can be considered
completely outdated although there are rumors that Sun is taking steps
in adopting apt-get.
Support from third party vendors for key enterprise applications is weakening as Oracle is flirting with Linux and IBM also promotes Tivoli and other key enterprise applications for Linux and AIX. Still Solaris on Sparc has about 12,000 enterprise applications, and the porting job from Solaris on Sparc to Solaris on X86 is a lot easier than moving from Solaris to Red Hat Linux.
While each of listed advantages and disadvantages is important, still those are details and they cannot change the key message of the paper: TCO reduction in the large enterprise environment is not directly connected with the quality of the OS or its real or imaginable advantages over existing Unixes be it AIX, HP-UX, linux or Solaris. Side effects and complexity of the task of adding yet another flavor on Unix in a large enterprise environment should not be underestimated.
Solaris team already recognased that is needs to "play nice" in mixes enveronment with linux as one of the most important mamebers. But there should be some additional steps. There is no reason why Sun can't use Debian interface and applications with Solaris as the kernel.
Please note that as of March 2007, Sun stared addressing several of those due to recent hiring of one of Debian founders Ian Murdock[Farber&Dignan2007]. As Ian wrote in his blog:
"I'll be advocating that Solaris needs to close the usability gap with Linux to be competitive; that while as I believe Solaris needs to change in some ways, I also believe deeply in the importance of backward compatibility; and that even with Solaris front and center, I'm pretty strongly of the opinion that Linux needs to play a clearer role in the platform strategy."
Let's reiterate the most important part of argumentation in this part of the paper. Proliferation of Unix flavors negatively affect the benefits of introducing new Unix flavor into the large enterprise environment:
The side effects of adding each additional Unix flavor deployment on a number of supported flavors of Unix
(Unix flavors proliferation) often nullify real or imaginable benefits
from the adoption. Excessive variety of Unixes is a chronic and
costly disease that many large enterprises suffer from. The articles
stresses that the importance of this issue simply can't be overestimated:
the level of "Unix diversity", not the set of flavors of Unix used is the
in determining the TCO of Unix infrastructure for large enterprise environments. Important advantage of
Solaris is that it does not have problems connected with Linux
fragmentation into several different distributions with at least two major enterprise-class
distributions (Red Hat and Suse with the latter recently enjoying a huge boost
due to its pack with Microsoft and which due to this pack can eventually
displace Red Hat from the top stop).
The frequency of patching also has disproportional effect on TCO of a particular OS in large organization environment. It also has great influence on the security of the infrastructure. Other things equal large enterprises benefit from an OS that can be used with the less frequent patch cycle. Linux (at least as of early 2006) requires more frequent patching then any other major enterprise-ready flavor of Unix (AIX, HP-UX and Solaris). The paper point out that if linux patch cycle is artificially made equal to patch cycle of major enterprise OSes the level of security can deteriorate. The author argues that the length of patch cycle for linux should be probably equal to length of patch cycle for Microsoft OSes (typically one month). This fact significantly lessens that attractiveness of linux for large enterprise environment but can be mitigated by running firewall (which is well integrated into RH 4), as well as running linux under VMware or (with the forthcoming integration of XEN) in separate specialized "minimal" linux images created for a each major application (similar to Solaris zones partitioning) but both solutions increase demand for already highly stretched administrator workforce.
Due to those two issues Solaris 10 on Opteron (and in 2008 probably on Intel Duo/Quattro CPUs) represents a viable alternative to deployment of Linux in any large enterprise which already has substantial Solaris presence and that wants to reduce the cost of hardware due to better cost/performance ratio of Opteron CPUs (and later in 2007 Intel Duo and Quattro CPUs as Sun signed pact with Intel to support this line of CPU too) and commodity pricing for Intel-compatible hardware. Availability of Solaris for enterprise customers is not limited to Sun hardware: HP supports Solaris on many its Opteron-based servers along with linux.
From purely technical standpoint Solaris is a quality OS and in many technical areas is equal or superior to linux. The open source model that was adopted for the Solaris OS ensures that this standard will be maintained. Most enterprise applications that are available on linux are also available on the Solaris. Also Sun also has an extremely good and largely deserved reputation in terms of quality of support, training and certification. In those areas it is superior to offerings from Novell or Red Hat although Red Hat has an advantage of keeping training "in-house" while Sun outsourced it and that negatively affects quality and Novell in the most democratic as for training and certification options (Red Hat has very expensive as for open source OS training and certification options even if we are talking about large enterprise financial capabilities).
If you're currently using linux in large enterprise environment as Web front end, it make sense taking a look at Solaris, as a more scalable alternative slightly biased toward higher end hardware. Security wise Solaris has a substantial lead over any Linux distribution and no amount of hardening can compensate for absence of RBAC implementation and zones in current linux distributions. That fact (combined with the necessity of more frequent patching for linux) means that maintaining the same level security on linux will always be more expensive for large enterprises. Of course other factors, like the qualification of staff can offset this disadvantage.
All-in-all Solaris is powerful, stable, conformant to standards OS that can run many open source applications as well as Linux and some (mainly multithreaded applications) better then Linux. Like in the cases of Red Hat and Suse, the cost of support is extra, but it is more reasonably priced. Security patches are free which makes Solaris similar to Windows (the latter paradoxically is very competitive with Linux if we are limiting ourselves to enterprise distributions with paid annual support requirements such as Red Hat and Suse).
While many of open source enthusiasts would prefer linux for everything they do, nobody can deny that "stability is a sign of professionalism" and I would add the compatibility is an important sign of professionalism too. This paper suggest that Solaris as a brand did quite a lot of good and introduced many important innovation in Unix. From technical standpoint currently Solaris 10 is the leader among Unix flavors in large enterprise space and while you don't have to love the leader (or respect technical quality; this is unfashionable thing in modern IT ;-), some experimentation and acquiring the working knowledge of the system would not hurt even for the most avid linux supporters. They might be surprised what they will find...
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Created Jan 2, 2005. Last modified: September 12, 2017