Open Solaris 2008.11 - A step in the right direction, but the journey is long


Updated: March 18, 2009

My review of Open Solaris 2008.05 was a rant of a dissatisfied Linux user, who found the fresh new Open Solaris desktop edition to be too messy and difficult for daily usage. After cooling my head for a few months, I decided to try the latest release, Open Solaris 2008.11 and see if some of the issues have been solved. Open Solaris 2008.11 has been on the market for approx. four months and a short re-review is in order.

Teaser

Is Open Solaris 2008.11 any better than its predecessor?

Live CD experience

I decided to pop the CD into my T42 machine and boot, to see whether Open Solaris can handle the four-year old hardware. 2008.05 had issues with some of the drivers when tested in a virtual machine, most notably the sound driver. While not truly indicative of a real life situation, it did indicate of a possible limited hardware compatibility. The only way to check whether Solaris can match comparable, modern Linux distros with extensive hardware support was to test-drive it on a real machine.

Changes are a-comin'

Bob Dylan has a fabulous song The Times Are a-Changin' - and so seems that Solaris is a-changin', too. The GRUB menu has changed and sports paler, more reasonable shades of blue.

GRUB

Open Solaris is aesthetically pleasing, sporting a well made Gnome desktop, but then, this is not truly a Solaris feature. Nevertheless, the first impression is of a well made product, although underneath the hood, it behaves differently from any Linux you know.

Desktop

Wireless

One of the first thing I wanted to check was wireless. Open Solaris booted in approx. three minutes and informed me that it has connected to a default wireless network. Not bad, but the specific unpassworded router did not belong to me, so I changed that.

Wireless 1

When I clicked on one of my two networks, I was asked to provide a password:

Wireless 2

Wireless 3

I did and the icon turned green, indicating I was successfully connected. However, when I opened Firefox, there was no connection to the Internet. Looking under Firefox preferences, I've noticed that Open Solaris 2008.11 ships with Use system proxy settings under Advanced > Network > Settings configured as default, but even when I changed this to direct connection, .i.e. No proxy, the situation did not improve.

No wireless

Burrowing more deeply into the menus, I discovered that 2008.11 only supports WEP, it seems, which is a shame.

No WPA

Eventually, I resorted to connecting to the default, unencrypted network. However, even this did not help. Open Solaris acquired no address from the router and the Internet was nil. This might be a classic newbie mistake, but I don't think so. Either way, following the same steps I normally do with Linux distros, Open Solaris refused to go live.

This really limited my live CD escapades. I had intended to go online and connect to my other computers, to see whether I could play a collection of various audio and video files, but I was forced to postpone these checks until the installation in a virtual machine.

Mounting of drives

2008.11 had no issues detecting and mounting a 2GB FAT32 USB drive. I managed to save a few screenshots to the device without any issues. However, when I tried to unmount it, the operating system complained:

Cannot unmount

Open Solaris definitely has issues with hardware. We've seen the sound problem in 2008.05 (and we'll check it again later); there was the Wireless issue above - and now this. Furthermore, the little USB drive is labeled (called MojoPac), but 2008.11 does not seem to be able to read the label. I wonder if plugging in an NTFS device would have worked. In general, I assume not, as 2008.05 had no issues connecting to Windows Samba shares.

With this check, I ended the live CD test. Or tried to ... Like its predecessor, 2008.11 does not have a reboot button available in the live CD session. You can only logout. If you press Ctrl + Alt + Del, you will still remain at the login screen, but the GUI will turn off, leaving you at the console.

I realize that rebooting a machine running a live CD session is no big deal, but the graceful option of termination the session and ejecting the CD would have been very nice. We'll talk more about the infamous reboot button later.

Installation

This time, the installation was uneventful. I have not encountered any of the partitioning problems I had with 2008.05. I dedicated 768MB of RAM to Solaris, and this seems to infuse it with a fresh breath of liveliness that was not there the last time, albeit with only 512MB.

Installing

Compared to various Linux distros, Open Solaris is a voracious memory beast. Recommendations are multi-GB, the more the better, to allow the new Solaris ZFS to work its miracles. However, even with 768MB, the performance was noticeably better than the last time, probably indicating that 512MB, a decent figure for any Linux, is a bit too little for Solaris.

Desktop usage, no spasms this time

Open Solaris 2008.11 was much more polite. It was far from a typical Linux distro, but it did show signs of progress and improvement, which is the most important thing. Someone out there is listening and making the right choices in creating a better product.

Device Driver Utility

The first thing I did was check whether the new edition supported my basic sound driver. The answer is still no. And while 2008.05 would let me would-be update the driver, without actually doing anything, 2008.11 simply provides no solution. It informs me that there are no drivers available and ends the sad chapter there, but does not infuse me with false hope like the predecessor.

The lack of support for such a basic device (ES1371) is a shame, though.

Drivers

Sharing

I tried a few new tricks this time. First was to use the Shared folder feature, available via System in the menu. This turns out to be a purely UNIX thing, supporting only NFS, no Samba.

Shared folder

Shared folder

Samba did not work this time! When I tried to browse the neighborhood, no Windows networks were found. This effectively prevented me from grabbing my test kit of audio and video files with which I always test the multimedia capabilities of different operating systems. We'll talk more about multimedia a little later.

Proxy issues

For a strange reason, 2008.11 does not like proxies. Additionally, changing between different options - from no proxy to proxy and vice versa - requires a reboot. Logging in and out of a session did not seem to help. BTW, I might be missing something obvious here, as I'm no Solaris expert. I'm just following my experience with Linux where such solutions worked.

Speaking of reboot ...

This time, there's a button. 2008.05 did not have one.

Shutdown

Reboot button

Updates

The software update utility worked well. I even found MP3 codecs in the repository and installed them.

MP3 codecs

Multimedia

Knowing whether my multimedia was fully supported was not possible in the virtual machine, because I had no sound. Flash did not work though. I visited Youtube and was promptly informed that there was no Flash Player installed. I then went to the Adobe site and was glad to find a Solaris package available.

Install Flash

This was a tar archive, which I extracted. However, unlike Linux, there was no installation script, only the flash driver (libflash.so). I copied it manually to Firefox directory, under plugins, but this did not give me any Flash playability on Youtube.

I could not test MP3 playback. One, I could not get my files; they resides on the network and Samba was giving me a gip. Two, even if files were there, there would have been no sound. But I will err on the positive side and believe that music would have worked, as the repository did contain the MP3 codecs package.

ZFS filesystem

This is something I wanted to test the last time, but gave up on trying eventually, losing my temper over many other, more trivial matters. Now that the experience was so much more reasonable, I decided to what ZFS really means - to an unknowing Solaris user, like me.

There was a lot of hype in the press. The filesystem truly seems like a marvelous creation. I have no doubt that Solaris experts will be able to happily utilize its powers day and night. But can a newbie do anything meaningful, fun and safe with it?

In order to test the functionality of ZFS, I decided not to use the command line at all. The goal was to see whether ZFS had any merits for a normal user.

Reading online a little, I learned that ZFS can save snapshots, preserving the system state, including files and folders, over time. This is similar to what TimeVault does, so I figured this could be a great way of creating unattended data backup archives.

This functionality is called Time Slider.

Time slider

Enable

Under Advanced Options, you can choose which mount points / file systems to backup.

Setup

Looking into the home directory, we can see the ZFS snapshots in action:

Home snapshot

And also system-wise:

ZFS 1

ZFS 2

As to TimeVault, we will talk about it separately.

Java

Since Sun Java is a de-facto Java environment worldwide, you won't have any problems running Java on Open Solaris. In fact, Open Solaris 10 used to run a complete Java desktop.

Nvidia

2008.11 also comes with an Nvidia X Server Settings utility. There's no support for other cards yet.

Nvidia

Other things

There were no other special issues, either good or bad. Solaris was quite usable, as long as I did not demand extras, in which case trying to debug things proved a bit of a problem. Google searches were lean, with little instant-help information. If you're thorough and thoroughly patient, then you may find what you need, but if you're used to Ubuntu-style searches, you won't like it.

Conclusion

Open Solaris 2008.11 has a lot to go. It's better than 2008.05 and this is an important, encouraging step. However, it still cannot compare with the popular Linux distros, like openSUSE, Ubuntu or others. Major problems seem to be a rather deep gap between beginner's despair and comfortable knowledge, lack of online sources to assist you in your quest and a certain rigidity toward daily stuff that people want, like multimedia, interactivity and good support for all sorts of peripherals and gadgets. It may be the Solaris marketing model, it may be me and my Linux-heavy habits, but I did not find 2008.11 to be ready for the average user, even an average Linux user, at that.

For now, Open Solaris seems like an interesting hobby, at least to me. I would still not consider it as my primary or even a secondary desktop operating system.

Following the progress in future releases will definitely be a great adventure.

Cheers.

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