Updated: January 15, 2010
For some strange reason, I keep going back to Open Solaris. Maybe it's the beautiful Gnome desktop, well arranged and streamlined. Maybe it's the belief that Sun, one of the great technology leaders in the past 30 years, can deliver a usable operating system intended for the home market. And maybe it's my desire to crack open the frightening secrets of UNIX, for Linux, Open Solaris is not.
Open Solaris 2009.06 is the current release, available for free download, albeit in 32-bit architecture only. I've tested both previous editions, having found the earlier 2008.05 to be rather frustrating and inadequate and 2008.11 to be reasonable if still a bit too difficult for the average user. Well, time to see what the latest build can offer.
So if you're in a mood for a rather non-Linux review, please take a few minutes to read the review. The repertoire includes live CD testing, installation and a handsome week of usage, covering tiny yet important details like Wireless connectivity, Samba sharing, multimedia support, usability, and more.
The GRUB menu is done with style and contains quite a few interesting options, including the ability to turn on SSH, use a magnifier and a screen reader, the last two options being intended for disabled people, which is always commendable.
Not a smooth ride, though. First, the X Windows would not come up when booting the default entry. I had to select VESA driver to get into the GUI. Even so, booting Open Solaris 2009.06 took quite some time, almost 6 minutes, probably because of the ZFS filesystem. What more, even when booted, things were working rather slowly. The live session was sluggish even on a machine with 1.5GB RAM, with applications taking many tens of seconds to launch.
I've observed the slowness in my previous testing, so this did not come as a surprise. It would be interesting to see how well the system would perform once installed, with my elderly T42 as the target platform.
The Open Solaris desktop is done with grace and style. The theme is unique, sharp and clear, feeling expensive and professional.
It did not in the 2008.11 release, but now it does. Progress! This is great. I managed to connect to either of my WPA2-encrypted routers without any problems. The network manager did pop a few brief, confusing notifications, but in the end, I was connected and surfing the Web. Compared to stock Linux distros, the network performance was a little slow, though.
Open Solaris is a tricky one. It works all right, but it's tricky finding the right button to get the job done. There are some 4-5 sharing methods you may try, while only one will really work.
If you use the built-in Shared folder settings menu, it only lets you use NFS. If you type smb:// manually into the address bar of the file explorer, you get an error. If you try using Connect to Server, it does not work either; it will try to authenticate but fail.
However, if you browse the Network, you will get to Windows shares without a problem.
Go figure ...
Having the right drivers for your system is always a gamble with UNIX systems. While Linux has advanced immensely in the last few years, making the installation of drivers a breeze, you can't really be sure with UNIX systems. And what do you do if something is missing? On T42, Solaris detected almost everything. The only thing missing was a modem driver.
In a virtual machine, the sound drivers are still not there. Definitely not a priority, since enterprises that plan on deploying Open Solaris will definitely be running in text mode and without any sound.
In both cases, Open Solaris could not find the drivers in the repositories.
I have also tried configuring MP3 codecs and Flash, but the root filesystem is ready only, so this had to wait until after the installation. However, overall, I was quite pleased. Progress is always a good thing.
I decided to install Open Solaris on a machine already loaded with two Linux distros, so this makes for an interesting dual-boot exercise. I will place Open Solaris on the first, primary partition, overwriting the existing Linux there, while keeping the other distro installed to one of the logical partitions intact. We'll see how well Open Solaris cooperates, including the GRUB setup. The installation is fairly simple.
Open Solaris found the partitions all right, but it paid no heed to logical partitions inside the Extended partition, including swap. This is probably because Open Solaris must use primary partitions with ZFS for higher-volume management.
Next, you setup users and you're on your way.
Like several high-profile Linux distros, e.g. Ubuntu or openSUSE, Open Solaris has a decent, pleasant slideshow to accompany you through the installation. And rightly so, because the installation is very long. It took almost an hour to complete on T42, three times more than your average Linux, despite all being packed on CDs.
Now, let's see what happens.
Now, time to see how tame Open Solaris is. The installed system has a very simplified GRUB menu. Ubuntu installed on one of the logical partitions does not show up yet, we'll try to fix that later.
Following a simple splash, you get into your installed system.
You don't get anything out of the box. Reading online, including the Solaris Wikis, I found the instructions how to enable Flash, MP3 and Windows video playback. It's not simple, mind, and the average users will have a hard time doing this, but it can be done.
For Flash, you will need to download the Adobe Flash player archive, extract it and then copy the relevant files into the right directory. For MP3, you will have to go to fluendo.com, register, download the Open Solaris archive, extract it, and copy the files into the right directory. And then, there's some more work, still.
Both these procedures require the use of the command line, including commands that are alien to the average user. For most people, getting multimedia support is rather undoable. A simple shortcut to a wrapper script on the desktop would be nice.
However, what about the actual results?
Again, for the first time, we have a winner. Installing the codecs manually in the last two reviews did not work. Once again, progress.
This was a little trickier, but I managed it eventually. The installation of the codecs worked fine, without any issues. Now see the gory details below.
When on the fluendo.com website, just make sure you download the .tar archive and not the .pkg, because it's either broken or built for a different version. Quite unfortunately really, because most home users would prefer a package they can double click and install.
Now, open Terminal, execute some commands and that should be it. Unfortunately, it was not. The media players, both Totem and Rhythmbox complained about video being used by another program. I was asked to launch the Multimedia Systems Selector and fix this.
There's no such thing as Multimedia Systems Selector in the menus, but if you open the command line and execute gstreamer-properties, you get this thing open. I changed the default output video plugin from X11 to Autodetect and all was well.
Video played OK. My Moron movie worked as expected, however when I tried a DVD movie, Open Solaris complained about missing codecs and directed me to buy some. Well, certainly not something you'd expect from a free operating system.
Here's where problems really start. What do you do now? What's the alternative? I looked for VLC in the package manager and could not find it. The official website offered sources for compilation, hardly something the average user would want to do. There were no extra repositories available, either.
Multimedia support still leaves quite a lot to be desired.
Unlike the live session, which was rather slow, the installed system is fast and snappy, surprisingly so, I may say. Even though Open Solaris guzzles approx. twice more memory than the stock Gnome Linux, it does not choke the system when many programs are open. The response time is quite reasonable, even on the five-year-old T42.
Open Solaris was really stable. There were no crashes. Everything worked as expected, smoothly. This kind of behavior is expected, considering Sun's reputation with technology.
Alas, there were none. Open Solaris does not support them yet. Shame really.
Another weak side of this system is the selection of available programs. The basic set is rather meager and you would probably need some sort of a DVD release to get a decent offering. What is really surprising is that you don't get Sun's OpenOffice included.
You have Firefox 3.5 Beta and Thunderbird, Pidgin is there, Totem, Rhythmbox, a few useful utilities, and that's it basically. You will need to download a few hundred MBs of stuff to get Open Solaris to become a useful desktop.
You also have Sun Java (at least) and Nvidia Settings manager, but this one is only useful if you have an Nvidia card. I did not have a chance to test this.
You can use the built-in package manager to replenish missing stuff, but don't expect miracles. The available selection is reasonable yet moderate. However, the manager does not work with proxies, which is really annoying.
The package manager was also quite slow, including the update function.
Overall, Open Solaris is a very stable system. And it's done well. You feel the high quality everywhere. Still, a few things slipped under the radar, which must be addressed immediately.
The package manager does not work with proxy, even following logout/login or even a reboot. The only way to get it working is by setting the HTTP_PROXY environment variable and launching the manager from the same shell session. This is a serious omission for a commercial-quality product. The problem existed in 2008.11 and has still not be solved. This is bad.
Disk space bug during installation
I did not show you this in the installation section to keep the confusion at the minimum, but here it is:
You can exceed the partition size beyond the actual limitation of the disk/partition. This is not good. Even though Available Space counter shows the negative values, you should not be able to do this in the first place.
Eventually, I decided to try adding the Linux installation to Open Solaris GRUB. This proved more difficult than I expected. First of all, the menu.lst file is not where you expect it to be, under /boot/grub, as I've shown you in my tutorials. Instead, it sits in a rather strange location, governed by the ZFS filesystem.
You have to go to /rpool/boot/grub/menu.lst.
However, after reboot, nothing happened. Open Solaris does not support Ext4 filesystem and my dual-boot fun ended there. Well, at least I tried.
Open Solaris is getting better and more refined by the release, there's no doubt about that. Small problems are gradually yet persistently solved. This is extremely encouraging.
On the other hand, compared to most Linux distros, Open Solaris is still about 2-3 years behind when it comes to usability and hardware support. More programs would be nice, as well as the ability to solve common desktop usage problems more easily. 64-bit architecture would also be great, considering the fact Sun pioneered the 64-bit usage.
Desktop wise, the core issues that need improvement include multimedia support, a faster and richer package manager and better cooperation with Linux. All these would infuse Open Solaris with much needed attention that could help it bloom and establish a foothold in the desktop market.
Today, Open Solaris mainly makes sense in the business sector. It's not yet ready for the average household. The biggest problem is the relatively very high level of skill needed to debug problems. When everything works, it works. But when something goes wrong, you need a resident Solaris expert to help you. That won't work with most people.
Open Solaris looks great and feels solid. If only the rough parts could be smoothed out, this could be an operating system conservative desktop users could easily run, enjoying stability, maturity, a professional attention to details, and a robust work model.
Well, we'll see what the new edition brings to the table. Till then, keep safe.