OpenSolaris 2008.11: some light, some shadows

Once again, I’ve been through an enjoyable week of test-driving OpenSolaris 2008.11 pre-release in a production environment on my developer notebook. And, once again, now I am kind of back on Xubuntu (8.10) while trying to come to a conclusion of my recent OpenSolaris experiences…

Overally, one has to say that, compared to the 2008.05 release, the distribution that is likely to be 2008.11 sooner or later has seen quite some love and work – it just feels more “polished”, more carefully crafted than its predecessor. The desktop looks rather well, features applications which are reasonably up-to-date, and has to offer an acceptable repository of third-party software to be installed on demand. In most situations, it just works out of the box without second thought, this time even in a WEP or WPA protected WLAN environment thanks to the improved networking configuration tooling, and, for the first time, with Time Slider there also is a desktop feature specific to and only available in this form on OpenSolaris. Given JDK 1.6u10 comes pre-packed and applications like NetBeans or Glassfish run on OpenSolaris out of the box, if you’re a Java developer you do have all you need. For everyday office use, thanks to OpenOffice.org 3.0 being available in the IPS repositories, you do have all you need as well.

So overally, most things being good, this time I want to look at things from a different point of view: A while ago, OpenSolaris distribution started its way coining the (in my opinion outstandingly silly) phrase “OpenSolaris: What Ubuntu wants to be when it grows up…”. So, given we’re in late 2008, Ubuntu just has seen its 8.10 release as well. OpenSolaris 2008.11 will be available not that much later: Given that OpenSolaris 2008.xx obviously aims at being a desktop distribution rivaling Ubuntu, OpenSuSE and friends (which is what I assume it is trying to do, given so far there’s no “OpenSolaris Server” distribution lacking X, GNOME and friends available), are there reasons to choose OpenSolaris rather than Ubuntu on a (developer desktop) workstation?

Well, short answer in my case, even though I hate saying this, is “No” at the moment. Basically, I see three reasons for that right now:

  • At first, initially: There simply ain’t enough features in this use cases in which OpenSolaris on the desktop makes a difference compared to any of the current GNU/Linux distributions. So far Time Slider, as pointed out, is the only feature not available in this quality on Linux; anything else from a well-crafted, well-styled GNOME desktop to hardware and network configuration features, is available right in the same way and quality on virtually every GNU/Linux distribution to date. And, asides this: If you’re a developer (and, thus, eventually using some central repository to keep track of your code and work), maybe even Time Slider is an interesting feature you won’t probably need… Of course OpenSolaris does have an overwhelming set of technical features (starting with the “glorious five” [ZFS, IPS, dtrace, zones, SMF]), but most of them do come to life in a server environment way better than on a desktop… Would ZFS unveil its full benefit on a notebook just having a “small” internal SATA drive hosting the operating system, compared to a server with bunches of mirrored drives, hot spare devices and network file shares? I doubt so…
  • Second thing: Package management and software available out of the box. Given you want to mainly use Sun related open source projects like NetBeans, Glassfish, … for your daily work, you’re fine. But as soon as you, say, want to use Eclipse IDE for your daily doings, you’re doomed to either use them off blastwaves IPS repository or use the OpenSolaris spec files repository to build it on your own. Either way, however, is more complicated than you would do on, say, Solaris on Sparc or GNU/Linux by simply downloading Eclipse off eclipse.org and unpacking it anywhere on your drive. Generally, IPS repositories still are rather limited compared to Debian or Ubuntu. Given OpenSolaris is still(?) a small community compared to Linux, this probably comes as no surprise – and yet, asides IPS being an interesting (superior?) package management technology, the perspective of having to manually build way more applications compared to GNU/Linux distributions is no real reason to use OpenSolaris I guess…
  • Third of all: Performance. This is where I am, honestly, a little disappointed doing the comparison. The last couple of days I spent quite a while trying to create an environment comparable to my regular Xubuntu workspace: XFCE 4.4.3, Firefox, Thunderbird, NetBeans 6.5 and Glassfish v2u2 + OpenPortal Portlet Container all opened up and running concurrently while I do my everyday work. On Xubuntu, though things are slow at times, this is a constellation which is usable in production. In OpenSolaris, running on the same hardware (Core 2 Duo CPU @ 2 GHz, 2 GB RAM), it is not: Switching between applications (say, from NetBeans to Firefox to Thunderbird) takes the window in question considerably too long to get its content repainted, clicking menus (or doing right-clicks to get a context menu) in NetBeans takes up to two seconds to something actually happen, and committing a smaller project to SVN or doing an external maven2 build takes several minutes – way longer than on the Xubuntu installation. Same about the user interface: While on dock, I am using my notebooks display along with an external 19″ TFT, having the TFT my main screen and the notebook screen extending it to the right. While this works flawlessly on Xubuntu, on OpenSolaris I switched it off rather soon as it prove that, in such a setup, it is impossible to really drag windows around anymore in a smooth, responsive way. I am not sure what exactly is different here, but it’s not that convenient. Worst of all: I do have an external USB drive to dump data to then and now… Doing an rsync from my local drive to there on Xubuntu is something that simply happens in the background, of course making everything slightly slower. On OpenSolaris, having both the local drive and the external disk ZFS pools of their own, doing an rsync between the both of them renders the system almost unresponsive while copying is in progress. Strange…

So, to come to a conclusion: I really enjoy OpenSolaris, mainly because I like the technical features that come packed with it, and at the moment I am into establishing an (Open?)Solaris server to be our next productive Java EE server system as I see quite some benefits in here. In desktop usage however, I think I will be back to Xubuntu and keep a careful eye on OpenSolaris, hoping some (all?) of these issues to eventually resolve anytime soon. Actually, just having that performance “problem”(?) addressed would make things better – but at the moment, I think from a developer desktop users point of view, OpenSolaris doesn’t have much to additional benefit to offer compared to any recent GNU/Linux distribution…

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