Despite Solaris 9 being out for some time now, I have yet to see many overviews of it. I could find technical documents and “executive summarys” all over the ‘net - but nothing that provided me with an idea of what the new OS would be like. In light of the fact that I’ve recently purchased another UltraSPARC machine for home use, I downloaded the 3 discs from Sun, grabbed a coke and settled down to install.
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I tried several installs on different machines both at work and at home - an initial clean install, an upgrade of an well-configured Solaris 8 machine, and just to be different, I tried an install on a headless Ultra10 via a serial connection. What follows is my initial impression after a few hours of playing with the system. It’s by no means an exhaustive review, and there are many things I’ve glossed over or left out - it’s meant purely to give an idea of what Solaris 9 provides.
As usual, the “installation” disc is absolutely fantastic - if you use it as a drinks coaster. Otherwise, it’s next to useless. Once that abomination was dealt with, and Disc 1 of 2 inserted in the drive, installation proceeded as usual. There’s nothing here that will really surprise users familiar with a Solaris install, apart from the fact that OpenWindows is now gone - dead, kaput. Instead of the old graphical installer program, you now get a text-mode one. It does runs under X, but uses twm as the window manager. It’s also identical to the version you get when installing over a serial console,so it brings a nice touch of consistency to this method of installing. Despite being a text-mode installer, it’s a very quick and easy to use tool that gets the job done with the minimum of fuss. Some improvements have been have been added - you can now specify LDAP as a naming service during installation, and at long last, you can specify the default gateway before the name server.
Aside from that, there’s not much to tell. The installer worked as expected, trundled through disc 1, taking around half an hour for a fresh install, and about twice that long on the machine being upgraded. One quick reboot later, I was watching disc 2 getting installed. This was interesting in that it offered to install extra Solaris packages as usual, but also the “SunScreen” firewall, and the Sun ONE directory server. I neglected to install these, as I was getting impatient, and figured that these were really separate products that could do with a separate review.
While it’s not recommended, I was curious to see how the installer managed to upgrade one system, and I’m pleased to say I was very impressed. From several bad experiences upgrading other Unix-like systems, I was expecting a half-working, broken system at the end of the install, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Every piece of pre-installed software still functioned as expected - including a comprehensive Apache setup, and an install of Ximian GNOME. Plus, all my system settings were left untouched.
One final reboot later, and I was sat at the dtlogin screen. Not much has changed here, apart from the funky new logo, and the complete removal of OpenWindows. In Solaris 8, every time you started OpenWindows, you were warned that it would likely be removed in future versions - here, Sun have come through on their word and there isn’t a hint of it anywhere. No login session, no applications, nothing. CDE is still the default desktop, and has been bumped up to version 1.5 - but nothing really seems that different from Solaris 8. Sun will be making the move to the GNOME desktop soon, but have so far only released betas of GNOME 2.0. These installed without any major difficulties, but I found them to feel very “sluggish”, and as I only ever really use X on Solaris to open multiple Xterms, wasn’t of great interest.
Once logged in, I had a good poke around the system, and was pleasantly surprised. Nothing much has been radically overhauled, merely refined, and several very handy new features have been added. One of the first things I noticed was the addition of SSH. Having this integrated into the system, and available from the word go is a real bonus, as it’s usually one of the first third-party applications I install. On investigating the inetd.conf, I was disappointed to see that Sun have still set up pretty much every service as listening by default. This “kitchen-sink” approach to security is also reflected in the contents of the /etc/rcx.d directories, and has left me more and more irritated each time I see it - if I want a service to be running, I should have to explicitly state so, and turn it on myself. Still, TCP wrappers are now included - yet another download off my list. It would have been nice to see a move over to the more advanced xinetd, but I can see that it would break many programs, and hasn’t really got that much of a following outside the Linux world.
Overall, you’ll find that many of the programs that you usually build from third-party sources after an installation are already present. From force of habit, I was using the ‘less’ pager to view configuration files, before I suddenly realised that I hadn’t installed it myself - it was part of the base system. Likewise with the Bash shell, introduced from Solaris 8. Perl is also present, and has been bumped up to version 5.6.1. Tomcat and Apache are also present, and Apache comes with mod_so setup, and a wide range of modules present. Security-wise, IPSec is supported, as is Kerberos v5. Of course, if you want development tools like gcc, and things like the vim editor, you’ll have to use the Software Companion CD. At the time of writing, there isn’t one for Solaris 9, but the one for Solaris 8 works perfectly well out of the box.
In short, it’s looking like an incredibly useful server system right out of the box, with the minimum of effort required into getting it up and running. Which brings me neatly to the next big feature: the Sun Management Console.
Sun Management Console
Despite being a command-line centric system, Sun have gradually been creeping GUI accessibility into previous versions of Solaris, through tools such as AdminTool. However, in Solaris 9, these have been replaced with a radically new Java-based administration system called the “Sun Management Console”. I had used a previous version on Solaris 8, but it was missing many features and promised much to come in later versions. I’m pleased to say that it delivers in this release. Once started (which takes a fair amount of time on its initial load), you are presented with a 3-paned window. Help and other useful information is presented at the bottom, with a tree-view on the left, and the actual management tools appear in the large pane on the right. Anyone who has used systems such as the Microsoft Management Console should be right at home with this tool. With this tool, most of the common administration tasks you would face in the day-to-day running of a server can be achieved through a point and click interface, and a remote web interface is promised in future revisions. You can schedule cron jobs, manage patches, administer users and groups, control process usage, set up and configure disks attached to the system (including RAID arrays via the included Solaris Volume Manager - no more third party add-ons!) and much, much more.
Without resorting to benchmarking, I can’t really state how Solaris 9 performs. In my general use, I found it to feel roughly the same as Solaris 8, but there are several new features that aim to radically improve its’ performance, including the updated and improved in-kernel http caching server.
Another new feature is the resource manager which can be administered from the SMC. This allows you to manage resources in a variety of ways, including setting CPU utilisation levels for groups, users, or individual processes. The upshot of this is that you can guarantee QoS in a service level agreement - it prevents processes or users using more than their fair share of system resources.
As you’ve probably gathered, while I’ve only dabbled with it for a few days, I like Solaris 9. A lot. If you’re running a well-patched Solaris 8, with all the usual bits-and-bobs you’ve installed yourself, and got it set up just how you like it, there’s probably little reason to upgrade - unless you really need the new features. However, if you’re setting up a new machine, I wouldn’t choose anything else - if only because it saves you so much time, and comes with nearly all the software you’ll need.
Using SMC, configuring Solaris has become a real no-brainer, which I have to admit I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it does make many tasks easier, and makes a Unix system like Solaris accessible to those who don’t have much Unix or shell experience. On the other hand, it can be construed as a “dumbing-down” move. However, there is no need to use it - you can always disable X completely, and do everything from the command-line. As long as Sun never removes this option, I can’t see a real problem - it can only bring more users to Solaris, and justify it to those bosses who insist everything must have a point & click interface :)