Solaris 10 – UNIX for the people?

With a (relatively) big advertising campaign SUN promoted Solaris 10 (also known as SunOS 5.10). Referring to SUN, with the “revolutionary” JAVADesktop 2 and a lot of new features and improvements, Solaris 10 should be the best OS today. Solaris is free for SPARC owners and for private use or evaluation purpose it’s also freely available on the x86. While Solaris actually is kind of a legend, I thought “Hu, this could be an interesting alternative on my PC”. Thought, went on and downloaded the ISOs. Read on to see how an average user (me) have experienced Solaris.The Download
Solaris To get Solaris 10 you have to register for free. The download itself requires around 2 GB of data, distributed on 4 CD ISOs or one single DVD image. Cause I have no DVD burner, I used the CDs. The download took hours and hours cause the bandwidth of the SUN mirror wasn’t that good. During those hours I followed SUN’s advise and I read through the manuals. SUN offers most of the Solaris Manuals also for free download. I started with the “Before you install” Book (around 50 pages in the German version). It was quite comprehensive but also required some computing skills to understand it. It’s aimed at administrators who install SUN Workstations in their company. This book also advised me to check my Hardwarecompatibility with the HCL (Hardware Compatibility List). Browsing through large companies webspace can be very confusing and so I was happy to had time for that.

The HCL app is a nice idea done bad. You install the software, it checks the Solaris Compatibility and returns the result to SUN. Then you can see if it’s a good idea to install Solaris or not. Unfortunately HCL runs only on Solaris…

After I found the HCL (this time the HTLM list) I had a quick look and everything should work fine, except my 3COM WLAN Card, cause Solaris doesn’t know anything about WLAN. Hours passed and finally the 4 ISOs were burned on CD. The following hardware was used: DELL Dimension 8200, Intel i850 based RAMBUS System, Pentium 4A 2,0 GHz “Northwood”, 512 MB of RAMBUS Memory, dedicated 40 GB harddisk for Solaris, simple GeForce 3 Ti200 graphicscard, 3COM 10/100BaseT Ethernetcard, 3COM 11 Mbps WLAN Card and an old Realtek 10BaseT Ethernetcard. SUN recommends a 1 GHz Pentium or better, so my box would be fast enough.

The Installation
Installing Solaris with the graphical installer requires 384 MB of RAM. You may use the text based installer, which requires only 128 MB of RAM. You need around 4 GB on your harddisk to install a basic Solaris Environment. I went on an started from the first CD and the system starts up. Minutes later – the system was still starting up but had already detected my GeForce 3 graphicscard and decided to use the XFree86 NV X-Server. To avoid erasing any data from my PC I build in an additional harddisk and simply told Solaris to use that entire disk. The partitioning tool didn’t looked that friendly. After the system had startet, it asked some trivial questions about VGA Card and Mouse and so on to set up the installer. It took some restarts until the graphical installer worked, it seems that my mouse was the problem. After half an hour the installation finally started.
Like everything in Solaris this took a lot of time, more than 90 minutes to be honest. The menus were all localized into German language, but with a terrible academic speech. Simple notes like a typical “Take the CD out of the CD-ROM to make sure your computer will start from harddisk”-Dialog were wrapped into big texts with multiple choice answers. It’s hard to understand this installer sometimes. SUN is even able to beat that nonsense with alertboxes telling you, that the system will rest for 90 seconds now. 90 seconds for what? It just takes a break. Maybe SUN wants to give the administrator the opportunity to refill Mr Coffee during this entertaining installation. Well, this is maybe not the worst installation I’ve ever seen but at least the most stupid one.

A Myth disenchanted
After the hype SUN made about Solaris 10 (best OS and so on) I expected something “great”. But, after the long installation and another long take to boot the whole thing, I was sadly disappointed. 6 six years ago, during higher education, we used some PC Terminals with a good old SPARC to do some UNIX C coding under SunOS CDE. And even back then, the system had been in use for years. Well, Solaris 10 looks exactly the same. It behaves exactly the same. It features the same calculator and the same clock app. This old CDE is truly outdated even by many simple window managers for Linux. It shows exactly what Solaris is made for: Providing a Terminalwindow within an X11 Environment. Like we used vi at school at the end of the Nineties in a Terminalwindow, this Solaris 10 is made for the same purpose.

Where have all my bytes gone?
Solaris It is hard to understand why more than 4 GB are occupied on the harddisk. The system doesn’t even have any compiler installed. So I gave it another shot and I tried the SUN JAVADesktop 2. SUN says, that this is the ultimate desktop environment to use. It is preinstalled with Solaris 10 and you can easily switch between CDE and JAVADesktop. Obviously it’s a modified version of GNOME (featuring a terrible mixture of English and German language in the German version) with a SUN Logo. The JAVADesktop was submitted by a Freelancer to SUN. It is not a very professional work either. Some common apps like Mozilla and StarOffice come along, but finally that is nothing special today. Compared to the clean and polished implementation of GNOME in other systems like ubuntu, the JAVADesktop isn’t done very well, too. Another issue on Solaris is the general performance. Solaris might has have the fastest IP Stack in the world, but especially graphical applications are slower than on current Linux Distributions. A good thing I have to report is that I experienced no errors or crashes during the hours I’ve tested the system.

An egg for an app
Software for Solaris is not widely spread. Of course there are hundreds of terminal applications and of course there are some basic CDE Utilities. And there are those well known applications which are delivered within the JAVADesktop 2. But beyond that Solaris is a lonely system. Of course, if you have a car company and you need an “out-of-the-box” network with mainframe servers, storage farms, clusters, CAD/CAM Workstations and office terminals, SUN+SPARC+Solaris is maybe the right choice. There are some professional and a lot of ultraprofessional applications available. Solaris simply lacks of useful Software for the (home) user. In fact, you get a lot more useful stuff for Linux or even for FreeBSD. And, as mentioned above, Solaris is not a system dealing with “toys” like WLAN or Bluetooth. It’s designed for industries, not for livingrooms, really.

In the end, Solaris is an oldschool UNIX for UNIX Geeks like scientists and students. It’s maybe perfect for enterprise business. Unfortunately, there is no efficient way to deal with it if you’re not qualified in UNIX Development or Administration. The other way round, SUN seems not to be interested in delivering sufficient consumer technology. Things like JAVADesktop 2 are not a bad idea at all, but it seems more likely to be a hobby project than a serious solution. Other systems solve usability far better. From my point of view it’s easier to set up, understand and use FreeBSD if you are just a user wanting to try a “real” UNIX.
While Solaris 10 is surely a professional OS for insiders, I can’t understand the hype SUN made about it. In many aspects Solaris is an OS from yesterday, from glory days where UNIX Workstations dominated a lot of markets. Those days have passed and the question is, why you should use Solaris instead of a modern operating system, especially if we’re talking about the x86.

About the author:
Matthias Breiter has been using several computersystems for 16 years now and he has a lot of experience with Windows and MacOS. After higher education in Information Technologies he has been a long time customer supporter and service engineer. He is also the creator of both the Technoids and the ZEMAG, two well known magazines among the (German) BeOS Community.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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