Sooner or later I’ll get around to writing up a more comprehensive State of Solaris post I’ve been meaning to put together, but until then I wanted to share a couple of pieces of feedback I’ve been getting on the recently open sourced operating system. Before that, however, let me recap a couple of personal datapoints to give you some background on where I’m coming from, and disclaim our relationship with Sun up front.
So, to the latter point: Sun’s a customer of ours. Feel free to read into that whatever you like. When it comes to Solaris, my experience has been mixed; while Solaris was a fixture at many of the accounts that I worked in my SI days, I never had any particularly fondness for it. Like the DOS/VSE mainframe I worked off on my first gig, I respected Solaris, but never particularly enjoyed it.
Linux, however, really grabbed me the moment I started using it; it was fresh, it was vibrant, it offered me things I couldn’t get anywhere else, and – most importantly – it had a great community. Nor was I the only one; Red Hat and SuSE alike can tell you tons of stories about the gains they were making at Solaris’ expense (here’s a good one from E*Trade), and the opportunity was compelling enough that even vendors that knew something about operating systems, like IBM, threw their weight behind the little operating system that could.
All in all, the direction of things to come – from where I sat – seemed relatively clear. Windows wasn’t going away, and neither was Linux, but the future for Solaris while not bleak – it’s got a massive presence in some mission critical settings, which guaranteed it’d be around for a while – seemed increasingly niche and high end.
So a couple of years ago, I’m sitting in a briefing at Sun’s Burlington campus, where a couple of the folks explain that they’re doubling down on the next version of their flagship operating system. I expressed some polite skepticism, while giving them credit for the things that enterprises have traditionally appreciated about Solaris – the security, reliability, etc. But more and more I came to doubt this strategy, figuring that competing with an operating system whose costs were ammortized across multiple large institutions (HP, IBM, Novell, Oracle, etc), but more importantly the massive Linux community, was less than ideal (as was the anti-Linux rhetoric, which did considerable damage to Sun’s reputation in the open source world; damage that is only now beginning to be undone). While I believed in the disruptive promise of the Java Enterprise System, I was quite skeptical of the scope of investments in Solaris 10.
Then Sun started trotting out customers. Lots of them. And even being cognizant that these were vendors provided by Sun, the feedback on the operating system was remarkably positive. DTrace, Zones, fault tolerance, SMF: each customer appreciated a different feature, and explained why they couldn’t get said feature in a different operating system – some of which was true, and some of which was not. That got my analyst antennas twitching: it’s rare to hear customers so unanimously positive on a product that you yourself are skeptical of.
And then came the open sourcing. I laugh when I’m asked about the actual opening of the code itself, simply because I can recall talking to a reporter on Day Zero who complained that the community was so much smaller than that behind Linux, to which I replied, “It’s the first day. Maybe it’ll grow, and maybe it won’t, but I don’t think it’s fair to count them out when the doors have been open for a few hours.” Fast forward 41 weeks, and I think it’s safe to say that the OpenSolaris community is thriving. It may not rival the size of the Linux community, but it’s an entity in its own right.
So where am I now? Well, I’m fairly positive on the prospects for Solaris. There are still some real problems that need to be fixed in usability (start with the shell), application availability (Zimbra chose to build on half a dozen operating systems – including OS X – before Solaris, with no S10 build on the immediate horizon – despite the fact that potential customers exist) and package management (the lack of that is why I’ll be running Nexenta), but overall it’s really made remarkable strides in a short period of time. It’s relevant to me as an analyst in a way that it was not 24, or even 12 months ago.
But I’m always keen to see what the delta is between awareness and reality with respect to the adoption and other trends of marketshare products. So I’ve been asking questions about Solaris to most of the folks I meet with for the better part of a year now, and as promised, here are a few of the interesting datapoints:
- Changing Perceptions:
I spoke with a vendor in the open source space back in August of last year, and discussed Solaris with them at some length. After relating some of the previously discussed customer anecdotes, I told them that it was worth keeping an eye on. Earlier today, I spoke with that same customer, who confirmed that while they still lack a real Solaris story, their customers are asking for it increasingly of late and they’re considering it. Interestingly, it’s not just Solaris 10, but 8 and 9 as well. It’s unclear if that’s a drag effect of the talk that Solaris 10 has generated, but it was an interesting validation of my theory that folks were paying attention to Solaris.
- Simpler to Work w/ Than Linux:
Before Linux advocates get cranky, let me be clear: I’m not talking about technology here. Having used both operating systems, I still believe that despite credible advances in Solaris such as SMF, Linux is easier to use – if for no other reason than better available documentation. Instead, I’m relating what one ISV discussed with me lately, which was that supporting the multiple Linux distros was less than trivial for them. While they officially supported Red Hat and SuSE, and unofficially Debian, it’s a lot of work. Solaris, they told me, represents a potentially winning combination of unfragmented open source. Whether or not that’s a good or bad thing from a user perspective can certainly be debated, but it was interesting feedback nonetheless.
- Solaris & Web 2.0:
A rewritten networking stack within an operating system is not the sexiest topic in the world, so it’s not surprising that Solaris work in this area has gone mostly unnoticed, but three separate web oriented developers have talked to me recently about the vastly improved way Solaris handles sockets and connections – critical stuff for folks delivering software over the web. What I’m really curious to see, however, is whether or not ZFS can offer partitioning and distribution advantages to next generation data layers, because most of the Web 2.0 players I speak with have problems here. Joyent’s comments above are an indication that this might be an opportunity.
- What About the Developers?:
I wouldn’t be doing my job, of course, if I didn’t pay close attention to what developers are saying about some of the innovations within Solaris. The verdict? A lot of folks are impressed. The Apache folks seem to appreciate Zones, both the TextDrive folks and David Orman could probably be counted as ZFS fans, and DTrace continues to impress the hell out of people that see it (including one of the larger internet firms, from what we hear).
I’m not sure what conclusions you might draw from the above datapoints – which, it should be noted, are just datapoints – but I’m beginning to wonder if Solaris hasn’t turned the corner. Do I believe, as Andreessen apparently does, that Solaris is a better Linux than Linux? Not at all, and indeed, it’s not clear to me how long Solaris will enjoy the technical advantages that it does today.
But considering the above, when Jim Grisanzio asks whether a community is creating a market in this case, I have to concede that at least amongst the folks I’m speaking with, that seems to be the case.
Disclaimer: As mentioned, Sun is a RedMonk customer, as is IBM. E*Trade, Joyent, Red Hat, SuSE, TextDrive, and Zimbra are not, but should be