OpenSolaris Just Wants to be Free

OpenSolaris: Excellent OS but is the license holding it back?

On May 5th, 2008, at their CommunityOne event in San Francisco, after nearly 3 years since founding the project, Sun Microsystems unleashed the first production release of OpenSolaris, their fledgling Open Source operating system based on Solaris 10. I’ve beaten Sun up on a number of issues in this column over the years, but I got to hand it to Ian Murdock and his band of UNIX radicals — they’ve done an excellent job for a first release. It’s got a beautiful GNOME implementation, is fast and stable, has decent device driver support and includes enterprise features that Linux is years away from achieving.

So what’s not to like?

Like Linux, OpenSolaris uses a license that is certified as compliant and accepted by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). However, it uses the CDDL license, a MPL-derivative which is incompatible with the GNU GPLv2 license that Linux uses. This has prevented Solaris source code from co-mingling with Linux, and has also set up a virtual “Mirror Mirror” universe of OpenSolaris developers that don’t really cooperate with the general Linux population at large. As a result, porting and packaging efforts of major Open Source projects and software to Solaris have been relatively slow when compared to the many releases and fast adoption of the various Linux distributions.

However, there has been some recent indication that Sun might release Solaris into GPLv3, which would cause a watershed of activity on the platform, as many packages and projects which run on Linux distributions are going in that direction as well. While somewhat wishful thinking but not completely out of the question, a GPLv2 release of Solaris would eventually bring about true “Unixfication” of the two platforms. This would be the ultimate realization of the Open Source and Free Software models and the final end-game to establish total platform superiority over Windows and proprietary Unixes. It would be the final shot in the “Mother of all battles” so we can get on to more cutting edge and productive work as an Open Systems-oriented society.

As crazy as it sounds, 40 years after the first AT&T UNIX release, there is a glimpse of hope that “Unixfication” may again be realized. At the most recent Oreilly MySQL Conference and Expo in April of 2008, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz discussed in his keynote the willingness of his company to further cooperate with the Open Source community and move more of their proprietary CDDL licensed material into GPL, the most predominant of the OSI-approved licenses.

According to a trusted source and a significant community contributor who attended the keynote, it is my understanding that after completing his speech, Mr. Schwartz engaged in “locker room” chit-chat with members of the audience and discussed the possibility of moving projects such as Solaris into GPL2. Naturally, I asked Jonathan to clarify his comments, and this is what he said:

“Glassfish is dual licensed — CDDL and GPL. And as you’re aware, MySQL is GPL(2), as is the Java (runtime) platform itself. So three very big components of what’d be a complete OpenSolaris platform are available to the broader GPL community.

My point was that Rich is considering making other portions of our “CDDL only” portfolio available to the GPL community – including elements like ZFS, which are today in BSD, OpenSolaris, etc., but not Linux. (Executive Vice President, Software) Rich Green is leading the charge…”

CDDL is the prime obstacle to getting Linux people and the GPL-oriented crowd involved with this beautiful operating system and realizing the Impossible Dream. The OpenSolaris faithful are doing their best to re-package and port Linux software to OpenSolaris, but it is happening at a comparative snail’s pace as Linux people aren’t exactly jumping out of their pajamas to build Solaris versions of popular packages on a continual basis. As it stands at the time of this writing, the main OpenSolaris repository only has about 1200 unique packages on it, which is a pittance compared to what is available for Ubuntu, OpenSUSE or Fedora. While 3rd-party IPS (Image Packaging System, the “aptitude” or “yum” equivalent of OpenSolaris) repositories such as Sunfreeware and BlastWave are sprouting up, it will take a long time for OpenSolaris to gain comparable inertia and an end-user following until the system is at package parity with popular Linux distributions.

Chairman Jonathan Schwartz, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL! OpenSolaris just wants to be Free.

Comments on "OpenSolaris Just Wants to be Free"


I personally believe that there is no need to release OpenSolaris uder GPLv2. you should know that CDDL is not the only license that is incompatible with GPLv2. APL2.0, MPL, EPL, GPLv3, AGPLv3 all these licenses are incompatible with GPLv2. however FSF has made it clear that if a software is released under a free software license (like CDDL) then it is legal to mix the software with GPLv3.


“most predominant”

Is that like being kind of pregnant?


CDDL makes porting things to linux impossible. For example, ZFS (although, btrfs should be the same thing, once it’s released).


I don’t agree that Solaris is the OS of choice for much of the web. First off, there’s the ufs filesystem. I don’t know that they’ve fully resolved booting into zfs — which is a very fast FS — but ufs is a dog. It makes ext3 look like a screamer, which is hardly a recommendation. zfs easily outperforms ext3 but one major hosting company was down for days earlier this year due to a bug in the zfs filesystem.

Second, testing Solaris against RHEL last year, it was quickly apparent that standard apps like Apache, nginx, etc., performed horribly without some serious tweaking (Sun engineers spent a month and a half to get it to match performance). Most of the binaries at the time were 32-bit as well, and nothing gnu-based performed acceptably (or, in many cases, failed to even compile).

Third, and I doubt they’ve fixed it as Sun is stubbornly opposed to local filesystems, in order to get Solaris working we had to removed the RAID card physically. Then, we had to remove the fiber ether card because it wasn’t supported, either. Neither card was an unknown brand — a 3Ware RAID and a Tigon card, both of which several varieties of Linux picked up on without a problem.

Fourth, there’s Sun even being involved. We purchased an X4600 with the promise of a super-performing machine that they would support Linux on. Their engineers didn’t know the first thing about RHEL (and in point of fact I had to help them find crucial logfiles in Solaris when they debugged). The X4600 came with Solaris, crashed completely on first boot and crashed again multiple times. The X4600 was easily outperformed by a 32-bit Slackware box and even got beaten in one filesystem test against an NFS mount. Sun talks the talk about open source and Web 2.0 but doesn’t have the first idea about where to step without breaking eggs.

I did try the FUSE-based zfs port to RHEL and it was an unqualified disaster.

It’s almost an aside but these experiences have given me the impression that the “Enterprise class” solutions are all about turning Linux into Windows for organizations without the technical skill to use the OS. RHEL, for example, relies on the 32-bit-ish ext3 and offers no options where xfs/jfs easily outperform it; a 64-bit compile of Slackware (Slamd64) is a very unforgiving Linux which outperforms RHEL 4/5 in some cases 3:1. IMHO the community could do wonders for itself by honoring standard kernels and supporting compiles like that which offer lots of power with minimal overhead.


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Just a niggling detail:

When you say

” it will take a long time for OpenSolaris to gain comparable inertia and an end-user following”

I think you mean “momentum”? Sorry, but it was bugging me. Otherwise good article.


What’s at fault in that case is not the OS, but the GNU-based, assumption-laden, open, source code which is flawed in exactly the same way as programs that were written, more than 20 years ago, for only one kind of proprietary, Unix system.

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