Sun lets loose Solaris 9 beta

Sun Microsystems on Tuesday will introduce a test version of its upcoming Solaris 9 operating system, as the company prepares a significant upgrade to its flagship software product.

Solaris -- a flavor of the Unix operating system -- runs across most of Sun's hardware line, from workstations to the company's latest StarCat server, which supports as many as 106 processors. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. make rival Unix operating systems, but Sun's Solaris has widely been regarded by analysts as the model to shoot for.

Sun will put a beta version of Solaris 9 on its Web site and give developers a chance to test applications currently running on previous releases of Solaris for compatibility with the new version of the operating system. The code available on the Web site will be a compact version of Solaris, lacking many of the features Sun plans to add to the final release, due in 2002.

"This is kind of the first public viewing of Solaris 9," said Bill Moffitt, a Solaris product line manager at Sun. "It does not have all the features and is not as stable as the final release will be, but it gives developers a chance to take a look at their applications running on it."

In the trimmed-down version of Solaris 9, users will find new built-in support for the RCM API (Reconfiguration Coordination Manager Application Program Interface). The RCM software helps users see what happens with a given application when changes are made on the fly to partitions or internal hardware such as a CPU (central processing unit) board on a Solaris system.

Sun's partitioning technology permits users to make changes to either a server's software or hardware without shutting the system down. The RCM tools could, for example, allow a user to add another CPU board to a server and then let the application running on the server take advantage of the extra processing power, making the software run more quickly, Moffitt said.

The latest version of Solaris will also support multiple page sizes -- a plus when working with programs that use large amounts of memory. In virtual memory systems, a page is a set number of bytes recognized by the operating system. Paging techniques help make sure data is available as quickly as possible. The multiple page sizes should make it possible for programs to take advantage of larger memory pages and move date more efficiently, Moffitt said.

Users will also find Linux APIs, commands and utilities that should permit most Linux applications to be recompiled to run on Solaris 9. In addition, the new release will include a Linux compatibility mode, which will make Linux applications built around the IA-32 architecture from Intel Corp. run on the operating system without any changes.

One user who had early access to the Solaris 9 beta has been impressed with the stability of test software thus far.

"From a stability perspective, Sun is absolutely bomb proof," said Ian Batten, IT director at Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe Ltd.

The company still has applications running on a Solaris 7 beta and has not had the system crash once in 1,000 days. Because of its success with past betas, the company is ready to put an ERP (enterprise resource planning) application on a server running the Solaris 9 beta.

Sun also tends to respond quickly to questions from customers working with the beta, which makes the software testing attractive, Batten said.

"To have problems fixed quickly, or people we trust say, 'that is not an OS issue but something you are doing,' is a great help," Batten said.

Most Solaris users have not yet upgraded to Solaris 8, as the migration times on high-end products are often slow. With this in mind, one consultant recommends waiting until an obvious need arises before revamping Solaris systems in a company.

"Sun is not Microsoft, but each transition is stressful and incurs failures -- risks best avoided by not (upgrading) until there's an expectation of gain from doing so," said Rudy de Haas, senior consultant for Edpstaff.com in Ontario, in an e-mail interview. "Generally speaking, new features in Solaris releases have gone hand in hand with matching changes in the hardware."

Sun is gradually pushing users toward Solaris 8 with releases of new hardware such as the StarCat system, which is closely linked with Solaris 8. The StarCat server marks an accelerating attempt by Sun to pull mainframe customers away from IBM with a high-end Unix-based system that can handle mainframe tasks. Solaris 9 will be in keeping with these goals, as it should come with a host of new security and management features built in the tradition of mainframe computing, Moffitt said.

Ultimately, it is this push toward more stable and functional Unix systems that concerns de Haas more than gradual upgrades to the Solaris product.

"Individual features, whether added to the kernel or via user-installable packages have relatively little to do with (the company's philosophy )," de Haas said. "It is the overall strategic evolution of the product that counts."

The Solaris 9 program is available at http://www.sun.com/solaris/programs/solaris9ea/.

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Ashlee Vance

Computerworld
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