Solaris Install Experts - the New Chic

Quite a few years ago, I met up with this big guy at Tokyo University. His name was Ohno-san. He had a similar build like me. Big, round, husky. He road a big Motorcycle that really ate gas - sort of a status symbol as big Honcho for being one of the early contributor's to Japan's WIDE network. I remember his greeting to me - the once over stare and then grin and a modest handshake. Not a limp-fish, and somewhat out of character for a Japanese person. He said immediately that he could tell I was a techie/geek and I must know my UNIX systems, since most of us are pretty big guys with similar builds that look like we exercised our forearms lifting slices of cold pizza for most of our lives. But I lacked the facial hair and bad hair. Oh well for stereotyping folks like us. But I don't mind the status and any implied chic other folks -think- I may possess.

There seems to be a revival of that UNIX chic these days. It's not just inside the company. I see it with some vendor/partners and some of the academic/EDU folks. Solaris is cool again, and folks who can install it and fix other folks computers have a certain chic. Granted, we're a couple levels below the God-hood of a kernel developer, but we interface at a higher level with desparate folks in management and marketing who want to try out Solaris but haven't got a clue how to install it properly on their system.

Pepboys (Geek version): Computers Like Us - Colleagues Love Us

Solaris installation is a lot like car maintenance. Almost anyone could probably pick it up if they had the inclination to research a little bit and try to exercise some Emersonian Self-Reliance. The argument against everybody doing this (within a company or outside even) is the notion of Comparative Advantage. This idea says that everyone has their personal strengths and contributes in their own way. Folks have proven mathematically that Comparative Advantage allows multiple parties to optimize their productivity so all sides can benefit. And hence, we all specialize in our particular fields. And it's just my long-winded explanation of why there's a Chic associated with being able to install Solaris. Simply because folks like us are in demand. And so the ones who are less self-reliant will want to schmooze with us to defrag their laptops and partition a slice to install Solaris on it.

But it's still a lot like car maintenance. And a cornerstone in the mechanics trade has been that customers go back to the mechanics they trust, and with an evolving relationship, customers grow to respect the journeymen with lots of experience. Solaris installation ain't much different than doing tune ups. The more systems we get to work on, the more tips and tricks we learn. One of the things we pick up is what to buy, what works well, and what has good price-performance. Yes, it applies to names like Toyota and Honda too, but we're talking systems, and it isn't always the high-end chipsets that are well supported by Solaris.

In-Flight Across the Chasm

And whether that compatibility is a result of more community users hammering on the platform, or that the platform is more compatible and therefore more people are using it, it's clear that Solaris's recent popularity is coming from the x86 side. Sure, it runs on SPARC and we try to insure that out-of-the-box, Solaris just runs well and tuned on SPARC. But our SPARC customers just expect that and depend on it. The Solaris x86 side has been more mercurial. Instead of specifying specific supported hardware (which we Sell), we've had to provide an OS with broad support for many 3rd party devices. Linux has done a great job crossing this chasm of device driver support. Many vendors are providing drivers up front now for Linux. But the Linux kernel and headers are GNU GPL'd and the license can be somewhat severe for enterprises that have trade secrets. Some vendors have tried to play a risky game using shim layers in their device driver to insulate themselves from the GPL. But if they do it right, they end up with massive build environments for Linux because to support compatibility with the ABI, they need to maintain copies of kernel source, headers, and compilers. If they do it wrong, like a couple of embedded switch companies in Europe recently, then they may be forced to open source all their proprietary software on the device which also leverages GPL code or face a massive recall of all sold network appliances in the last several years.

The problem isn't so bad with GPL applications living outside the kernel. Applications are fairly safe if they only link to high-level libraries. But device drivers are kernel modules and live in the same process space that the kernel lives in and rely on GPL headers to compile. To get around GPL, shim layers of GPL code that then link to standalone proprietary object binary code seems to be the standard these days. But compiling a kernel module such that it has no errors in loading (e.g. the kernel taint statement), doesn't work well. The solution, if done right, is to compile a target object binary driver module for that explicit kernel with that explicit distro of Linux with that specific version of compiler, just as an added safe measure. But this grows into a support nightmare for vendors pretty quick. I support at least a couple of partners who support several popular distros each keep about 29 GB and 40 GB respectively in build environment (yes, Gig as in Billion). All this to prevent the taint message from showing up during modload. So it's not surprising that from where my group sits, more and more vendors are actually trying to contact us about driver porting to Solaris x86. There Solaris driver build environments are just a couple to several megs. Mostly documentation and make stuff. Not actual code.

And so, Solaris is trying to cross that chasm today. Fortunately, I can see the other side, and as Joerg Schilling predicted about 1.5 years ago, he said if we kept working on x86 at this rate, we'd cross that chasm pretty soon. Thanks Joerg for believing in us. We're not there yet and so we're still working really hard. But it won't be long now. Along the way, some of us have picked up some useful ways to get Solaris up and running on our systems.

Installation Tips and Tricks - a Summary

It's not all about the drivers. There some other pre-requisites to installing Solaris that should be covered. I'll be blogging more about the tips and tricks of trying to install Solaris in later blogs. But it starts with hardware choice and what not to spend money on. I'm into frugality, and it's often the cheapest, all-in-one motherboards and hardware that have support these days. It's more about selecting the right chipsets on a motherboard. I'm not a big-time gamer, so I don't go after the super high-end market. Plus, if I'm running Solaris, most likely, I'm doing simple home stuff - like audio, some digital camera stuff, some word processing, running some web sites and mail servers, firewalling the rest of my house network, etc. I make it a point not to spend more than $50 on a motherboard. If it's on sale, even better. And if it's a combo with all-in-one graphics, audio, LAN for under $75, even better.

It seems like the Optical media install is the de facto standard by which we judge usability. But more and more, I use network installs. It's amazing how many motherboards support PXE boot these days, and from a previous BigAdmin article, myself and a colleague tried to put a quick cheat sheet on how to set up a network install server and add more drivers to the netinstall image. But did folks know that they can pre-flash disk drives with Solaris on them and then re-configure them? I have a couple of servers at home and in the office that don't have an optical drive and don't have PXE boot bios extensions. I installed Solaris on a disk stuck in an install machine that flashed a netboot image onto the disk. And then I stuck it into the server box with no optical drive. There are issues of course with the boot-archive, the old device tree, etc. Linux does really well in this area with their Kudzu and admittedly, I wish Solaris were better. But installation isn't something most folks do that often. And so if instead of a single utility doing it for us, someone just had a complete set of instructions on how the darn boot-archive, path-to-inst and device tree worked together, then we might be able to reconfig the drive to the new hardware in say, less than a couple of minutes, it might not be so bad. Better yet, would be to script the process and have it as a command in the safeboot image. That's not there now, but something some of us are suggesting go in there in the future.

Lastly, once the system is installed, there's all the standard software that folks should stick on their system that isn't on there by default. There's the standard pathing for user shells that we should setup so commands are easily found too. There are also some nagging problems with devices that don't work well or at all. They don't impact the core Solaris kernel, but they may make the system unusuable (e.g. graphics is incorrectly sized, sound doesn't play, or some devices not functioning. Sometimes, an existing driver might actually work, only the vendor and device ID were not recognized in the OS database. Other times, the driver may be available as a free or commercial 3rd party just not on the install media. But their are quick ways to find basic drivers for network, audio, wifi and other components. These and other subjects will be topics in the next couple of blogs as I have time.

Looking back on the past couple of years and my experience with Solaris x86, I've gone through about 4 or 5 cycles where I've attempted to install latest current OS onto all my home and office boxes. At first, it was with mixed success, implying that a good fraction of the drivers were missing or so poor in performance and reliability that it made it unusable on the system. But lately, that's changed. Many do work for the low-end, budget systems in fact. Moreover, lately, the installations have been relatively easy. So it may not actually be so hard to achieve that high-level of fashion and popularity that being a Solaris install wiz, at least for a short while; most folks will still think installing Solaris is hard. But it's not something you need to share with everyone. And maybe you don't need to sit around all day eating cold pizza slices doing it to become a master at it. So you can have the sysadmin chic and still maintain the "girlish figure." The key is to enjoy this upcoming new year with Solaris, and sandbag a little when friends and colleague beg and grovel to have you install their laptop systems. Tell them you have a backlog and need more time. That might be true sometimes, but most of the time, I'd just take the fishing pole out and go fish a few hours while the install completes in about 30 minutes. I brought in a new custom fishing rod into the office recently. It's up on top of my locking bookshelf unit. Colleagues think it's just ornamental to go along with my fishing pic on the door. Hah!

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