The History of BigAdmin - Part 1


The History of BigAdmin dates back to the development of a new type of installer for Solaris that would begin with the release of Solaris 8. This blog explains how BigAdmin first started. Future blogs will provide additional history and background.

Before I started working for Sun, I had been working for a company called Knight-Ridder - which was the parent company for many newspapers around the country (United States), including the San Jose Mercury News, Miami Herald, and many more.

I had also been working with Netscape and doing development with a project called 'NetCaster' at the time, which was Netscape's step into the "push" paradigm of web applications.

NetCaster utilized the proprietary dynamic HTML for Netscape 4, which was based on layers (before the current standards of divs and modern dhtml) and javascript to update the page dynamically.

At the time Netscape 4 was beautiful because it was starting to be used as a development platform - not just a browser - much like Google's Chrome us now (more on that later - Chrome is exciting stuff).

So, with Netscape 4 and NetCaster, developers could create "WebTops" - full screen pages that could be anchored to users' desktops and behave like a live desktop. They could "push" information based on the setup of the WebTop. Very cool technology at the time.

While all this work that was happening in this space, Sun was trying to modernize their installation of Solaris to be more graphic-based and more dynamic.

This eventually turned into a project called 'CD0' - a project to create a standalone installer CD that was not tied directly to the OS it was installing. The installer was based on Web Start Wizards - the Java-based installation that was developed by the Solaris Installation Team in the late 90's (1997-1999 timeframe). The team was led by Eric Nielsen and included a bunch of really talented engineers (Matt Williamson, James Falkner, Sue Sohn, John Perry, Gary Gere - just to name a few).

Solaris 8 Kiosk

Figure 1: The Solaris 8 Installation Kiosk

As part of the CD0 project and the wizard-based installation, we also built a customized kiosk - based partly on the NetCaster technology mentioned above - that would load during the installation and give the system administrator access to the web and other resources if the network was available, or local content if it was not.

We created this kiosk using Netscape 4 in chromeless mode - with multiple chromeless windows communicating with each other, and a Java applet that was the brain that would communicate with the browser using LiveConnect (the ability for a java applet to communicate directly with javascript), and update the interface dynamically. This gave the kiosk the appearance of a full application instead of a web-based application. This is similar to how "ajax" is done today - minus the applet "brain" that ran the kiosk.

This kiosk and installer was a lot of fun to work on. I loved being able to dig deep into this kind of development. Projects like this one paved the way for future web-based apps that utilized dynamic updates and communication to other resources to feed the GUI - creating a more app-like environment.

Figure 1 shows the Solaris 8 Installation Kiosk that appeared on the screen when the administrator loaded up CD0 to start the installation. Note the wizard panel on the lower right, the applet "brain" to the left (the menu itself housed the KioskControl - or the "brain") which gave all the installation notes and resources for the administrator, and the location bar at the top, which let the administrator reach external sources on the web.

Also note the small purple button below the location bar at the top of the screen. This button was the original way to reach BigAdmin - the 'bigADMIN' bar (lower case 'b' intended - as it was called originally).

As development of the installer and the kiosk progressed, we saw a need to have a central place within for the administrator to place the kiosk on if it had network access.

Based on this idea, the applet "brain" ran a test of the network to see if the user was able to ping, and if so, redirected the content window of the kiosk to point to BigAdmin.

At the time, BigAdmin had hooks into the kiosk, which allowed it to determine which version of the OS was being installed. Based on the installed OS, BigAdmin provided custom messaging and news about the latest release notes, resources, and information about that OS.

Figure 2 shows a shot of the Solaris 8 Installation Kiosk that has been landed on the original BigAdmin.

Figure 2: Solaris 8 Installation Kiosk with BigAdmin

BigAdmin was released to the public along with the Solaris 8 OS FCS - in February, 2000.

BigAdmin was inspired by the Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) of the 1980's - which is where the title 'SysOp' comes from in the MOTD (Message of the Day) component at the top of today's BigAdmin homepage.

Much like the BBS systems did, BigAdmin encourages system administrators to submit their scripts and resources, as well as links to any useful content they found outside of BigAdmin. That wasy, the next sys admin looking for that sort of information would be able to find it. BigAdmin was to be a central repository for all sysadmins.

We introduced the BigAdmin Bucks program around 2001-2002, to reward users for their submissions with points that can be traded in for BigAdmin logo shirts, mugs, hats and more. This is still in effect today at the BigAdmin Bucks Page.

Soon after the initial release, BigAdmin started to become not only the landing place for the Solaris installer, but for System Administration information as a whole for Sun and Solaris users.

The Solaris Installation process that housed the Installation Kiosk as well as BigAdmin remained intact throughout the life of Solaris 8 as well as Solaris 9, but was removed with the new installation processes that were introduced with the release of Solaris 10.

A key part of BigAdmin - the Hardware Compatibility List for Solaris and OpenSolaris has continuously grown, and will soon include listings for Virtualization platforms as well. People who install Solaris and OpenSolaris can now automatically submit system information to the BigAdmin HCL, and add to the amount of systems that can run Solaris.

As BigAdmin continued to grow, more information became housed directly on the site, as opposed to only being links to other resources outside of our domain such as Feature Articles, guest writers, XPert sessions, partnerships with Solaris Documentation, and more.

BigAdmin has now grown to include the BigAdmin Newsletter, the BigAdmin Blog, the BigAdmin Wiki, as well as the BigAdmin Twitter page and the BigAdmin Facebook Fan page.

Robert B. Weeks - June 2009

A few other fun notes:

We went through a bunch of names for the "Administration Portal"... we had about 8 names, as we checked the domain names using network solutions, BigAdmin was the first of those that was available. Thus was registered at the moment and we went with that name. Originally the plan was to host bigadmin on it's own domain, but Marketing caught wind of the idea and forced it back into To this day redirects back to the sun location. Marketing wanted us to show the "back" of the administrator so you wouldn't be able to see the face and know it was not your particular race. We resisited, and eventually they created a "set" or politically correct administrators. Being politically incorrect, the "Big" referred to both the "amount" of content on the website, as well as the stereo type datacenter "god" like administrator, who was generally a big person (powerful and forceful).

We launched the with only about 80 items on the website, we tried to have at least 3 content items in each section. We launched it at a LISA conference in New Orleans in 2001. It was one of the first corporate submission sites online at the time. We got so many submissions in the first 2 months, we had to hire contractors to process them and had a 3 month backlog of items to post on the website. This is where we gave out the first "BigAdmin Got Script" shirts.

Management at the time, was afraid that we would have people posting or surfing politically incorrect material while installing Solaris. The original concept of making the installer live came from the Silicone Graphics OS install environment which played live video and was truly ahead of it's time 4 years before we started the CD0 project.

Posted by Eric Nielsen on June 30, 2009 at 05:37 PM CDT #

Awesome! Thanks Eric! :)

Posted by Robert B. Weeks on June 30, 2009 at 09:03 PM CDT #

Good times! And thanks for the memories. In retrospect, we should have put more easter eggs in there :)

Posted by James Falkner on July 01, 2009 at 06:02 AM CDT #

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