Wednesday Jun 20, 2007

Solaris notebook compatibility

The more I use Solaris for my daily activities, the more I become convinced that one of its biggest barriers to widespread adoption by individual users is the issue of compatibility with the wide variety of notebooks out there. In the US, people are buying more notebooks than desktops, and the problem with notebooks is that they use a lot of really weird components in order to save space and weight. How can we support the myriad of new network cards, displays, Wi-fi cards, etc. that the manufacturers keep coming up with, not to mention the legacy hardware in use?

Microsoft solves the problem by throwing money at it. I'm sure they have hundreds of developers writing device drivers, and hundreds more who make sure that the manufacturers' own drivers work with Windows. Apple solves the problem by only supporting its own hardware. Linux has a large community of volunteer developers writing drivers.

The OpenSolaris community is vibrant, but small compared to the Linux community. When I was confronted with problems running Solaris on my notebook, I was fortunate that there is a community-written driver for my notebook's network card. I was also fortunate that a Sun developer in Beijing was assigned to write the AGPGART driver that makes my display function. Gabriel Carillo describes similar problems in a blog entry today.

One solution, of course, is to encourage the further development of a driver-writing community around OpenSolaris. Another solution, if Solaris is released under the GPL, would be to cooperate with the Linux community on developing common drivers. There is a third solution, however, that is only available to Sun. Since Sun does not manufacture notebooks, it does not compete in this market with Dell, HP, Acer, Lenovo and the other notebook manaufacturers, which are very few in number. Sun also has corporate muscle that Linux doesn't have. Perhaps we could engage in some high-level diplomacy with these manufacturers to encourage them to write open source drivers for their components that would be compatible with Solaris.

Wednesday Jun 13, 2007

Back in the OpenSolaris saddle

After a long hiatus, I recently revived my Solaris-at-home experiment. Deciding to act like an absolute tourist to see how a consumer who wanted to try Solaris would be treated by Sun, I ordered the OpenSolaris starter kit online. It took about five weeks to arrive, which I thought was pretty good fulfillment for a free offer. It turned out to be a two-DVD set, one DVD labeled as Solaris Express Community Edition, build 57, and the other with some tutorials and LiveCDs of the Belenix, Schillix and Nexenta distros.

The packaging was pretty slick, quite tasteful, but I missed having written instructions of any sort. I guess I'm too much of a print-oriented guy. I glanced at the tutorial, but got impatient and decided to go straight to the DVD install.

The install went very well. It seemed to have been made easier and simpler than the last time I installed, which was build 42. Also, it gave a nice running commentary about what additional products, drivers and so on it was installing. I don't remember build 42 doing that. I was happy to see that the beloved (by me) AGPGART driver was being installed, since it is essential to the proper functioning of the display on my Dell Inspiron 1100 laptop.

Since I was upgrading from build 42, I tried the "upgrade" option, but couldn't make it work, since it kept looking for a file in which to back up existing data, then couldn't find one that wasn't being upgraded itself, which it refused to do. I'm sure there's a way around this, but I couldn't figure it out, so I went with the "new install" option. I didn't have any data on the machine anyway, so it was no loss, and probably beneficial in that it wiped out some of the doubtful modifications I'd done in my last experiments.

Although it's not labeled on the packaging, build 57 includes the new OpenSolaris Developer Edition that has all the developer tools. I tried installing this, but it wouldn't let me, saying my 1 gig of memory was too small. Oh well. It was easy to click on going with the standard edition instead, and that worked fine. I'm not a developer, so what the hell.

I was also happy to see that the bug in build 42 that prevented me from logging in with the Xsun X-server has been fixed, and the default Xorg server works just fine -- no need to apply the patch that the OpenSolaris guys had kindly given me before. Given all the X-related problems I've had in the past, this was a great relief. Interestingly, when I ran kdmconfig to switch to Xsun, just to see if it would work, the screen resolution degraded considerably. Sun has deprecated Xsun anyway, but it's nice to know that it's still included and at least functional in the distro.

My big complaint is that there still is no driver for my laptop's Broadcom bcm4401 network card, and I had to turn to my buddy Hermelito Go to install the mysterious Japanese driver that I've downloaded and used before. It took Hermelito, a veteran Unix sysadmin, several minutes to get that installed, so it's not a trivial operation. Hermelito pointed out that the card is quite common, so he thinks OpenSolaris may actually contain a driver for it, but can't detect that it's there.

 Beyond these quibbles, I'm pretty happy with this latest incarnation of OpenSolaris. I'm going to make an effort to use it for a lot of my daily tasks, and I hope to report to you now and then how it's working for me. 






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