The New Solaris Installer (NSI):
Installation Made Easy
By Jennifer (Jen) McGinn on Sep 24, 2007
Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who enjoys creating new things, and then writing about them.
Frank Ludolph is an interaction designer in xDesign with more than 30 years of experience in user interface design and development.
At the end of August, I spoke with Frank Ludolph, the Senior Interaction Designer responsible for greatly simplifying the user experience of installing and upgrading the Solaris operating system.
Jen: Frank, what was the impetus behind the new Solaris installer (NSI)?
Frank: A lot of people find Solaris hard to install. The installer asks a lot of questions that many users don't know how to answer. The first time I tried to install Solaris on my laptop, it took me four tries to successfully install. And the installer had the old 1990's Motif look. The underlying architecture of the software showed through too much as well. For example, system configuration was separate from the installer, so before the installer ran, it asked the user a large number of configuration questions and then threw away the answers when the user was upgrading rather than installing. With the release of Solaris on x86, which broadened the target audience to developers in addition to system administrators, installation needed to be better and easier.
We decided to replace the old installer. The UI team reviewed a number of current operating system installers, both proprietary (Mac OS X and Windows) and open source (SUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu). We decided the goal of the installer should be to do minimal configuration during install; just enough to get you up and running following reboot. During installation, you'd only be asked to choose the installation target, set the clock, assign a root password, set up a user account (so you don't have to log in as root), and specify the language support to be installed. Any specialized configurations, which relatively few users needed, could be done by after the reboot. A new Solaris feature, Network Auto-Magic (NWAM), allowed us to drop network configuration questions because it automatically configures the wired and wireless network connections when the newly installed system is booted.
We then created an interactive UI mock-up that targeted both desktop and enterprise users. This mock-up was used during early engineering discussions when the functionality and architecture were being developed. But we estimated that it would take at least a year to fully implement the new installer. Too long.
Then Solaris Express Developer Edition (SXDE), a fast-moving project targeted at developers, appeared. This project had fewer functional requirements than on the full installer and allowed for a phased implementation of the installer.
In the first phase, guided by our earlier studies, we just cut a lot of questions and screens out of the old installer by choosing defaults appropriate for our target users. The SXDE installer would install developer tools, Sun Studio and NetBeans, and add them to the Launch menu. When the system started up, it automatically configured network connections and greeted users with a web page with developer-specific help. The installer wasn't pretty -- the flow wasn't as smooth as it might be and the visuals were dated, but it was much easier for developers, the target audience of the product, to get a developer desktop up and running.
The second phase of the new Solaris installer, Dwarf, has a modern, branded graphical appearance and a user experience that is the equal to any of today's installers. It still has plumbing from the old installer underneath, but the team worked very hard so that the graphical user interface masks the old architectural underpinnings. The architecture itself will be addressed in the third phase of implementation, named Slim. Future phases will add the support needed by enterprises. When that is complete the old installer can be retired.
Jen: So a little over a year ago, you were working on writing the branded interaction guidelines for system startup, and I was leading the team to write the branded guidelines for install -- I love how I'm seeing convergence between the Solaris installer and the OpenDS installer and the OpenInstaller, as a result.
Frank: Also with respect to consistency in the user experience, the GNOME desktop is themed, and because the Sun theme, Nimbus, is the default on Solaris, the installer picks it up. As a result, the look and feel are consistent from installation through to the desktop experience.
Jen: So what's the coolest thing about the new Solaris installer?
Frank: It has a modern look-and-feel, new users are successful, and the short, six-month SXDE release cycle gives us the opportunity to get feedback quickly from our target audience and make it even better.