Thursday Dec 06, 2007

Solaris is to UNIX what Mindstorms is to Lego

I've now been at Sun for the best part of two decades. It was Solaris and SPARC which first attracted me to Sun, and it's exciting to see both very much alive and kicking all these years on. But this didn't happen by chance. Sun currently spends $2B per year on R&D, making Sun one of the top 50 technology investors worldwide.

Having myself spent the last five years doing R&D, why have I decided to move back into Sun UK's field organisation? Simply, it's because I think Sun has a very compelling story to tell, and a very exciting portfolio of products and services to offer. In short, I think I'm going to have a lot of fun!

In my new role I'm finding that the thinking behind my Killer Combination, Wicked Bible and Brief History postings is resonating well with a lot of people. Quite frankly, I'm astonished by the number of downloads of my extremely minimalist presentation given to the Sun HPC Consortium in Dresden.

Such has been the interest of late that I thought it would be worth sharing my latest minimalist slide deck: Solaris: greater than the sum of its parts. A lot of the material may be familiar, although I have been experimenting with tag clouds as an alternative to boring bullet points. My basic thesis is: Sun is where the innovation is, so why flirt with a imitations?

I've been a big Lego fan for as long as I can remember. Whilst some kids are content to follow the supplied instruction guides, the real thrill for me has always been that Lego allows me to design and build my very own creations, limited only by my imagination. I feel the same way about UNIX.

UNIX has always been about innovation. UNIX has always provided a rich set of simple, consistent, elegant and well defined interfaces which enable to developer to "go create". This "innovation elsewhere" often takes the seed innovation to places unforeseen by its inventors, and this in turn leads to new innovations.

Lego has undergone a similar evolution. At first I only had chunky 2x2 and 2x4 bricks in red and white to work with. Then came 1xN bricks and 1/3 height plates and more colours. Next came the specialised pieces (e.g. window frames, door frames, wheels, flat plates, sloping roof tiles bricks, fences and so on). But all the time these innovations extended the original, well-designed interfaces, with a big commitment to compatibility, thus preserving investment in much the same way as the Solaris ABI (application binary interface).

Obviously, there are places where these parallels break down, but I think we can push the analogue a little further yet [note to self: a USENIX paper?]. In my mind, Solaris is somewhat akin to Lego Technics, and Solaris 10 to Lego Mindstorms. And in this vein, I see Linux rather in the Betta Builder mould (i.e. innovative interfaces copied from elsewhere, actually cheaper and lighter, but not quite the same build quality as the original implementation). And this is where I'm going to get a little more provocative.

In my new presentation I experiment with tag clouds to enumerate some of Sun's more important UNIX innovations over time. The first cloud lists prehistoric stuff from SunOS 3 and 4 days. The second focussed mostly of Solaris 2. The third focusses on Solaris 10. And while Sun may not be able to take sole credit for ideas such as /proc and mmap, it can claim to have the first substantive implementations.

The fourth tag cloud is included to demonstrate that Sun does not suffer from terminal NIH (not invented here) syndrome. Indeed, I think it recognises that Sun is a pretty good judge of excellence elsewhere (most of the time).

Whatever you think of the detail (and I concede some of it could do with a little more research) I do think it is helpful to ask "where does the innovation happen?". At the very least, I think I've shown that there is heaps of innovation in Solaris which we simply take for granted.

To put it another way: as a Solaris enthusiast I can't help feeling at ease in a Linux environment because I find so many familiar objects from home (I guess a GNU/BSD devotee might say something similar). That's not to deny the achievements of the Linux community in implementing interfaces invented elsewhere, but when I look at the flow of innovation between Solaris and Linux it does feel rather like a one-way street.

We live in interesting times! My own particular area of interest is multithreading. With the dawning of the brave new world of large scale chip multithreading Solaris seems uniquely placed to ride the next wave. This is not by accident. Sun has made a huge investment in thread scalability over the past 15 years.

One of my slides asks "What is the essential difference between single and multithreaded processes?" For some this is not a trivial question. For some it depends on which thread library is being used. But with Solaris, where application threads have been first class citizens ever since Solaris 10 first shipped, the answer is simply "the number of threads".

Enough of this! The weekend is upon us. Where's my Lego?

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