Wandering Thoughts archives


Looking back at my mixed and complicated feelings about Solaris

So Oracle killed Solaris (and SPARC) a couple of weeks ago. I can't say this is surprising, although it's certainly sudden and underhanded in the standard Oracle way. Back when Oracle killed Sun, I was sad for the death of a dream, despite having had ups and downs with Sun over the years. My views about the death of Solaris are more mixed and complicated, but I will summarize them by saying that I don't feel very sad about Solaris itself (although there are things to be sad about).

To start with, Solaris has been dead for me for a while, basically ever since Oracle bought Sun and certainly since Oracle closed the Solaris source. The Solaris that the CS department used for years in a succession of fileservers was very much a product of Sun the corporation, and I could never see Oracle's Solaris as the same thing or as a successor to it. Hearing that Oracle was doing things with Solaris was distant news; it had no relevance for us and pretty much everyone else.

(Every move Oracle made after absorbing Sun came across to me as a 'go away, we don't want your business or to expand Solaris usage' thing.)

But that's the smaller piece, because I have some personal baggage and biases around Solaris itself due to my history. I started using Sun hardware in the days of SunOS, where SunOS 3 was strikingly revolutionary and worked pretty well for the time. It was followed by SunOS 4, which was also quietly revolutionary even if the initial versions had some unfortunate performance issues on our servers (we ran SunOS 4.1 on a 4/490, complete with an unfortunate choice of disk interconnect). Then came Solaris 2, which I've described as a high speed collision between SunOS 4 and System V R4.

To people reading this today, more than a quarter century removed, this probably sounds like a mostly neutral thing or perhaps just messy (since I did call it a collision). But at the time it was a lot more. In the old days, Unix was split into two sides, the BSD side and the AT&T System III/V side, and I was firmly on the BSD side along with many other people at universities; SunOS 3 and SunOS 4 and the version of Sun that produced them were basically our standard bearers, not only for BSD's superiority at the time but also their big technical advances like NFS and unified virtual memory. When Sun turned around and produced Solaris 2, it was viewed as being tilted towards being a System V system, not a BSD system. Culturally, there was a lot of feeling that this was a betrayal and Sun had debased the nice BSD system they'd had by getting a lot of System V all over it. It didn't help that Sun was unbundling the compilers around this time, in an echo of the damage AT&T's Unix unbundling did.

(Solaris 2 was Sun's specific version of System V Release 4, which itself was the product of Sun and AT&T getting together to slam System V and BSD together into a unified hybrid. The BSD side saw System V R4 as 'System V with some BSD things slathered over top', as opposed to 'BSD with some System V things added'. This is probably an unfair characterization at a technical level, especially since SVR4 picked up a whole bunch of important BSD features.)

Had I actually used Solaris 2, I might have gotten over this cultural message and come to like and feel affection for Solaris. But I never did; our 4/490 remained on SunOS 4 and we narrowly chose SGI over Sun, sending me on a course to use Irix until we started switching to Linux in 1999 (at which point Sun wasn't competitive and Solaris felt irrelevant as a result). By the time I dealt with Solaris again in 2005, open source Unixes had clearly surpassed it for sysadmin usability; they had better installers, far better package management and patching, and so on. My feelings about Solaris never really improved from there, despite increasing involvement and use, although there were aspects I liked and of course I am very happy that Sun created ZFS, put it into Solaris 10, and then released it to the world as open source so that it could survive the death of Sun and Solaris.

The summary of all of that is that I'm glad that Sun created a number of technologies that wound up in successive versions of Solaris and I'm glad that Sun survived long enough to release them into the world, but I don't have fond feelings about Solaris itself the way that many people who were more involved with it do. I cannot mourn the death of Solaris itself the way I could for Sun, because for me Solaris was never a part of any dream.

(One part of that is that my dream of Unix was the dream of workstations, not the dream of servers. By the time Sun was doing interesting things with Solaris 10, it was clearly not the operating system of the Unix desktop any more.)

(On Solaris's death in general, see this and this.)

solaris/SolarisMixedFeelings written at 23:34:48; Add Comment

Sorting out the world of modern USB (at least a bit)

Part of thinking about new machines for home and work is figuring out what motherboard I want, and part of that is figuring out what I want and need in motherboard features. I've looked into how many SATA ports I want and what it will take to drive a 4K monitor with onboard graphics, so now I've been trying to figure out USB ports. Part of this is trying to understand the different sorts of USB ports that there are and what you can do with them.

(This would be easier if I'd kept up with all of the twists and turns in PC hardware standards, but I haven't.)

USB is a vast and complicated world, with both a set of signalling standards (the old USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and now USB 3.1 aka USB 3.1 gen 2) and a set of port shapes and sizes (the original USB-A and now USB-C) that may be combined in various ways. Fortunately I'm only interested in modern and non-perverse motherboards, so for me I believe that it breaks down this way:

  • old fashioned USB 2.0 ports (with black USB-A connectors) are too slow for disks but are (probably) fine for things like keyboards and mice. But I only need a few of these, and there's no need to have any USB 2.0 only ports if I have enough better USB ports.

  • USB 3.0 ports (often using blue USB-A connectors) are good enough for general usage (theoretically including disks) but are not the latest hotness. USB 3.0 is old enough that any decent modern (desktop) motherboard should really include a bunch of USB 3.0 ports. Even inexpensive H270 based motherboards have a number of them.

    USB 3.0 is not infrequently called 'USB 3.1 gen 1' in advertising and product specifications. This is technically correct but practically misleading, because it's not the type of USB 3.1 that you and I want if we care about USB 3.1.

  • USB 3.1 ports are either USB-C or USB-A, and you may need to look for things specifically described as 'USB 3.1 gen 2'. It's the latest hotness with the fastest connection speed (twice that of USB 3.0 aka USB 3.1 gen 1), but the more that I look the less I'm sure that this will matter to me for the next five years or so.

Then there is USB-C, the new (and small) connector standard for things. When I started writing this entry I thought life was simple and modern USB-C ports were always USB 3.1 (gen 2), but this is not actually the case. It appears not uncommon for H270 and Z270 based motherboards to have USB-C ports that are USB 3.0, not USB 3.1 (gen 2). It seems likely that over time more and more external devices will expect you to have USB-C connectors even if they don't use USB 3.1 (gen 2), which strongly suggests that any motherboard I get should have at least one USB-C port and ideally more.

(The state of connecting USB-C devices to USB-A ports is not clear to me. According to the Wikipedia page on USB-C, you aren't allowed to make an adaptor with a USB-C receptacle and a USB-A connector that will plug into a USB-A port. On the other hand, you can find a lot of cables that are a USB-A connector on one end and USB-C connector on the other end and advertised as letting you connect devices with USB-C with old devices with USB-A, and some of them appear to support USB 3.1 gen 2 USB-A ports. There are devices that you plug USB-C cables in to, and devices that basically have a USB-C cable or connector coming out of them; the former you can convert to USB-A but the later not.)

USB-C ports may support something called alternate mode, where some of the physical wires in the port and the cable are used for another protocol instead of USB. Standardized specifications for this theoretically let your USB-C port be a DisplayPort or Thunderbolt port (among others). On a desktop motherboard, this seems far less useful than simply having, say, a DisplayPort connector; among other advantages, this means you get to drive your 4K display at the same time as you have a USB-C thing plugged in. As a result I don't think Alternate Mode support matters to me, which is handy because it seems to be very uncommon on desktop motherboards.

(Alternate Mode support is obviously attractive if you have limited space for connectors, such as on a laptop or a tablet, because it may let you condense multiple ports into one. And USB-C is designed to be a small connector.)

Intel's current H270 and Z270 chipsets don't appear to natively support USB 3.1 gen 2. This means that any support for it on latest-generation motherboards is added by the motherboard vendor using an add-on controller chipset, and I think you're unlikely to find it on inexpensive motherboards. It also means that I get to search carefully to find motherboards with genuine USB 3.1 gen 2, which is being a pain in the rear so far. An alternate approach would be to get USB 3.1 gen 2 through an add-on PCIE card (based on information from here); this might be a lot less of a pain than trying to find and select a suitable motherboard.

(As for how many of each type of port I need or want, I haven't counted them up yet. My current bias is towards at least two USB 3.1 gen 2 ports, at least one USB-C port, and a bunch of USB 3.0 ports. I probably have at least four or five USB 2.0 devices to be plugged in, although some can be daisy-chained to each other. I'm a little surprised by that count, but these things have proliferated while I wasn't paying attention. Everything is USB these days.)

tech/SortingOutModernUSB written at 00:27:30; Add Comment

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