Illumos-based distributions are currently not fully mature

March 29, 2013

As a sysadmin I'm used to my Unixes having certain amenities and conveniences. I've come to accept that any non-hobbyist Unix distribution that wants to be taken seriously (especially a free one) will have things like an announcements or security updates mailing list, a bug tracker, at least a somewhat visible security contact point, and documentation about all of this (along with things like how often security updates are made for any particular release and indeed the release policy). Some form of signed or verified packages are state of the art, along with the key infrastructure to support them.

While some of the various Illumos distributions are clearly hobbyist projects that you can't expect this from, some are equally clearly aspiring to be larger than that (swank websites are one sign of this). But, well, they don't seem to have pretty much any of these amenities that I'm used to. Does this matter or am I being too picky? I think that it does.

(A certain number of the pretty websites started looking a bit bare once I started following links.)

The surface reason is that these things are important for running production systems; for example, I'd really like to know about security fixes as soon as they're available for the obvious reason (we might not apply them, but at least we can assess the severity). The deeper reason is what the omission of these things says to me about the distribution's current audience. To put it one way, none of these things are needed by insiders who are deeply involved in the distribution already; they know the security update practices, they follow the main mailing lists, and so on. All of the documentation and so on is for new people, for outsiders like me, and the less it exists the more it feels like the distribution is not yet mature enough to be sensibly used by outsiders like me.

(There are some bits of this infrastructure that you may want to think about carefully beforehand, like bug trackers. But announce mailing lists are trivial.)

I'm sure that all of this will change in time, at least for the Illumos distributions that want to be used by outsiders like me. But right now I can't help but feel that Illumos distributions are not yet fully mature and up to the level of FreeBSD and modern Linux distributions (regardless of what the quality of the underlying OS is).

Comments on this page:

From at 2013-03-29 19:22:49:

First, disclaimer: I work for OmniTI, my opinions are biased and my own. Feel free to flush to /dev/null.

Have you not looked at OmniOS? It's pretty solid, gets security updates as soon as they're available, and we use it everywhere we can in production without issue. We make it very obvious on the distribution's home page ( where to find the mailing list, where to find help, where and how to get help, where to find our source code. If you want more / different information to be published, please let me know and I'll gladly provide it (I'd rather not say "we" since I don't want to commit company resources).

By cks at 2013-03-29 22:28:01:

I have looked at OmniOS and think that it's the best set up of the Illumos distributions I've looked at (it's the only one that is at least making an effort). But with that said, it's still missing most of the things that I mentioned.

  • mailing lists: there are both general discussion and development mailing lists. But as a sysadmin I'm not interested in either because they're both going to be too much volume; what I want is a low-volume (moderated) announcements or security releases list. OmniOS already publishes much of the information in the release notes.

    (An RSS feed for news and/or the release notes would be nice too, but that would take more work.)

  • there's very little information, especially direct information, on the update and support policies. Some is available in the Stable vs Bloody wiki page but you have to read between the lines for some things.

  • no security contact information. If I find a security issue in OmniOS, there's no clue who to contact (and how to do it securely, which would need things like published PGP keys).
  • no 'how to report problems' information in general, even something as simple as 'if you experience what you think is a bug, report it on the mailing list'.

(As a style issue I also dislike wikis that require me to turn on JavaScript in order to get any content.)

The OmniTI support pricing and so on page is also not clear on what you get and what it costs (I assume that the table is the per-machine cost, but maybe not). Also, speaking as a sysadmin at a university, I can assure you that if those are per-machine costs they are way outside of our price range. I'd like to buy support if we can afford it and if it gets us something, but my previous ruminations about what Solaris 11 is probably worth to us apply here.

From at 2013-03-30 13:43:10:

I think you're absolutely right, and the Illumos community (or rather, the miscellany of vaguely interrelated Illumos communities) needs to do much better.

Part of this is down to the community being largely anarchic, without strong structure, central control, or infrastructure. It's not obvious, even to insiders, where everything goes.

The stronger distributions tend to be largely inward facing - I'm thinking OmniOS and SmartOS here, which while they can be used by others are largely aimed at the needs of their sponsors.

As the creator of one of the hobbyist distros (Tribblix) I feel this too. To be clear, Tribblix is very decidedly in the hobbyist bracket simply due to the limited resources available (my, ahem, copious spare time), that's not to say I don't aspire to the professional qualities of a mature distro but it's going to take a while to get there and I'm not prepared to promise more than I can deliver.

-Peter Tribble

From at 2013-04-06 17:05:13:


I think your post has some good points. I have a ton of respect for the developers who are still involved with Illumos today. They are incredibly talented, visionary thinkers.

It is unfortunate there are not more people involved with the project, as they could all use help, especially in the area of hardware compatibility and drivers. Sure, I would love to partake, but my own skillset is simply not there yet. Now, I'm not a total beginner by any means, having worked with BSD systems for some time, but I simply do not have the skills at this time to help out in driver development for Illumos-based systems.

My experience has been frustrating to say the least:

I have no less than three different, newer, pieces of hardware (mostly HP) I have tried to install various Illumos-based distributions on, to no avail.

As an example, my main laptop workstation where I've attempted to install a few distributions to, has a storage controller that the distributions simply either don't recognize or recognize as a RAID controller, for which it most certainly is not. Because it is a newer laptop with less modifiable BIOS options, there is no way to tell the BIOS that it is NOT a RAID controller. Too bad, as I was so excited to be running OpenIndiana on my HP Pavilion 2.5Ghz 16GB RAM 350GB SSD Drive. SmartOS has similar issues in that it doesn't 'see' the storage devices.

I most certainly want to become involved, but it will take trying to hunt down compatible hardware, for which this is not an option right now.

And this is the situation, unfortunately.

Written on 29 March 2013.
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