Looking back at my mixed and complicated feelings about Solaris

September 18, 2017

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.)

Comments on this page:

By Random at 2017-09-19 11:37:58:

Right there with you, except that I actually did admin Solaris 2 machines, from the first release through the point that I first left academia and system administration and then for several years even after I came back. We became uneasy with Sun and planned our current Linux way of doing things pretty much just in time for Oracle to take over and start, you know, being Oracle. So I feel good about our prescience, anyway.

Anyway, I've been in "end of an era" in sort of a gradual way ever since then as the pieces fell, one by one, and here goes another, and I'm not sure there are really any left at this point. It's a shame. They drove me crazy sometimes, but for many years "Sun sysadmin" was who I was and what I did.

(Trivia: some of my first MUD servers were running on Sun 3s running... SunOS 3.5, I think? Whichever was finally BSD 4.3-based network-wise so that they could subnet properly...)


By pkern at 2017-09-19 14:59:58:

Bits of trivia to reinforce Chris's point about our BSD-bias: we refrained from ever "upgrading" the 4/490 to Solaris 2, even though it would have been possible. We also extended the life of a pair of 3/280s by unzipping the 4.2-BSD-based network code from SunOS 3.5 and knitting in the network code from 4.3-Reno. One of those 3/280s was later drafted into being the very first firewall for the university financial system ( see "Filter" in http://eis.utoronto.ca/~securid-at-ut/time-line.html ). All the Sparc1s, Sparc5s and Sparc10s that we administered remained at SunOS 4.1.4 until they were replaced with Intel boxes running a free OS (or BSDi).

Written on 18 September 2017.
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