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Sun's Linux killer shows promise

Solaris 10 on x86

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Once we got Solaris 10 running, we discovered that we had no audio device. Actually, we did literally have one, and a very popular one at that: an SBLive card. We installed Jurgen Keil's driver (a nice, installable package) which came highly recommended, and immediately found that we had an audio device after all. We still had no sound, but we had an audio device, however dysfunctional, which was progress, certainly.

We had hoped to try the OSS drivers at 4front in time for this report, but they've been unavailable.

And this brings up the single largest weakness in Solaris 10, which we're hardly the first to report: the sore lack of device drivers. If one has got to struggle with common hardware such as Linksys NICs and Sound Blaster cards, then we have a level of user friendliness here reminiscent of Linux about six or so years ago. With luck, the Open Solaris project will generate the enthusiasm needed to get people contributing, and since there are plenty of open-source Unix (i.e. BSD) drivers already in circulation, the task might not be too formidable.

This is an area where Sun's commitment to the x86 project, and the extent to which it intends to build a community around it, will show. It has one obstacle already: its license is not GPL compatible, so that means that there's a fair amount of open source stuff that it can't use. It has another: even its most basic support plan, which involves little more than free online updates, costs money. It's hardly expensive, certainly, at $120 per year per socket, but Linux vendors give away this level of support for free. If Sun wants hobbyists contributing, then they'll do well to give very basic support like online updates to non-commercial users. (We note that security patches are available for download and manual installation at no charge, however.)

More stuff than you'd expect

Solaris 10, nice as it is, comes with a lot of goodies. The default browser is Mozilla, a fine choice, although Firefox and Thunderbird could be included as options, and made available from the desktop menu.

The default mail/calendar application is Evolution, which is hardly my own favorite (Kmail is my choice). Still, I could live with it if I had to, except for two minor issues in Sun's version of Evolution mail that need to be addressed. First, you can only mark unwanted memos for deletion. You must then choose Actions ==> Expunge or hit Ctrl+E to make them go away. When a person deletes something, it usually means they don't want to see it any longer; thus it should be possible for the user to choose the action: mark, move to trash, or fully delete.

More importantly, it's impossible to force the preview pane to display memos in plain text. While it is possible to prevent fetching remote images, the only way to avoid attached/embedded images that one might not wish to see (or might not wish youngsters to see) is by blocking HTML rendering altogether. It's also nice to know that e-mail scripts can't run.

Solaris 10 and Express come with a large number of open-source applications and utilities, available from the Solaris 10 companion software CD, which you will find installed in /opt/sfw/. They ought to be listed on the desktop menu, so that users don't need to hunt for them, create launchers, manually add them to their PATH, etc., and one hopes that this will be addressed soon. But there are some very popular offerings familiar to all Linux users. To name but a few: Bash, GCC, Emacs, jDictionary, Python, MySQL, CVS, Gimp, Ethereal, Snort, Wine, Squid, Apache, and yes, even KDE, although not a full, up-to-date edition, sadly. Those with the patience to download and install a more recent edition might check out the KDE on Solaris Web site. There is also a mailing list devoted to KDE on Solaris.

PDFs are handled by the Gnome PDF viewer, a useless piece of junk, we're sorry to report. You'll need to download and install the Adobe Acrobat Reader yourself - when it becomes available, that is: SPARC only for the moment, we're afraid. Meanwhile, those using KDE can enjoy its PDF viewer: a rather weak item to be sure, but not hopelessly broken, at least.

Popular items pre-configured and available from the desktop menu or desktop icons include Star Office, Mozilla, the Gimp, Gaim, and Evolution. There are, of course, many other packages, although the number of those present but not listed in the menus is too long.

There is a GUI admin interface called the Solaris Management Console (launch it from the command prompt with the command smc). It does about one fifth of what YaST-2 can do, but it is useful nevertheless. You can get general system information and performance data, view logs, view and edit users, set roles and rights, browse networks, examine and configure mounts and shares, and observe processes. We noticed that if one selects a process, and it quits while its individual information window is open and the Console attempts to refresh, it will hang for up to two minutes. So you might want to set your refresh interval to a couple of minutes, instead of the default 30 seconds.

There are a few peculiarities that will take a bit of adjustment for most Linux users and admins. The default shell is the Bourne shell, but you can get Bash merely by typing bash at the prompt. No problem there. There is no /root directory, which means that all of root's stuff piles up in /, which is hardly a major problem, but perhaps not the best thing for organization. Still, it would hardly turn me away from using Solaris. A number of configuration files have different names or are located in different places, and this will take some getting used to. For example, after doing a default installation with automatic partitioning, I was curious to see how the file systems were set up. So I went to look at /etc/fstab, couldn't find it, and wondered where on earth it could be. After a bit of fumbling I discovered that it was indeed in /etc, only it was named vfstab. This sort of minor difference will throw one initially, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of things. And because networking needs to be set up manually, users will become intimately familiar with the contents of their /etc directory in short order.

Next page: Closing the gap

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