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Sun boosts OpenSolaris on Atom

Long way to go to beat Linux

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Intel has announced that the OpenSolaris variant of Unix is now better supported on its Atom processors.

The Atom support is being positioned to bring the joys of x64 computing to netbooks and other low-power computing devices, and it offers some of the best performance/watt in processing these days.

Sun Microsystems, which largely steers the OpenSolaris effort and will use the distro as the basis of the next generation of Solaris, wants to be among the greenest of IT vendors. It also wants to find a new niche for Solaris, as Linux has done superbly on netbooks this year.

So, Atom support is important for Sun, even if it doesn't mean as much to Intel, which has done quite nicely for itself being a Linux zealot and helping its x64 partners sell against RISC/Unix iron.

Writing in his blog, David Stewart, who manages the OpenSolaris team within Intel's software and solutions group, which is predominantly involved in tuning Solaris for Xeon-class server processors, said that two important Atom features have been put back into OpenSolaris, which allows for drivers and other software to optimized to run on Atom. These features? Performance counters and support for the MOVEB instruction.

While these features seem pretty small on the face of it, the fact that Sun and Intel are working to get OpenSolaris working well on Atom chips means that Sun (or indeed, some other platform maker) has a better chance of creating Solaris-based embedded and consumer devices.

While Linux (of one sort or another) is the default platform for a lot of such devices these days, Solaris is well regarded, rock solid, and has the virtue of being a single distro (so long as you ignore some of the minor ones that have cropped up, such as MilaX, BeleniX, NexentaCP, and SchilliX).

OpenSolaris does boot on Atom-based systems, but sometimes requires some tweaks to the Grub loader to make it happen because it is checking for features that are not necessary to run in 64-bit mode on Atom that are on other x64 chips. If you are really bored, you can read about the bug and the workaround here. There are also issues with integrated network interfaces, too, which you can see here.

These kinds of issues are what made Linux support an issue on Mini-ITX machines that became all the rage a few years back and that, in part, has resulted in Intel delivering the Atom processors that the company hopes will displace x86 and x64 processors made by VIA Technologies and popularized in the Mini-ITX, Nano, and Pico platforms.

These VIA boards are getting smaller and more powerful, and they embody some pretty clever engineering, too. I have personally built and put into production Mini-ITX servers using laptop disk drives because of their low power consumption. But Windows works out of the box - believe it or not, even Enterprise Server 2003 and Small Business Server R2, which I have in production now on a bunch of machines.

While Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server has worked fine on these machines, the embedded BIOS-style RAID disk controllers don't work, which is a problem.

Small footprint, small start

In short, Sun has to do a lot more than get two key features on Atom chips working with OpenSolaris to be a viable alternative to Windows or Linux on any Atom-based platform. Getting the operating system to load is not as useful as having all of the features of myriad boards and systems fully supported in the operating system.

And, if Windows and Linux do a better job at this, they win and Solaris - open or otherwise - will lose. There are a lot of embedded systems and non-standard ATX and Micro-ATX motherboards out there using other processors aside from the standard desktop and server chips from Intel and AMD.

OpenSolaris support has to be broad as well as deep to compete, and with Sun not sure how to make money in its core markets, the company doesn't appear to have the dough to invest to make this happen.

And even if it did, it is not clear where the money is to be made in such devices. How much money has Sun made because Java is in cellphones and on hundreds of billions of desktops? See what I mean?

All that said, every new thing that the OpenSolaris community can make run the operating system run on is a good thing for the Solaris ecosystem. This is how Linux got to where it is today. One platform at a time. ®

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