Whither OpenSolaris? Illumos Takes Up the Mantle

For the installed user base of the former Sun Microsystems’ OpenSolaris OS, questions about its continued support and development remain largely unanswered. When Oracle bought Sun Microsystems, it raised fees for its technical help and halted further development on OpenSolaris, replacing it with its own Oracle Solaris 11.

Enter the Illumos Foundation, which created a fork of the OS and is gearing up to continue its development. Illumos developers see strong interest in the project as it gains momentum.

An unexpected outcome of the Illumos Project could be the birth of a modified business model for open source. The Foundation is focusing on a collaboration of developers pursuing their own interests related to the Illumos OS platform.

“In essence, Illumos did more than create a fork of OpenSolaris. It took a sharp left turn. At issue is Illumos created its own version of OpenSolaris. That presented questions and concerns about its interoperability and compatibility with the existing user base,” Laura DiDio, Principal at ITIC, told LinuxInsider.

Fork For the Taking

Oracle completed its acquisition of Sun Microsystems in January 2010. The general impression at that point was that OpenSolaris was dead, noted DiDio.

“Oracle inherited 40 percent of the user base of Sun’s OpenSolaris customers. The new owner was logically looking for a 60 percent increase,” she explained.

The clear mission plan for Oracle was to build the user base for its own Solaris derivative. If Oracle could have killed off OpenSolaris from the start in pursuit of its own closed OS version, it would have done so, surmised DiDio.

“The trend for Oracle with OpenSolaris has been downhill. User comments are very devastating,” she added.

Fork in the Making

On Aug. 3, 2010, Garrett D’Amore announced the formation of the Illumos project. He is the senior director of engineering at Nexenta Systems, a major sponsor of the project.

His announcement called it a community effort by some core Solaris engineers to create an open source Solaris by swapping closed source bits of OpenSolaris with open implementations. At first, the project name took two parts.

“Illum” from the Latin word for “Light” and “OS” for “Operating System.” Illum OS almost immediately morphed into a single word spelling Illumos.

Regardless of how the founders decided to spell their OS derivative, Illumos is not really a fork of OpenSolaris. According to Bill Roth, Vice President of Marketing at Nexenta Systems, it is more a continuation of OpenSolaris.

Solaris Namesake

In what may seem little more than a pea pod shuffle, the shakers behind Illumos, see their efforts as taking the OS in new direction. That direction is much more than a fork that parallels the main software roadway.

“We are a main line. We’re continuing where OpenSolaris left off in the guise of Solaris,” Roth told LinuxInsider.

Nor is the organizational structure a foundation, he noted. The founders are in the process of getting organized. The structure is essentially a 501c6 trade organization entity, he explained.

“We’re just finishing our basic framework. We’re putting together a board of directors,” he said.

Code Colossus

At issue is the trail of builds that led to separating open source from not-so-open code in OpenSolaris. For example, In 2006, Sun open sourced the kernel of what it called OpenSolaris, but that did not include all of its code.

“The principal reasons for not releasing all of the code is that bits of it were owned by companies that went out of business. Solaris Nevada Build 27 was open sourced,” Jason Hoffman, the founder and head coach at Joyent, told LinuxInsider.

When Oracle bought Sun, the buyer had no big interest in maintaining it as open source. So Joyent decided to pull out all proprietary drivers and code and replace them with open source to make a 100 percent open source version of what was OpenSolaris. That became Joyent’s SmartOS, he explained.

Illumos as a kernel project has several very solid distros that serve different purposes built around it. For example, some distros are designed for desktops. Other distros are designed to run appliances or servers.

More of the Same

Several distro makers did the same thing in developing spin-offs of Sun’s OpenSolaris. For example, Nexenta’s distro is Illumos.

“The Illumos Project is where we aggregate all of our kernel changes. So we are a distro based on OpenSolaris 11 the same way other Linux distros build off an existing product such as Ubuntu,” said Hoffman.

The way the definition of fork is applied is sensitive and matters greatly. Hoffman and Roth make that a clear distinction.

“It is a fork of the open sourced OpenSolaris 11. Saying it’s a fork of OpenSolaris is like saying someone forked Ubuntu. At Sun some parts of the open sourced kernel still weren’t open sourced,” said Hoffman.

Open Source Anew

As the Illumos Project gears up to gain more traction, onlookers see a different perception. The Illumos community is not a peace, love and open source community. Rather, it follows a new model for open source, according to Roth.

“One thing we learned during the recession of 2008 is that open source can only continue when there is an underlying economic need for it to proceed — for the simple reason that programmers need to eat and food costs money. So doing stuff for free doesn’t necessarily keep one’s children fed,” he quipped.

The Illumos project now is a series of businesses all collaborating. Project participants are continuing the CDDL model with a unique difference compared to more traditional communities.

“We follow the mainline code and have to contribute it back. But we are adding our own intellectual property as a value add. We are firm believers in the open core model. At the core is Illumos. At the core is open source,” he explained.

Going Great

Roth pegs the success of the Illumos Project’s creation on several major strengths. Diversity, continuity and an economic base sustain the community.

“Our progress is going better than expected. We haven’t experienced obstacles yet that are out of order. We are working with about 20 different vendors to develop the code. On the technical side things are working well,” he said.

The community is succeeding around a set of economic entities that are working towards their own interests yet are collaborating. So far there is no overlap. All collaborate on what is core to the community, according to Roth.

To-Do List Done

The Illumos Community moved the development of the code much further than Oracle has done within Solaris 11, Hoffman said. For instance, there are more than 1,000 bug fixes in Illumos that will never be in OpenSolaris because of the closed code Oracle kept in there.

Now Illumos is a fully functional hypervisor to run as a virtual machine that competes with any product on the market. Joyent made that improvement to the OS and gave it back to the community, he added.

“One of the things we still have to work on is drivers for new products. This is a great example of our community working together to get what we all need,” said Roth.

How Secure Is Obscure?

Whether Illumos is gaining traction is still up for debate, according to DiDio. Illumos became a haven for those who do not like Oracle and were much at odds with the company.

“Illumos can have a good following. It is small but very committed with very strong devotees who don’t give up easily,” DiDio said.

The continued success of Illumos could come down to a marketing battle, she believes. OpenSolaris users have a core product.

“There is an opportunity for Illumos. Will they have the budget for the kind of marketing needed to attract a user base?” she suggested. “The biggest problem Illumos faces is it needs to be more noticed. They have taken a big turn away from the accepted core or root of what OpenSolaris was. Have they gone too far afield?”

Brand Name vs. Niche

Part of a future success formula will be the ability to attract converts from Solaris. How many people looking for an alternative to OpenSolaris know about Illumos, DiDio wondered.

They also have to figure out how to reach out to traditional OpenSolaris users who will otherwise move to HP or IBM solutions. In short, OpenSolaris customers need to know how difficult it will be to switch and at what cost.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Illumos. The community must capitalize on visibility through marketing. They need to illuminate on Illumos,” DiDio said. “If the niche is too small and customers’ needs are too great, then Illumos will fail.”

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.


  • i have been useing OpenIndiana which has the Illumos under the hood for while. It was very easy to install on a laptop and desktop systems. It has the Gnome desktop, found the wireless card & nic., i think i had the fetch a new firefox but i have to it do that with any machine.

    as a tinkerer i became interested in the, Zone, smf, & ZFS features that it offers. The ipkg software management was also neat to encounter. as a user of the gnulinuxes and the bsds it is a little bit of a adjustment but well worth it.

    i could not believe how easy (with a little reading) setting up a amp stack in zone is. i had a few of these going and still could surf. the Illumos/OpenIndiiana in my experience fast,stable, and extra awesome. Keep up the great work please.

  • I’ve been messing around lately with SmartOS, which is Joyent’s hypervisor built on illumos. Pretty cool so far, but illumos is certainly a whole new world compared to Linux.

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