Should OpenSolaris Die?

After months of silence, OpenSolaris supporters have had enough and launched the Illumos project. Described as a "spork" of OpenSolaris, rather than a true fork, Illumos is a misguided attempt to keep the Solaris legacy OS alive for another generation. Too bad it's doomed from the start.

Software freedom means no project with a community will go away, so long as they have the means and will to sustain it. That’s usually considered a good thing, but sometimes it’s less of a feature and more of a bug. Consider, for example, the sad case of OpenSolaris.

Since Oracle gobbled up Sun, it’s remained mute on the fate of OpenSolaris. Attempts to get someone at Oracle to comment have been fruitless. I’ve spoken to Oracle PR and some of the employees on the community side about OpenSolaris and the responses have been both off the record and totally discouraging. To put it bluntly, Oracle seems to have put OpenSolaris out to pasture and won’t even do its community the courtesy of making it official.

So a hardy band of OpenSolaris enthusiasts led by Nexenta have taken up the banner and are trying to save OpenSolaris with the Illumos project.

It’s easy to blame Oracle for the sad state of OpenSolaris, and it certainly owns a share of the blame. But it was Sun that held the reins too tightly and built a community process that was too wholly dependent on a single entity. The state of limbo that OpenSolaris sat in during the Sun acquisition and Oracle’s subsequent silence afterwards was entirely predictable. OpenSolaris was entirely too dependent on Sun for development and resources.

Now it’s being reborn, and I’m not sure that’s such a great thing. OpenSolaris has always been a bad idea. Not to detract from the quality of Solaris — the operating system certainly has its advantages and surpasses my favorite OS (Linux, in case that wasn’t obvious) in some ways. But software freedom and community were bolted onto Solaris at the last minute as Sun was gasping for air and trying to remain relevant in the face of Linux. Sun folks, well ex-Sun folks these days, like to talk about how good Sun was to open source — but conveniently neglect the years that Sun fought open source and Linux kicking and screaming until it was too popular to ignore. OpenSolaris was not a friendly attempt to embrace community, it was a desperate attempt to remain relevant while Linux ate away at Solaris market share. OpenSolaris was largely an attempt by Sun to steer developers and companies away from Linux onto its turf.

Sun eventually did many things right with regards to open source, but the company was a poor steward of projects that it held. Sun retained far too much control and was far too fond of reinventing the wheel. Consider, for example, the decision to create yet another packaging system for OpenSolaris rather than just using Debian’s package system even though it had already been ported and was usable. Whatever technical advantages the new packaging system may hold, it’s hard to imagine that they would have outweighed the benefit of collaborating and improving an existing system.

Linux Won

That, writ large, is why it’s unfortunate that there’s an effort to revive OpenSolaris. Everyone would be better off if the Illumos/OpenSolaris folks would get on board and help make Linux and its ecosystem better. Parallel development of Illumos/OpenSolaris wouldn’t be too bad, excepting the nasty licensing barrier that Sun erected to ensure that interesting Solaris technology couldn’t migrate to Linux. As it stands, that sad state will continue. Worse, OpenSolaris still isn’t fully open source — so the Illumos folks are going to have to spend quite a few development hours just replacing bits that are already existent in Linux like internationalization functions of Solaris LibC and a lot of device drivers.

Granted, switching teams to Linux would be a big pill to swallow for folks with a long history with the Solaris family and an investment in OpenSolaris. But trying to bootstrap a successful community on top of OpenSolaris, which was not a particularly thriving community to begin with, seems like a Quixotian effort. No doubt it will continue to plod along, but the odds of OpenSolaris ever attaining critical mass are poor indeed.

Spare me the arguments that Solaris or OpenSolaris have this or that feature, or do this or that better than Linux. When geeks learn that technical superiority doesn’t count for squat when it comes to market adoption or long-term viability it’ll be a happy day indeed. OpenSolaris is Betamax to Linux’s VHS. Linux is superior where it counts: adoption, ecosystem, community, and diversity.

It seems to me that it’d be a better world for software freedom and free *nix in general if the Solaris die-hards sucked it up and helped work on Linux. Failing that, FreeBSD. Either way, it’d be an improvement over trying to “spork” OpenSolaris when the effort would be more effective elsewhere.

Ultimately, software freedom means that OpenSolaris fans can do whatever they want with the open sourced bits of Solaris/OpenSolaris. One could argue that an open project is successful so long as the users and community are happy, and there’s a bit of truth to that. But really? It seems futile to me. The odds of Illumos gaining any sort of momentum outside the existing community seem minuscule.

As a hobby effort, there’s no harm in keeping an OS alive as long as is humanly possible. But supporters of software freedom are always going to be hamstrung as long as there’s no willingness to throw in the towel on failing projects to join in on more successful ones.

Solaris had its day in the sun, so to speak. It will certainly live on in server rooms for another decade at least while Oracle wrings every bit of cash out of it that it can. But Illumos just seems to be prolonging the inevitable.

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