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It's official -- Sun goes public with Solaris 2.6

SunSoft pushes subscription model, ease of use and focuses on new markets

By Robert McMillan

June  1997
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San Francisco (June 11, 1997) -- Today, Sun will formally announce Solaris 2.6, a release which seems most significant for its performance improvements and marketing strategy rather than for any specific new feature (though there are quite a few, see sidebar). Sun is boasting some hot numbers in terms of database and Web server performance as well as I/O throughput. And the new version of Solaris, which according to one Sun spokesperson, is now "the product formerly known as Solaris 2.6," marks the beginning of a subscription-only sales emphasis that revolves around all Solaris users being sent regular, incremental updates of the OS.

Sun appears to be drifting away from the x.x nomenclature so common in the software business. Sun's marketing materials tend to avoid the "2.6" moniker, choosing instead to call it "the Web-enhanced release" in the apparent hope of making the product seem somehow simpler while at the same time stressing a new, subscription-based sales model.

Since late March of this year, SunSoft has been offering one-year "automatic upgrades" of Solaris via its Get Current/Stay Current program. After paying a flat rate (currently a one-year subscription costs $300 for desktop and $700 for application server Solaris) subscribers are periodically shipped a CD containing upgrades and patches to the OS. Sun says this makes things nice and easy for administrators because the scheme ensures that they receive all relevant patches and updates -- all tested by Sun's own engineers.

But Sun clearly hopes that the release of 2.6 will make subscribing the de facto method of purchasing Solaris. In July, two year subscriptions will become generally available, but already Sun has begun offering two-year subscriptions to Solaris for $130 in bulk orders (100 or more licenses). More details on its two-year pricing are expected in July. (See editors note below.)

Steve MacKay thinks that subscription-based pricing will catch on. By the time Solaris 2.7 is ready, in the second half of 1998, he predicts that the subscription model will dominate and "the whole concept of the next major release will not mean what it once did." It will be replaced, presumably, by a continuous stream of incremental upgrades.


The "J" word
Ed Schaider, a vice president with the Standish Group says that Sun, like other Unix vendors, is beginning to "Mac-ize" its operating system. "What we have is a group of Unix providers all trying to make this Unix engine, which has served them so well, more palatable for John Q Average."

Web Start Click image for expanded view

To that end, Sun has put the Web Start Java interface on top of Solaris in the hopes of making the Solaris installation process more user friendly. Web Start can also be used to set up a Solstice Jump Start server, which allows administrators to configure a number of Solaris boxes on the network at once. Sun has also switched the format of its AnswerBook help product from PostScript to HTML.

A third ease-of-use initiative, announced today, is an application binary interface test suite, called appcert. Sun is making this software available free of charge to ISVs or in-house developers who want to test their applications for compatibility with new versions of Solaris. Sun Group Marketing Manager Kuljeet Kalkat says "the goal here is if you run this thing it will give you a little print out of all the calls that the application made and will tell you if you are using any APIs that are not in the published list" for Solaris.

And to make Solaris easier for those making the purchasing decisions, MacKay says that Solaris will soon be sold in a more modular fashion, with four "modules" planned as add-ons to the core Solaris desktop and server environments. The first of these modules will be a workgroup add-on -- to be announced next month. This will be followed later this year by an enterprise, desktop, and Internet module -- the latter targeted at ISPs. The desktop module for desktop Solaris may seem counter-intuitive, but Sun says that this will probably be some kind of "power desktop" for high-end workstations requiring things like "more Javatized graphics and imaging."

The origins for this emphasis on ease of use can, of course, be traced back to Redmond, WA. "Microsoft makes a lot of noise about how Unix is hard to use, Solaris is hard to use," says MacKay, but he thinks this criticism will be silenced "as we roll out our workgroup server stuff in July." By flogging a "workgroup" version of Solaris, Sun is hoping to compete with not only NT, but Netware and OS/2 as well.

Brian Croll, director of Sun server software products, maintains that the new modules, coupled with the gradual extinction of the version number, will actually make things easier for administrators. "Rather than increasing the number of units our customers will have to deal with, we're decreasing it." Croll points out that the number of items on the Solaris price list has decreased tenfold with the new version of Solaris. "We believe that this is much simpler."

Solaris 2.6 -- beyond the marketing
The performance claims in Solaris 2.6, taken with a grain of salt at the best of times, are significant. Sun says that Web server performance has been clocked at 3.5 times the speed of Solaris 2.5.1. The HTTP daemon and sockets have been re-done and are now able to use the multithreading capabilities of the Solaris kernel. I/O has seen an 80-fold increase due to changes in UFS (Unix File System), which, through a feature called direct I/O, can now bypass buffers when handling large amounts of data. Java performance is supposed to be about three times faster than before, thanks to some work on the JIT compiler, and database performance, a space where "we took some tough lumps in going to Solaris 2.0," according to MacKay, has seen a 35 percent boost in performance.

Another important enhancement is larger file support. Files of up to one terabyte can now be supported on UFS. Sun says that this will increase when its file system increases from the current 40-bit architecture to 64 bits sometime in 1998.

The bottom line, according to MacKay is "if you're interested in a 35 percent database performance increase, you should upgrade. If you want large file support and easier installation, you should upgrade."

Ian Batten, a systems engineer with Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe Ltd., has been beta testing Solaris 2.6 for months now. According to him, "it's not some stunning new thing that is going to make everyone fall over and go wow," but the OS is solid and "the networking code is better than it was under 2.5.1." He says, "the main reason I would argue for going to 2.6 is that it would be more solid," adding that "the Java stuff is significantly better, without a shadow of a doubt." And the JDK 1.1 is good "to the point where HotJava is usable."

Batten was also taken by the improvements in Web server performance. "Sun has historically lagged on their ability to service repeated Web server requests. Now it is class leading," he explains. And because his shop uses a predominantly X-terminal environment, the Web version of AnswerBook is a "huge win" on the interface and interoperability level.

If there are any significant bugs in Solaris, Sun's beta users weren't talking about them. In fact, there was a kind of calm uniformity to the comments from most administrators: "no bugs," "it appears to work," "no surprising incompatibility" are typical of comments about the product. Batten says he had a problem with a third-party FDDI driver, but that was it.

The product formerly known as Solaris 2.7
MacKay did say a few things about the next major release of Solaris if it can still be called a major release. "Solaris 2.7" is due sometime in the second half of 1998 and will be delivered gradually in subscription form. It is expected to include elements of the Java commerce platform, the ISP module, single system image capability, and support for full 64-bit applications.

IDC Research Manager Jean Bozman says that Sun's gradual migration to a 64-bit system is necessary because, as with other Unix vendors, "they don't want their installed base to be overwhelmed by 64-bit." She points out that vendors still believe that the "vast majority of applications in the next few years will be 32-bit applications."

According to one beta user, who asked not to be identified, Sun has literally said, "we're not going to do like DEC and give you a 64-bit operating system and puff! None of your applications will work." He lauded Sun's gradual approach to 64 bits, saying it has been successful, at least with Solaris 2.6, in maintaining backwards compatibility.

Solaris 2.6 is expected to ship on August 18, 1997, according to Sun.

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Solaris 2.6 new feature list

Some of the 100-odd Solaris 2.6 new features include:

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