OpenSolaris' child, Illumos, goes forward without Oracle

August 04, 2010 11:09 AM EDT

Nexenta, an open-source organization that's been trying to "combine the OpenSolaris kernel with the GNU/Debian user experience," has announced a new open-source effort called Illumos. Nexenta proclaims this "is a 100% community-driven and -owned effort that aims to provide an alternative to a critical part of the OpenSolaris distribution, freeing it from dependence on Oracle's good will."

Oracle's good will has been noticeably missing towards OpenSolaris. Oracle has essentially ignored OpenSolaris and paid no attention to the OpenSolaris Governing Board. Nexenta observed in their announcement that "Oracle has significantly reduced their support for OpenSolaris as a distribution." But according to Simon Phipps, Sun's former chief open-source officer and an Illumos supporter, this effort is not meant to be a fork of OpenSolaris,.

So if it's not a fork, what is Illumos? In a webinar on August 3, 2010, Garrett D'Amore, the leader of the Illumos project, explained: "Illumos is a derivative, a child of OS/NET, which is Solaris/OpenSolaris's foundation. The design is to make it 100% application binary interface (ABI)-compliant with OS/NET." Garrett previously worked on Solaris for Sun and Oracle and is now the senior director of engineering at Nexenta.

While not an operating system distribution in and of itself, Illumos is meant to serve as the basis for distributions. According to D'Amore, it's also "designed to solve the key problem of OpenSolaris: Not all of OpenSolaris is open source." For example, the libc_i18n, which is a component needed to build a working C library is essential for C programming in OpenSolaris — and it's closed source. In addition, the NFS (Network File System) lock mechanism, portions of the cryptography code and numerous critical device driver are not open source.

The bottom line is that, today, you can't boot either OpenSolaris or Illumos without Oracle's proprietary bits. D'Amore hopes to have that changed by year's end.

At the same time, D'Amore wants this descendent of OpenSolaris to not be like "Apple's Darwin and Mac OS X, where the core code is open, but the proprietary parts have made it impossible to create a real open-source version of Mac OS X."

The goal is to create a true open-source operating system under the BSD and MIT licenses with the CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) used as needed to stay ABI- and license-compliant with Oracle's Solaris/OpenSolaris. If Oracle will agree to work with this new operating system project, Illumos may eventually use a version of the Apache 2 license.

Yes, Oracle has been invited to join the project as a peer, but not as an owner or manager. The company, continuing its hands-off approach to OpenSolaris and related efforts, has not responded at this time to D'Amore invitation.

The OpenSolaris community and related companies, such as BerliOS, greenviolet and Joyent, are united in their support for this project. Phipps, a member of the OpenSolaris Governing Board, said, "It's exactly the right step to take."

Brian Cantrell, co-creator of DTrace and an important Solaris developer who's now Joyent's VP of engineering, said that since Sun was never able to make OpenSolaris 100% open source, it's not possible for Illumos to fork from OpenSolaris. "A fork allows people to innovate, to express their independence." But with OpenSolaris, while people had the right to fork, "they didn't have the power." While Cantrell doesn't want to exercise this power in Illumos, its creation does allow OpenSolaris/Illumos developers to "innovate, and this gives us the option of forking."

One thing none of these developers want is to pick a fight with the 800-pound gorilla that is Oracle. D'Amore emphasized, "Illumos is NOT a competitor to Solaris. Illumos would much rather co-operate with Oracle than fork away from OpenSolaris."

If Oracle does "turn off the tap" to the source-code and resources, D'Amore thinks, "Even if were to go away, with the developer ecosystem we have now, we have the critical mass to sustain the project ... [but] if Oracle does do this, then we would have to fork."

With or without Oracle, can they do it? The problem, which D'Amore admitted, is that there's a huge amount of functional code in OpenSolaris that must be re-created in open-source form before Illumos can even boot without proprietary bits.

The developers are also still working on a developer release, which programmers can use to work on the operating system. When released, this alpha version will run on i86 and amd64 hardware and VMware and VirtualBox virtual machines. Ironically, SPARC, Solaris' home hardware, will not be supported anytime soon Even with all these obstacles, D'Amore and his OpenSolaris/Illumos friends are optimistic.

I'm guardedly optimistic. Illumos does have the top Solaris programmers, such as D'Amore himself and Cantrell, to recreate a fully open-source ABI-compliant version of OpenSolaris in Illumos. But it's still a gigantic amount of work.

I suspect in the end, unless Oracle decides to come down on them like a ton of bricks, Illumos will become a real, working, open-source operating system. Given Linux's long lead in the same markets that would be interested in Illumos, it's hard to see Illumos becoming more than a niche operating system for a small, but passionate user community. Still, I wish them luck.