Sun Microsystems announced at the end of March that it has distributed more than a million licenses for the Solaris 10 operating system that it released in late January.
The latest release of the company's flagship operating system is a crucial one as Sun battles to retain an eroding customer base, and hopefully appeal to new users who may not have otherwise considered the Solaris platform. The company has included a number of system-administration features that it claims are not available in other operating systems; it has broadened support to include AMD's and Intel's 64-bit x86 platforms in addition to its own SPARC chips; and it has made the operating system available for free, with optional annual support contracts available for purchase.
In a statement, Tom Goguen, vice president of Sun's operating platforms group, said that overall interest in Solaris 10 — which so far has averaged about one download per second — has "exceeded our highest expectations." But what level of interest is the company seeing from the bioinformatics sector?
According to Loralyn Mears, Sun's segment manager for life sciences market development, the company is "seeing two interesting things. One, people who had never previously supported Solaris are starting to look at Solaris 10 now because they've heard a lot of buzz about it, and how it can help them." Secondly, she said, "People that were previously very focused on only supporting Linux are now taking a hard look [at Solaris 10]."
As Apple has demonstrated with the growing popularity of its Unix-based OS X in the bioinformatics sector, providing users with a flexible operating system can generate — or renew — interest in a hardware platform. But as with any new operating system, software vendors are often a key gating factor for widespread adoption. Several of Sun's bioinformatics partners have begun porting their software to Solaris 10, including Geospiza, Incogen, Gene-IT, Rosetta Biosoftware, and Accelrys. Most of these are still early in the migration process, but the initial reactions from those vendors who are well underway were positive.
The port of the Finch software to Solaris 10 "took well less than a day of effort, which is very, very unusual," said Len Bargellini of Geospiza. "If you look back over two or three years, it might have taken two or three weeks or even longer to port to a new operating system. And with Solaris 10 it essentially was [brought] up in the morning and by the afternoon we had completed the port and were up and running."
Tom Gould, team leader for Sun's life sciences market development engineering team, said that the company guarantees binary compatibility with previous versions of Solaris, "so binary that's been built for Solaris 8 or Solaris 9 and running on Solaris 10 gives you most of the benefit of Solaris 10." This should appeal to software vendors, Gould said, because "the biggest cost to an ISV is the software testing that has to take place, and it's a substantial barrier. When you have an existing piece of software, a given release, and you have to test it again, that's a substantial effort of manpower for just supporting yet another platform."
Solaris also plans to offer binary compatibility with applications written for Linux. This functionality, which the company has dubbed "Project Janus," is still listed as an "upcoming technology" on Sun's Solaris 10 website.
Jason Miller of Incogen said that aside from some "minor issues" with the server-side installer for the company's VIBE (Visual Integrated Bioinformatics Environment) software, the port to Solaris 10 went smoothly. One "hurdle" that Miller did mention involved the Linux binary compatibility, although he ceded that the problems may have stemmed from "misreading some of [Sun's] marketing material." Miller said that Incogen plans to support Solaris 10 x86 for the server-side version of VIBE, which had previously run only on SPARC.
"Looking at all the ISVs that we deal with, the majority are either in progress or have committed to moving to Solaris 10 within the next few months," said Mears. "So as far as general availability and when the floodgates will open, I think by the summertime you're going to see a lot of the ISVs, if not the majority of the ISVs, say they offer support for Solaris 10."
Miller said that Incogen plans to release VIBE 3.1 for the server side within a month, but VIBE 4.0, which will support Solaris 10 x86 for the client side of the application, is several months away. "It should happen this year, but we haven't nailed down that date yet," Miller said.
"We're ready to deploy it to customers today," said Geospiza's Bargellini, although he added that the company will let "the customers drive the deployment timeline."
Both Incogen and Geospiza estimated that around half their customers run Solaris, and both firms said that they are seeing interest from end users in the new operating system. "We have a lot of questions about our plans to support Solaris 10 and we're communicating to them that it's part of our roadmap and pathway and we plan to support it," Bargellini said.
What's Under the Hood?
Sun is touting a number of new features that it has added to the new operating system to differentiate it from previous versions of Solaris — as well as from Linux and competing versions of Unix.
One feature of the operating system that should appeal to developers, according to Sun's Gould, is a performance-analysis and -diagnosis tool called DTrace, for "dynamic tracing." Gould described the tool as a set of "probes" that developers can use to troubleshoot the operating system itself, as well as applications that are running on it.
"In the past, people would use a debugger to look at their own applications," Gould said. "Debuggers are great tools, but they're pretty intrusive. They modify the behavior of the application that they're observing." DTrace, he said "modifies the application less than other tools."
Joe Slagel, chief software architect at Geospiza, said that the company has found this feature to be very useful so far. "This provides a great platform for us to be able to measure how the Finch Suite is performing on a server at both a customer site and internally for our internal benchmarks. It allows us to do profiling of the application so we can identify where the performance bottlenecks are."
Another feature that Gould identified as being of interest to life science informatics groups, called Solaris Containers, allows system administrators to set multiple "zones" within the operating system that are configured for different applications and different user groups.
Many organizations have separate development machines, test machines, and deployment machines, Gould said. With Solaris Containers, "you could share your development and your test machine. And each user, or each group, would think that they have their own machine to themselves, and they could install software and do all kinds of things that require root privilege."
The advantage of this, he said, is lower hardware costs. "Instead of having to buy multiple systems to meet peak demand for each group, I only need one system that can meet peak demand for either group and know that the times when they're in conflict, when they require more than that, are few and far between."
Another feature, although not yet available, is called ZFS, for zetabyte file system, which creates a "pool" of storage drives that enables more file system flexibility, according to Gould. This feature will be included in the first update of Solaris 10, but the company has not disclosed a release date for the update.
Gould said it should be some months before life science software applications "hit the streets in volume." One barrier, he said, is that many life science customers "have a dependency upon Oracle," which has not yet announced availability for Solaris 10.
Geospiza's Bargellini agreed. "A majority of our enterprise customers do run on Oracle-based systems, so that may be a barrier today to rapid adoption."
Susie Stephens, senior product manager for Oracle's life sciences group, told BioInform via e-mail that the company is "currently working on Solaris 10 certification, so it should be a supported platform shortly."