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Solaris vs. Linux: Framework for the Comparison

by Dr Nikolai Bezroukov


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9. Conclusions

Am I the only one to see that Torvalds and other open-source software revolutionaries are acting out the finale of George Orwell's Animal Farm?

-- Bob Metcalfe, InfoWorld

The term describes the manner in which our negative feelings are sometimes directed at people who resemble us, while we take pride from the "small differences" that distinguish us from them.

Narcissism of small differences - Wikipedia

As we saw during our discussion, business decisions about which flavor of Unix to use are always compromise and much depends on the goals of particular organizations.  Acquisitions further complicate the picture. Often the key goal in OS area is to minimize the total cost of ownership (TCO) across the several types of Unix flavors used in a particular large enterprise. As Steve Ballmer noted it is the TCO that matters most:

"The way you beat any other competitors: You offer good value, which in this case means good total cost of ownership, right? Because total cost is really, at the end of the day, the issue. And the fact that, quote, Linux is open source, therefore it appears to have a zero price -- that actually made it easier to shine a spotlight on the thing that always mattered anyway, which is total cost.

The major finding of the paper that might help to determine the right compromise is as following:

The total cost of ownership is highly correlated with the number of flavors used: increasing the number of Unix flavors used in large enterprise often results in increasing total cost of ownership of all platforms independently of which flavor of Unix you are adding:  Solaris, Linux or something else.

Please note that I am talking not about cash-strapped universities, start-ups or firms located in developing countries. I am talking about making decisions in the environment of more or less well to do (although now far from being flush with money) -- large US enterprises.  Also it is interesting to note that this point is one of top selling points of Windows: with all its shortcomings,  there is not equivalent to "Unix hell" in Windows world. Here are some additional points the sum-up the content of the paper:

  1. Due to modern Unixes overcomplexity a regular sysadmin and/or OS developer has a strong preference for a single ("loved")  OS and defend it against all other OSes  independently of its real or perceived advantages / disadvantages. In this sense the treatment of Solaris by Linux camp  represents a perfect example of Narcissism of small differences  -- the tendency to exaggerate the dissimilarities of those who resemble us in an effort to buttress our own self-regard...  Most Linux advocates has little real-life experience with other Unix platforms.  In a way this situation resembles academic conflicts for which the following saying holds true  "academic quarrels are so vicious because the differences are so small".
  2. Along with the development community Linux movement was and is a political movement.   The simplest and the most convincing illustration of this thesis is the treatment of AIX vs. Solaris. Any non-drunk system administrator with AIX experience knows that this is a very idiosyncratic flavor of Unix that stands farther from linux that any other commercial Unix. Still not without help of IBM marketing and IBM money, AIX is billed as Linux friendly OS.  For those who never administered AIX, AIX does not even implement normal run levels -- you cannot change run level to 0 or S to get to system maintenance mode, there is no such thing (the guy who wrote init man page for AIX has perfect sense of humor: he dryly stated that those levels are "reserved for future operating system expansion" ;-).   Level 2 is standard and for all practical purposes the only run level used by AIX.  There is no standard syslog daemon running in default configuration. Many commands are unique to AIX and some ( a lot ;-) were introduced with a regular IBM sadistic addiction to adding useless or slightly different commands. And so on and so forth.  In a way AIX is in the same way POSIX compatible as Windows is POSIX compatible. And yes, Windows with Interix installed is a POSIX compatible OS.  Let's stop at this point.
  3. Enterprise OS mix behaves like an ecosystem and side effects as well as complexity of the task of adding yet another flavor on Unix in a large enterprise environment (be it linux or Solaris) should not be underestimated. Those side effects tend to eat into savings. Proliferation of unix flavors increases sysadmin overload and lessens the quality of each individual environment as workforce became spread too thin and lack critical mass necessary for acquiring and improving knowledge. With large overload the situation became more about survival then about quality. Even with huge cost-effectiveness of Intel Duo CPUs killing one of existing flavors of Unix in organizations which use more then two flavors usually can save more money than adopting a new one, be it Solaris on Intel or Linux.  Cost and tradeoffs typical for excessive diversity of Unix environment are typically ignored in simplistic calculations of benefits of linux adoption (or any other new flavor if Unix adoption). Such calculations often ignore hidden cost of adding another flavor of Unix to the existing mix.  
  4. Excessive complexity of modern OSes leads to "lowest common denominator" style of deployment in large enterprise environment; the more flavors are used, the less customized and less productive deployment of each and every flavor is. In case all flavors of Unix are used (not uncommon situation for many large enterprises) each flavor is used in the least productive fashion.   The mere fact of presence of several flavors of Unix almost guarantees that some of the most interesting and unique capabilities of a particular flavor of Unix will not be used.  Some can be poorly understood and thus underutilized (RBAC, zones, flash archives, jumpstart, ZFS in Solaris, rpm packaging, bash 3.2 debugger,  rsync, loopback mounting, expect, partimage, Kickstart, YAST programmability  in Linux). Many features are typically disabled or misconfigured (built-in firewall,  RHEL SELinux, SUSE AppArmore,  Xen,  snapshot capability of linux LVM,  etc).  Typically the most advanced usage of OS can be observed in mono-culture and dual-flavors environments. Dull, absent of any ingenuity, basic deployment style is a rule in any environment with more then two flavors of Unix used.  That significantly increase TCO both directly (lower productivity of equipment and people) and indirectly (acquisition of packages and hardware with the explicit goal to tame the excessively diverse environments)
  5. Enterprise linux flavors are in all dimensions very similar to proprietary software and generally suffer from the same weaknesses (and first of all overcomplexity) with some (instability) even more pronounced.   Promises have been made. Assurances have been given. Commitments have been published. But far less has been delivered. Linux became just another operating system choice, a clear case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for. It is clear that in some more important in my view aspects linux in technically inferior to Solaris 10, while in others less important aspects Solaris 10 is inferior to enterprise linux flavors.  But in no way linux can claim technical leadership. It's more or less successfully is following tailgates of proprietary Unix flavors (and not only Solaris).  Stability of enterprise linux distributions is definitely less then stability of Solaris 10 and other major commercial Unix flavors (AIX 5.3 and HP-UX 11i).  Linux distributions are rather bloated, complexity of the kernel is high, regression testing is limited and sometimes errors including kernel errors can be introduced during regular patching process due to the update of the kernel or particular important subsystem.  "Blue screen of death" due to driver problems are not uncommon with the only differences from Windows that at the time of the crash linux kernel often is unable to display even the  panic message.  Server simply froze.  Patching in linux is more dangerous process then in Solaris 10 and for critical servers, whenever possible, should probably be limited to the minimum subset of security patches.  Due to stability problems linux should preferably be used in applications were redundancy is built-in in the design (DNS, SMTP mail, web servers, etc). 
  6. Qualification of sysadmins are more important factor in stable running of Unix flavors then the chosen flavor itself. It is reverse proportional to the number of flavors that particular sysadmin needs to service. Like there is no replacement for displacement, there is no substitute for sysadmin qualification and neither Solaris not linux can fly well and do not crash without experienced pilots.  High qualification can be achieved only if sysadmin is responsible for no more then two flavors of Unix. The diversity of Unix flavors in a large enterprise environment should be tightly controlled and "counter proliferation" efforts should be an important part of any sound enterprise datacenter policy. If introduction of linux increases the diversity it generally makes infrastructure less cost efficient, not more cost efficient.

    This is connected with the fact that the complexity of modern OSes had risen to the level when it is almost beyond the capability of single, even very intelligent, person to understand them. Also OS themselves represent a moving target (linux to more extent then Solaris or, AIX, or HP-UX) with new versions arriving at regular intervals.  Due to this top level admin skills can be acquired only after many years of hard work. Forget about people claiming to be "experienced system administrators" with just one or two years of administrator work under the belt, unless they are former programmers with multi-year experience on the same OS. Even for a capable person out of college it takes three-five years to obtain a couple of certifications (say Red Hat and Solaris) and learn the scripting languages (say bash and Perl) on the level necessary to perform as a senior level administrator.  Due to the level of variety between different Unix flavors sysadmin skills are to considerable extent Unix flavor specific and that's why usually people tend "naturally" concentrate on a single ("loved") Unix flavor and dislike others (in addition one "minor" flavor can be learned reasonably well too).   Administrators with deep knowledge and passion for the particular Unix flavor currently used in the datacenter represent important part of the company intellectual capital, the capital that can be easily wasted in case of transition.  That actually might can help to explain such a persistent phenomenon as "OS nationalism" often demonstrated in discussions like Solaris vs. Linux as they usually pretty well resemble the style of USA culture vs. Great Britain culture (Canada or Australia can be substituted for Great Britain) discussions (you know both countries share the same language, don't they ;-).  Unix sysadmins who moved to a different flavor of Unix feel much like expatriates for several years as considerable part of their skills is Unix flavor specific and the higher qualification they have, the more heavily it is based on deep knowledge of this "specialized", flavor-specific  part.   For administrators with almost a decade of experience in a particular Unix flavor under the belt, to quote  Linux Torvalds, switching from administering one OS to another is not unlike “performing brain surgery on yourself”. This is one of the major reasons why adding any new Unix flavor to the large enterprise Unix mix usually does not provide for expected savings.

    From the point of view of sysadmin training Solaris and linux are the most compatible with each other and least toxic pair of enterprise Unix flavors available.

  7. It's important to distinguish price/performance benefits of Intel/AMD hardware from benefits of the new OS adoption.   Advantages of linux are too often uncritically mixed with the advantages of switching to Intel/AMD hardware and first of all its dramatically better (often twice or more lower)  price/performance ratio of Intel Duo CPUs in comparison with Itanium and RISC CPUs.

    While undeniable for AIX and HP-UX, those price/performance advantages of Linux are irrelevant for Unix flavors which can run on Intel X86 hardware like Solaris 10 and FreeBSD.

    At the same time any non Intel hardware has distinct advantages in security (via obscurity, which contrary to naive views is an extremely important factor) and, more often then not,  stability.
  8. Linux plays a tremendously progressive role at large enterprise environment as a counterbalance to strangulating IT bureaucracy.  Born as an alternative OS it still can live to its promise in this particular environment. It permits running small, "guerilla" projects and experiment with new technologies like scripting languages.  It also can lessen the negative effects of "pseudo-security" efforts of  "overzealous know-nothings" at desktop area.  Actually, in security area large enterprises IT should fear more from the bungling of the incompetent than from the machinations of the wicked.  In principle, Solaris 10 can play the same role, but it requires more efforts both in installation on corporate desktops and configuring the necessary software.

    Bureaucratization of IT has very positive influence on linux/Unix adoption, It significantly diminishes attractiveness of  "pure" Windows on desktop and stimulates adoption of "mixed" model with linux and Solaris virtual instances. 

    The litmus test of the level of bureaucratization is prevalence of form over substance and, as a side effect, rule of fashion and fads. In such environment logic does not necessarily prevails in discussions about the relative benefits of introduction of a new OSes. Aging IT bureaucracy like any other bureaucracy develops goals strictly related to self-preservation.  The more dominant are those self-preservation tendencies the more bizarre and damaging (from the point of view of common sense )enterprise IT moves can be expected,  the more politically motivated major technological decisions become ( misdirected SOX compliance efforts are a good example here ) and the less they care about you, the Unix administrator.  On the other hand the same bureaucracy in Windows space push the most technically astute users to the "Unixland" as bizarre and arbitrary limitations make it difficult to use Windows productively.  With Active Directory group policies available ( and actively abused ;-), Windows world more and more resembles mainframe world.  In this sense linux (and to lesser extent Solaris) serve a very positive and extremely important role in modern IT: the role of "freedom fighters weapon of last resort". 

  9. Due to the complexity (should I say overcomplexity ?)  of modern Unixes the value of Sysadmin  certification cannot be overestimated. Having certified in particular flavor of Unix administration for at least key administrators for the particular flavor is probably the most reliable way to  avoid rather painful errors and horror stories at the initial stages of introduction of any new flavor of Unix. For example, it is clear from the content of the paper, that the expertise in Solaris or AIX administration is not directly translatable into linux domain and attending one intro or "transitional" course is not enough -- such a bootstrapping approach and the idea of "growing sysadmin expertise with the system" might backfire discrediting the OS in question more then actual or perceived shortcomings.  At the same time linux certifications suffer from the same "multiple-personalities disorder" as linux itself .  Among vendor certifications Red Hat certification looks like more objective measure of skills and IQ then Sun's certification  (although I noticed several bad apples here too, it is more difficult to fake by memorizing the material without understanding it).

    Still Sun has an extremely good and largely deserved reputation in terms of quality of support, training and certification. In those areas it is superior to offerings from Novell or Red Hat although Red Hat has an advantage of keeping training "in-house" while Sun outsourced it and that negatively affects quality.  Novell currently is more democratic vendor as for training and certification in linux enterprise space (Red Hat has the most expensive training and certification options, expensive even if we are talking about large enterprise financial capabilities). 

  10. After almost twenty long years, the zeal to build a brave new OS is cooling. The leadership, from Linus Torvalds down to the lowliest kernel driver coder, seems more tired than inspired. The ruling "Linux elite" seem reluctant to make way for younger men. Cynicism due to "make money fast zeal" among the Linux elite during dotcom boom and maladministration of the kernel development further dulled the efforts. Moreover Linux kernel development efforts are spread too thin trying to encompass all the hardware spectrum from laptops to high end servers with just a fraction of resources at hand in comparison with Microsoft. The decision by Linus Torvalds to abandon stable branch of the kernel (previously with great success maintained by Alan Cox) and essentially delegate debugging of the kernel to distributors in version 2.6 does not help too.  That means that outside its major deployment area (low end servers, especially front end web servers) you should expect raw spots. Solaris on X86 is more suitable for midrange servers if and when corresponding applications are available. Solaris is a more focused on servers OS, although recently Sun brass also tried to position Solaris 10 to be "all things to all people" and repeat linux mistakes. In case you order Sun X86-based hardware you get an important additional advantage of using a single hardware and software vendor (which eliminates finger pointing), the advantage that is absent for any enterprise linux distribution.
  11. Contrary to hype, linux does not have advantages over Solaris in the development model. With opening of the code Solaris adopted the same model of distributed collaboration. And less democratic nature of Solaris development with the core concentrated at a single place might be more an advantage then liability. Large scale open source software development projects actually stimulates hierarchical power redistribution with the Great Chairman at the helm and less powerful but no less autocratic "members of Politburo" as the second level of hierarchy. This process of consolidation of power and emergence of elite long before linux kernel development saga was masterfully depicted in Animal Farm (as reflected in popular quote "all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal then others").  Like in fluids with certain concentration of salts this process of "crystallization of the elite" is an objective process that occurs independently of the will of the participants and their goals. Moreover reliance on faceless Internet-based communication might amplify some of problems typical for corporate environment and stimulate power struggle at the expense of real work.  Financed by consortium of hardware and commercial software vendors cooperative model used by linux (with the support of enthusiasts from many countries) demonstrated weakness of architectural vision which in turn leads to dominance of imitation at the expense of innovation.  Wrong choice of direction or changes that badly effect stability can propagate all way to the top pretty easily as seeing the whole picture is a difficult task even for the most devoted and talented developers.  With the current level of complexity of the kernel, developers, including Linus Torvalds, looks more like proverbial blind men and an elephant. 

    The traditional corporate model with more clear cut lines of responsibility (when a person can be hired for a particular important task or fired for a particular blunder), more concentrated presence of developers at one place, partial suppression of "vanity fair" motives by copywriting the work by faceless corporation and monetary stimulus like stock options might be not as bad as some open source enthusiasts try to depict it.  One of undeniable advantages is that communication between key developers can still be face-to-face.

    Due to the age of linux there is an inevitable problem connected with the forthcoming change of the leader, the change that is more problematic and painful that similar change for Solaris (where is already occurred with Bill Joy departure) or proprietary Unix teams.
  12. Solaris currently has more technically advanced kernel with much better instrumentation capabilities (due to DTrace and solid OS dump infrastructure) while linux has superior "external" personality.   Due to those advantages Solaris 10 is more suitable for deploying complex applications like databases and ERP systems (for example Oracle and SAP/R3).  Dump infrastructure in linux is primitive and buggy. Tracing also leaves much to be desired and far behind the capabilities of DTrace.  Due to better instrumentation with proper tuning Solaris 10 can achieve performance comparative or better then linux on X86 architecture.  This is especially true for complex applications like databases-driven Web applications. While linux is definitely fast, rumors about linux being significantly faster then Solaris 10 on Intel/AMD architecture are greatly exaggerated. Actually Solaris has performance edge over linux for applications that heavily use threads.  Availability of  enterprise applications might still be a problem for the adoption of Solaris 10 for X86.

    As for "personality" of OS linux beats Solaris: linux looks like more modern OS for administrators and provide them with a lot on non-trivial and important capabilities (better package management, YAST (which is now available on Red Hat due to Oracle porting efforts), loopback interface,  etc).

    As for networking Solaris beat linux: better implementation of NFS and other complex networking protocols, more flexible TCP-stack.

  13. On server level security side Solaris 10 has a substantial lead over any linux distribution and its security mechanisms are less disruptive for applications. Both RBAC implementation and zones are superior to mechanisms used in current linux distributions (with the possible exception of Suse AppArmor, which is a very elegant technology indeed).

    Solaris RBAC has tremendous value as a security mechanism perfectly suited for the large enterprise environment. In combination with zones RBAC represents a unique method of preventing "root sharing hell" by ensuring real separation of duties. Solaris zones essentially allows application owner to control it own lightweight virtual machine and as such greatly reduce conflicts in access control in Unix environment.

    Recently Solaris RBAC also became one of few ways to channel large part of SOX compliance efforts in a constructive way and limit the negative influence of "SOX socialism" on large enterprise IT environment. For RHEL 4 no amount of hardening can match the security of Solaris with applications running in zones and well structured RBAC "separation of duties". Suse AppAmor is an elegant technology and does has promise, while RHEL security infrastructure suffers from overcomplexity and due to overcomplexity actually is the weak spot of distribution (cases of systematic switching it off in production servers are not rumors, they are fact of life).  This fact, combined with the necessity (and dangers) of more frequent patching for linux means that maintaining the same level security of servers on linux servers will always be more expensive for large enterprises then maintaining the same level of security on Solaris 10 servers be it X86 servers of UltraSparc servers.  Of course here like in most other areas the qualification of staff  is more important factor then differences between those two OSes.
  14. Compatibility record of an enterprise OS matters and historically Linux has far from being impressive compatibility record.  That does mean that this is a show stoppers as in enterprise environment servers are usually changed each three five years and that means change of the OS too, but still there are issues with abrupt changes that linux introduces via patching. Recently it became better (Suse is the leader in this area), but patching which leads to incompatibilities is a real problem in enterprise environment and that the most obvious solution (no patching ;-) has its own drawbacks.

    The second side of compatibility record is compatibility with windows. In a way both Linux and Solaris are niche players in the data center stuffed with Microsoft servers and applications and as such should more cooperate then compete.  In X86 space both are definitely riding on coattails of Microsoft as both the cost of X86 hardware and average specifications (including typical amount of RAM) on low and midrange are determined by Microsoft's share of the market.  From the point of view of X86 desktops and servers vendors like Dell neither linux not Solaris really matter. Large companies now decide about Solaris or Linux, not because they hate one and love another; but because of perceived risks, TCO and how well it will play with their Microsoft part of infrastructure.  That means that a good interoperability with Microsoft is vital and more cooperation between teams is essential.  After all old saying states that the enemy of my enemy is my friend ;-)

    And yest another side of compatibility record the danger of proliferation of flavours. It should be stresses that  Solaris does not have the danger of proliferation of flavors.  Even after Oracle bough sun Solaris remain Solaris -- a single brand of OS. This issue cannot be swept under the carpet as there is a real danger to bet on a wrong horse and later face the necessity to support two enterprise flavors of linux in one organization. The leading linux vendor (currently Red Hat) does not occupy very stable position (Oracle alternative support model really cuts into Red Hat profits) and can be eventually displaced by Novell Suse which enjoys some Microsoft support or (less likely) Ubuntu which is currently a rising star among linux distributions.  Red Hat already lost to Ubuntu a lion share of the market in linux netbooks. Suse has been tuning kernel for AMD for a few years (they actually wrote the GCC x86-64 back-end) and now enjoys support of IBM.  All-in-all internal linux fragmentation is the replay of old Unix wars and as such is an underestimated threat.   Few people believe that enterprise system administrators can benefit from remembering 3 ways of doing things, for example, changing resolution of the screen (one for Suse, one for Red Hat and one for Ubuntu).

    Just a threat of competing distribution winning at the marketplace over adopted in the particular company (say, Suse vs. Red Hat) somewhat creates serious disruptions and inconsistent policy as for "approved flavors list".  No amount of hype can hide the fact that the cost of switching from one flavor of enterprise linux to another is comparable with the cost of switching from one proprietary Unix to another: a very similar vendor lock-in and associated problems with re-certification of applications, partial retraining of administrators, etc.  No amount of Linus Torvalds interviews can hide the fact the linux is fragmented into two major enterprise flavors which can be viewed as competing OSes with common kernel.  If you do not understand the value of single version of OS please browse Windows evangelism documents starting from page 9.  While it is highly Microsoft-centric it's pretty instructive as for the role of single standard for the prosperity of ISVs. Note the knockdown of competitors with .NET recently achieved by Microsoft.

All-in-all Solaris is powerful, stable, conformant to standards OS that can run many open source applications as well as linux and some (mainly multithreaded applications) better then linux. Solaris 10 is probably the most close to linux flavor of enterprise Unix and as such is preferable in enterprise Unix flavors cocktails to AIX and HP-UX due to broader commonality of administration between those two OSes (which might increase even more due to recent Sun moves of created linux personality for Solaris and Oracle acquisition of Sun).
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