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Illumos Aims to Free Oracle's Open Source Software

By Sean Michael Kerner (Send Email)
Posted Aug 3, 2010


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With Oracle having remained relatively quiet about its plans for OpenSolaris since it acquired the operating system -- along with the rest of Sun Microsystems -- concern has been growing among members of the OpenSolaris community about the project's future. With the future of OpenSolaris under Oracle unclear, a new effort aims to deliver an alternative to the popular open source software.

Those concerns have now led to community action in the form of the new Illumos project, founded to provide an alternative for those that want to use OpenSolaris technologies, including the ZFS filesystem.

But the project's supporters say their goal isn't necessarily to fork OpenSolaris. Instead, the Illumos project plans to create open source versions of OpenSolaris components that Oracle does not provide under an open source license, with the goal of creating a new open source ecosystem around OpenSolaris technologies.

"The OpenSolaris community seems to be in jeopardy, and my idea was that, rather than dwelling on the negative, I wanted to focus on something positive and get something done," Illumos project founder Garrett D'Amore told InternetNews.com.

While D'Amore is an employee at software vendor Nexenta, which uses OpenSolaris technologies as the basis for its NexentaStor storage system and the open source Nexenta operating system, he stressed that Illumos is an independent community project separate from his employer. Still, D'Amore did say that Nexenta will be among the early adopters of Illumos, with the plan being that a future version of Nexenta's OS and NexentaStor will be based on Illumos.

In the meantime, Illumos is also banking on other major users of OpenSolaris remaining interested in an answer for some of the questions now hanging over the operating system.

In particular, OpenSolaris includes components that are closed source -- a source of concern since Oracle has yet to reveal much about its plans for those components. That's where Illumos hopes to come in, delivering open source versions of those closed source components.

Already, the project has made some progress. Among the new Illumos open source components is a new version of the libc [C language] library for OpenSolaris.

"We have a fully liberated libc now," D'Amore said. "This is actually, in my mind, the single biggest impediment to opening up the rest of OpenSolaris."

For the time being, at least, Illumos is not an entire operating system distribution, but rather a set of components that can be used as part of a full Illumos-enabled operating system. Nexenta takes a similar approach with OpenSolaris today, using components of the former Sun technology in combination with components of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution to create its own operating system distribution.

The ultimate goal, D'Amore also said, is for Illumos is to become a drop-in replacement for OpenSolaris, so that if an application runs on OpenSolaris today, it will run with Illumos as well.

Not a Fork of OpenSolaris -- Yet

Despite the Illumos project's aims, D'Amore said that his intention is not to create a fork of the OpenSolaris project -- at least, not initially.

"We will track the Oracle project and we will, at some level, attempt to get our changes upstream," he said. "We will also guarantee that all of our changes will be accessible to Oracle, to integrate from a licensing perspective as well."

This plan, however, is already encountering some resistance: D'Amore said that he has attempted to contact Oracle about Illumos, but added that so far, the database and server giant has been unresponsive.

Oracle did not respond to request for comment from InternetNews.com by press time.

As a result, though the goal of the project initially is not to fork OpenSolaris, one may in fact be inevitable, considering that Oracle and Illumos are likely to have divergent priorities.

"The intention for our project is that for as long as Oracle is going to support the code base, we're going to try and keep aligned," D'Amore said. "Does that mean we won't have changes? No, obviously we will have changes. If we didn't, there would be no point in our project existing. I also know that we will have changes that Oracle will probably not want to accept."

He also said that what is right for Oracle may not necessarily be right for the Illumos community. As a result, he added, the two will just have to find a way to coexist.

In addition to its relationship with Oracle, there are a number of other challenges that D'Amore said the Illumos effort will face. One of its biggest is ensuring that interest level in the project remains high as the effort evolves.

"The only thing I can imagine that would be bad is if Oracle does something that changes the nature of OpenSolaris so much that people will wonder whether the codebase makes sense anymore," D'Amore said. "But even if, hypothetically, Oracle were to shut down OpenSolaris today, there is already enough interest in the codebase that it will live, thrive and, hopefully, grow."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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