Thursday, September 25, 2008

If Solaris dies, will Linux stagnate?

In a story posted on the New York Times titled "Is Sun Solaris on its deathbed?",
a rather one sided view of Linux vs Solaris is presented. The casual reader might be
inclined to agree that Solaris is in trouble, but if it is, what does that mean for

By and large, most open source projects exist to provide a free alternative to some
commercial product that you must pay for. Linux started out as a free Unix-like operating system when you had to buy Solaris, never mind whether or not it ran on a PC.
If you look at the length and bredth of open source software, it is incredibly hard to
find something that was done first there or where open source innovation led commercial

Lets analyse this for a bit. In the commercial sector, you need to come up with new ideas and new features to woo the customer into paying for something new or to convince the customer that your product is better than the other one.
In the open source space, many of the contributors work on something that they first
see in a commercial product - i.e. the Linux equivalent of Solaris' DTrace.
If Solaris hadn't of brought the world DTrace, would Linux?

If I stop and think about the flow of ideas between Linux and Solaris, it is hard to
see anything new that Linux is doing that OpenSolaris wants to follow.
The best that seems to happen is someone in Linux comes up with a better way of doing
X. If I expanded the set of operating systems to include AIX and HP-UX, there may
indeed be very very little innovation in Linux. And that should scare Linux.

And that leads me to the title of this blog entry: if Solaris and the other Unix-like operating systems die, who will Linux be left to copy? If Linux is thereafter left to innovate on its own (something that it hasn't seemed able to do
in 15 years of existence, so far), will it happen? Or will it simply flounder and stagnate because the real innovation that it has relied on to copy has disappeared?


matthew sporleder said...

Great observation! Adding colored output to a copied solaris tool doesn't make it better. (in fact, it makes it a lot worse for scripting)

lorenzo said...

Indeed an interesting point of view. But bare with me for a moment, and follow me on my train of thoughts: to me, innovation is not a straightforward process. It's more like the sum of the need to control newer hardware and to provide a robust, scalable environment (kernel space innovation, let's call it) and eye candy for the user interface (userland innovation, shall we?). I know it's Not That Simple, but be patient for a minute.

This to say, most commercial Unixes had kernelspace innovations due to the need to provide a robust environment for servers. Other commercial OSs focused more on userland. Linux had to catch up with either -- while they were already running, fueled by money to pay full-time developers.
It took linux 15 years to barely catch up with some of those, and the results are not that stable in every area. Nevertheless, right now Linux is at par with some of the old UNIXes.

Sure, this race has been fueled by different motivations (open source drive, boredom, commercial Linuxes being bought and sold, PR work, etc) which intermingle into a single 'driving force' that pushes linux forward. And, as in every process involving humans, it's far from being perfect. However, measuring the achievements only under the spotlight of innovation does not give justice to the amount of work done.

To get back to the point, I think that if Solaris dies Linux will have to (first) catch up with where Solaris was, perhaps recycling developers or code if a charitable fund will buy the intellectual property; (second) keep up with where the others are; and (third) work on their own way to innovate. Which so far hasn't led to much; but since linux developers have moved out of puberty and basements to become mature coders, I do believe there is a lot of potential there.

Because innovation is about people making it.