These few days of working with the Nexenta GNU/Solaris distro have shaken my assumptions. Richard Stallman has repeatedly pointed out that Linux should be called “GNU/Linux”. I think he’s right, but it’s an unlovely and unwieldy mouthful; Like many people, I’m guilty of just saying “Linux”. Unfortunately, that word has come to mean different things to different people, and the landscape is shifting underneath us. I think we need to get our terminology straight. And what was it that GNU stood for, again?
“Linux” for Real People · The population of nontechnical end user types who sit in front of Linux boxes is small, but a lot of people are betting that it’ll grow. Those people, by and large, think a kernel is what you find on a corncob. If you had to crystallize their end-user experience of Linux it would be something like “The browser’s great, email and chat are good; on the other hand I miss Outlook scheduling and the office suite isn’t quite as slick, and Acrobat is lame. There are lots of games I can’t play. But it’s nice and fast and I never ever get viruses or worms and it doesn’t mysteriously slow down. Having multiple desktops is nice. And are we ever saving money!”
Which is to say that once you get out of geek circles, “Linux” more or less means some combination of Gnome + Firefox + OpenOffice + Gaim + fast + reliable + cheap.
GNU/What? · I’d hoped by now to have something profound to say about the differences between Ubuntu GNU/Linux and Nexenta GNU/Solaris. But from the point of view of someone doing some software development and browsing and chatting and image editing, all on a really fast computer, well... there aren’t any.
Even with Nexenta still in alpha, I bet that if I sat down a few hardened Unix geeks in front of my Ultra and asked them to do something that involved some webbing and mailing and coding, quite a while would go by until they realized that Something Was Different. And I bet I could keep non-geek “Linux” users fooled indefinitely.
Kernels Matter · Of course, Solaris and Linux are quite different beasts, and in ways that matter (if perhaps not that much to the end user sitting there banging text into Thunderbird). Let’s see if I can assemble a high-level non-exhaustive list of the differences between Linux and Solaris (assuming of course the “GNU/” prefix) that I’ve actually personally noticed myself. I make no claim that these lists are exhaustive, but they are, once again, based on personal experience.
Runs on more different computers.
Supports more devices.
A lot of software gets ported here first.
Decent support for plugging things in (USB, external screens, whatever) and having them Just Work.
SMF is better than the aging, clumsy Linux init stuff.
ZFS is a really good way to manage your disks.
DTrace is a huge observability win, so you’ll be ahead when you run into performance problems.
Bear in mind that all of these are things that really only matter to the developer or the sysadmin; or I suppose to management, because they’ll have dollars-and-cents implications.
I don’t know which kernel is “faster” or “more reliable” and I don’t think anybody else does now or will soon, because those questions only really have answers in the context of a particular workload. In my experience, both Debian and Solaris boxes stay up more or less forever.
What Do We Call It? · So you’ve got the combination of a Solaris or Linux kernel with a mish-mosh of GNU, Mozilla, OpenOffice and other random software, and calling it “Linux” or “Solaris” is misleading. I think Sun could legally ship something like this under the name “GNU/Unix”. Which would be concise, descriptive, accurate, and funny. (Because GNU stands for “Gnu’s Not Unix” and Solaris, after all, is.)
I was chatting this over with Simon Phipps and he suggested that GNU could stand for “Gnu’s Now Unix”. [Stop snickering! -Ed.] Oops, incoming missiles from Cambridge, scrambling for cover...