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The LXF Guide: OpenSolaris distros

A few months ago we looked at OpenSolaris, Sun's effort to get the community involved in its Unix flavour. Now Susan Linton explores some of the spin-off projects that have popped up, including MilaX, Belenix and Nexenta...

OpenSolaris is the much talked-about open source version of Sun's industrial strength operating system. It's a Unix derivative aimed at the same general demographic as Linux or the free BSDs: system administrators, developers, and desktop users. Under the guidance of Debian founder Ian Murdock, OpenSolaris has taken its place alongside Linux and the free BSDs as another viable alternative operating system, and has built up support for 12 languages. It offers commonly used software as found in Linux such as Gnome, Evolution, Pidgin and Firefox. In addition, OpenSolaris includes graphical config tools such as the Device Drivers utility and Package Management suite - the latter having a look and feel that's not alien to Synaptic users.

OpenSolaris 2008.11 was released two months ago and initial reports are positive. Gnome has been updated to 2.24 and Firefox is currently 3.0.4. The interface sports attractive and useful visual enhancements as well.

Much like with Linux distros, OpenSolaris has been used as a base for several derivatives. Each seems to target different demographics and purposes, so one just might be right for you. We're looking at the biggest three here.


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MilaX is a small Live CD that began life as an experiment much like Damn Small Linux. The goal was to see just how much OpenSolaris could fit into a mini CD; the project then grew into a real distribution and development is active. Still small, it features light applications such as JWM, Beaver, Gtk-Terminal, Vim, Netsurf, Sylpheed, Midnight Commander, emelFM, XMMS, Xpdf, VNC viewer, Rdesktop, Nmap, gFTP, gPicview and Conky. Package management is handled at the command-line with pkgadd, pkg-get and IPS pkg. Its small size makes it ideal for a portable rescue system, high-performance OS, or an everyday OS for older computers. In addition, its creative wallpaper and hip window decoration make it easy on the eyes as well.


BeleniX is an installable Live CD with the stated purpose of allowing users to boot and test OpenSolaris in less than 2 minutes. In comparison to today's standards, that's a bit slow. However, developers claim it offers a wider variety of software than one finds in stock OpenSolaris. The latest version was released in July 2008.

Version 0.7.1 offers users a choice in desktops when booting. You can choose between KDE 3.5.9, Xfce, KDE with Compiz, or Xfce with Compiz, which also utilises proprietary graphic drivers. You're treated to the Tasty Menu, nice 3D effects, and lots of great applications. Some of the applications include Amarok, JuK, XMMS, digiKam, showFoto, Firefox, Thunderbird, LBreakout2, and all the usual KDE applications.

It's easy to see why this is the most popular of the OpenSolaris derivatives - anyone could feel right at home in this capable system.


First released in June 2005, SchilliX was a fast flexible system aimed at developers and resourceful users. It has been updated and improved over the years, despite being maintained by only two developers. The latest version, 0.6.7, was released in July 2008, but was kept rather quiet. It was based on the newer OpenSolaris Nevada Build 86 and added support for more hardware. It comes as a Live CD, but can be installed onto a hard disk or USB memory stick. The environment may be a bit more sparse than most are used to – but for minimalists it'd be ideal. It comes with Xorg, TWM, some X apps, and most command-line tools one might need.


NexentaCore is based on the OpenSolaris kernel and Debian GNU/Linux applications, featuring popular software and the APT package management tools. The latest stable release was in June 2008, but development is active and developmental versions are released periodically.

Nexenta is delivered as an installable system, but informs the user if there might be hardware issues before beginning the actual installation. Unfortunately, it seems there is only one install option: automatic partitioning - destroying all existing data. No fiddling with filesystems or package selection makes it easier for new users. The remaining install is just as easy with only input needed for the root password, user account, and networking options. But then in startling contrast, the first boot drops the user straight into a command line. Nexenta features APT for package management, yet doesn't offer KDE, GNOME, Xfce, or any other window manager in the pre-configured Nexenta repositories.

All in all, because NexentaCore is designed as a base system on which to build a bigger OS, we shouldn't be too disappointed that it doesn't offer much in the default installation. It's a good concept that will progress with more development.

Parting thoughts

OpenSolaris has been advanced by offerings like MilaX and BeleniX. Indeed, MilaX and BeleniX offer wonderful user-friendly out-of-the-box desktop environments suitable for just about anyone. Other offerings are available primarily for server and development platforms or those that prefer to build their system for themselves, such as SchilliX and Nexenta OS.

It's fantastic to see development flourishing in the wider OS world beyond Linux, and there has never been a better time to broaden your Unix skills and try something new.

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