If Solaris was originally designed to run on SPARC hardware, and if SPARC hardware is where Sun makes its money, why would Sun support an Intel version? For starters, many more Intel systems exist in the world than SPARC systems. Sun also has a historical relationship with Intel, which supported SunOS 4.x for several 80386 and 80486 systems. At this point, however, Sun introduced the SPARC range of CPUs, which were the forerunners of the current UltraSPARC series. Intel-based systems are also suitable for workstation environments, and were (until the recent release of the Sun Blade 100) much cheaper than SPARC systems. Since Sun is primarily in the server hardware business, it made sense to develop a reliable operating system for Intel workstations that was supported by its high-end servers.
For many potential Solaris users, SPARC systems are still prohibitively expensive, even though these users want the features of the UNIX operating system. Often, organizations need to make best use of their existing investment in PC hardware. However, some PC operating systems may not currently meet their needs. While PCs have become the de facto standard for desktop computers, investments in PC-based solutions have sometimes met with dissatisfaction from users because some PC operating systems lack stability—particularly regarding application-specific issues, although operating systems have also caused concern. Some of the problems included the perceived lack of reliability of operating systems that were prone to crash during important business operations. Although Intel CPUs featured modes that should logically isolate such failures to the operation that causes them (such as protected mode), this requires operating system support that was never fully perfected by some vendors. In other words, PC hardware is up to the task, but operating systems have not taken full advantage of the PC’s abilities.
Perhaps more frustratingly, errors in existing PC operating systems could not be corrected by talented developers, because most PC operating systems are proprietary—in some instances, operating system vendors actually charged users to report operating system bugs, only refunding the charge if the bug was verified. In addition, frustration was often caused by so-called “standard” hardware, which often had incompatibilities with application and server software. For example, at the time when 80286 CPU systems were being touted as “IBM compatible,” most were using an ISA bus, while IBMs were actually using the Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) as the bus on their PS/2 systems. However, PC hardware has converged on a number of standards, such as the PCI bus, which have vastly improved the performance figures for data throughput on PCs.
There are some key benefits to using Solaris for Intel over SPARC hardware: For a start, “plug and play” devices are supported, meaning that explicit device configuration is often not required. In addition, you can get access to modern bus architectures like PCI without having to purchase an UltraSPARC system. This point relates to overall system cost: If SPARC systems are going to use PCI for the foreseeable future, why use SPARC when PCI is supported by Intel systems at a smaller cost? In addition, Solaris for Intel supports multiple CPUs, each of which are much cheaper in cost than the equivalent SPARC CPUs.
There are, however, some limitations to using Solaris for Intel. These may be specific to Solaris, but some relate to the architecture itself. For example, while some versions of Microsoft Windows support up to four Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics (EIDE) controllers, Solaris will see only the first two. Granted, EIDE disks and controllers are generally less favorable than SCSI-3 drives, but they do exist and they are cheap. In addition, support for the universal serial bus (USB) is still experimental, making it harder to add new devices that don’t use the serial port for connection. Many new modems also won’t work on anything but Windows (so-called “Winmodems”) because they rely on Windows to control the modem hardware rather than having a built-in controller.
Because Sun makes no direct revenues from Solaris Intel, the bottom line is that, with the growing popularity of Linux for the Intel platform, continued development of the Solaris Intel edition may receive less attention than the SPARC edition. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue to use Solaris Intel, though, because it is a mature and stable product. In terms of contemplating future server purchases, however, it might be wiser to go with SPARC.
The Hardware Compatibility List (HCL), which is available at http://soldc.sun.com/support/drivers/hcl/index.html , is the definitive guide to all hardware devices supported by the Solaris Intel platform. If a device does not appear in the HCL, it is unlikely that it will be supported under Solaris Intel—with some exceptions: motherboards, for example, often follow fairly loose standards, with clone boards usually working correctly under Solaris even if they don’t appear in the HCL. The most common compatibility issue occurs with video cards—many are not supported at all, or if they are, their full feature set is unsupported. For example, some video cards have hardware support for receiving TV signals. While their graphical rendering ability will be supported, the TV functions will generally not work with Solaris.
Fortunately, if your video card is not supported, it is possible to replace the X server provided by Solaris with the XFree-86 X server (http://www.xfree.org/). This server is functionally equivalent to any other server that supports the X11R6 standard, meaning that the common desktop environment (CDE) and all other Solaris GUI applications will run if you have installed XFree. The main advantage of using XFree-86 is that it supports a much larger array of hardware devices than the Solaris X server.
This section reviews some of the families of devices supported under Solaris Intel and examples of products that are likely to be supported. Most common motherboards are supported, including those developed by Acer, ASUS, EPoX, and Intel. Some examples are the Acer M9N MP, the ASUS A7V, and the EPoX EP-MVP3G. In addition, motherboard support has been established for many prebuilt systems, including the Acer AcerAcros T7000 MT, Bull Information Systems Express5800-HX4500, and Compaq Deskpro EN 6400. Many symmetric multiprocessing (SMP)-capable motherboards are also supported. No special configuration is required to support SMP devices—they are plug and play—and some popular models include the Dell PowerEdge 6300, the Fujitsu TeamSERVER-T890I, and the Gateway 8400.
Video cards from many different manufacturers are supported, including those operating from ISA, PCI, or AGP buses. Five display resolutions are supported:
800 × 600 pixels
1024 × 768 pixels
1152 × 900 pixels
1280 × 1024 pixels
1600 × 1200 pixels
Both 8- and 24-bit color are supported in all of these modes, depending on the chipset and onboard memory. Many cards are supported, including the ATI 3D RAGE, the Boca Voyager 64, and the Chips & Technology 65540. All multisync monitors are supported. However, the kdmconfig application used for setting up the display does not show 14-inch monitors in its selection list: in most cases, you will be able to use the 15-inch setting, as long as the frequency specified is supported by your monitor. Fixed-sync monitors should work as long as their frequency is supported by the video card at the resolution you require. Serial, bus, and PS/2 mouse devices are supported under Solaris. In addition, many third-party pointing devices are supported, including the MicroSpeed MicroTRAC trackball, the LogiTech MouseMan cordless, and the Kraft Systems MicroTrack.
In terms of SCSI host adapters, both standard and ultra-wide SCSI support is included for the most popular host adapters, including the Adaptec AHA-2940/2940W, AMD PCscsi, and the Compaq 32-bit Fast-Wide SCSI-2. Many Iomega Jaz/Zip devices are supported under Solaris, including the SCSI devices 2250S Zip drive (250MB) and the V2008I Jaz drive (2GB), as well as the ATAPI and IDE Z100A Zip drives (100MB).
Many different types of network adapters are supported, including 10-Mbps and 100-Mbps data transfer rates. Supported adapters include the 3Com EtherLink III PCI Bus Master, the Adaptec ANA-6901, and the AMD PCnet-PCI.
For laptops, common PCMCIA devices are generally supported, such as modems and network adapters, including the ATI Technologies 14400 ETC-EXPRESS, the Compaq SpeedPaq 192, and the Hayes 5361US.