Wednesday, December 10, 2008

First Look: NexentaCore OS

Recently, I read about NexentaCore, a new experimental operating system that seeks to merge the functionality of a Linux user environment with the OpenSolaris OS kernel, supporting the ZFS file system. I downloaded NexentaCore, currently at version 1.01, and tried it out using VirtualBox.

While I found it strange that the CD ISO image of the NexentaCore OS was packaged inside of a zip file, it posed no problems getting the software.

NexentaCore had a fairly slow startup, but the installer was very nice once it got going. Partitioning is handled automatically (or manually, if the user would prefer doing it that way instead). After setting up the root password and a single user account, the system is ready to go.

NexentaCore is not a full desktop-oriented distribution with an OpenSolaris kernel. Rather, it is a pure command line environment more suited to server applications. As the name indicates, the distro includes only the "core" operating system, with none of the extras included with other alternatives (GUI, extra software, etc.).

GUI support could be installed if a user wanted to take the time to manually set it up, but a command line environment is fine for managing a server. NexentaCore would be a great OS to run headless and manage through SSH (Secure Shell).

NexentaCore struck me as an OS with more customization potential than alternatives. Users can start out with the essentials and then add the tools that he or she needs, without introducing excessive bloat. It represents a better approach than starting with a general-purpose server OS and then having to strip it down to only what is necessary.

All essential command line GNU tools (cp, mv, ls, vim, etc.) are available out of the box, so using the operating system felt like working on a typical Linux console. Despite the GNU tools, I found nothing immediately obvious to suggest a relation to Ubuntu or even Debian. Although the developer states that it is built on an Ubuntu base, I thought NexentaCore had a very generic feel when I was testing it.

NexentaCore's main strength is the presence of the extremely useful APT package management system. This wonderful tool (also found in Debian and its derivatives) will download a package, fetch its dependencies and set it up with only a single command. With this tool, I was able to build a working virtualized server stack in only a few minutes, comparable with a conventional LAMP (Linux + Apache + MySQL + PHP or Perl) server but with OpenSolaris instead of Linux.

This ease of deployment, combined with native support for the excellent ZFS file system (something that still requires FUSE on Linux) and trimmed-down footprint would make NexentaCore a viable option for server deployment scenarios when it becomes more mature.

NexentaCore could still use some improvement. The installation process took a long time to start, and, even after being installed, NexentaCore took several minutes to boot. I was not expecting excellent performance in a virtualized environment, but NexentaCore was still slower than my Linux virtual machines. I also noticed that the boot process produced no output. While that's not a problem in and of itself, it is inconvenient because many system administrators prefer watching each process load to make sure it starts correctly. However, these setbacks are fairly minor and in no way inhibit the usefulness of the OS.

If you want a lean and mean server OS, give NexentaCore a try. The OS can be downloaded here.

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