In these days of Linux ubiquity, it is easy to forget that there are commercial Unix implementations on the market, of which one of the longest-running is Sun's Solaris. Although a chargeable, commercial product for business, Solaris is in fact available for free to non-commercial users and to developers who want to write applets and applications for the Solaris platform. Despite a rocky period in 2002 where it looked like Sun was about to ditch the version of Solaris for Intel 80x86 processors, the product lives on and is now at version 9.
When you download Solaris x86, the mandatory bit comes as a set of three ISO CD images – one installer disc and two more with the OS code itself. There are some additional downloads such as language packs and the documentation CDs, along with some PDFs with the CD labels on if you feel the need to have authentic-looking CDs,
You boot the computer from the installer CD and it takes you through a text-based setup process where it detects your hardware and asks you about the video controller and monitor (which are important, as the latter parts of the installation are done under the X-Windows GUI system). Although you can partition the hard disk to your own requirements, it didn't work properly for us (when we told it that we didn't want the first partition to be the 'swap' partition, it kept giving us weird errors when we told it where to put the partition) and the 'fdisk' partition management application isn't as friendly as some we've come across (you can specify partition sizes as a percentage of the total disk size or as a number of cylinders, but apparently not as a number of megabytes!). In most cases, though, you'll generally just tell the installer to partition things as it sees fit, and everything worked fine when we did so.
Once you've done the basic configuration, it's a case of choosing the type of install you want (from a basic user's desktop to an 'install everything' server) and then letting it copy files from the CD. In our case this took just over an hour, after which a quick reboot brought us a working Solaris server.
Once up and running, and assuming you've got video hardware that it'll work with, Solaris uses the Common Desktop Environment user interface – a flavour of X-Windows that's common between the x86 version and the SPARC version. It takes a bit of getting used to because, like every windowing system, some of the options are different, but it's very usable and it has loads of useful stuff like virtual desktops (you can have four separate screens full of stuff by default), easy shortcuts to common applications, and GUI-driven mechanisms for stuff that would have been command-line-only in the past (mounting floppies, for example).
The list of software that comes by default with the system is impressive, and includes most of the stuff you'd expect for a Unix server OS. So there's the Apache Web server, BOOTP/DHCP, support for CORBA object management, loads of GUI-based administration tools, miscellaneous networked file system support (including NFS and Windows filesharing, courtesy of SAMBA), DNS, News server, e-mail transport (Sendmail), Sun's proprietary message queueing system, the obligatory Java development and runtime software, XML/XSL libraries, the list goes on. There's a load of other stuff that you'd expect for desktop/laptop users, too – multimedia, the Netscape 7 Web browser, PCMCIA card support, printer clients, power management PPP dial-up drivers and secure shell terminal programs. There are some omissions, not least the GCC compiler family, but this is no surprise since Sun sells its own C compiler (so it's unlikely to ship a freebie competitor with Solaris) and, anyway, a pre-compiled binary package of GCC is only a 50 meg download
The main Achilles heel with Solaris x86 is its abysmal support for modern hardware. It was unwilling to recognise the video hardware in our DNUK Teramac server, which is the best part of two years old (and whose motherboard, with built-in video adaptor, is a bog-standard Intel one). Then we had to muck about with our second machine because Solaris was unhappy with the NetGear FA311 network adaptor – though the third-party driver we found on the Net worked just fine. It's a shame Sun hasn't made more of an effort with its hardware compatibility list – although I keep all manner of antique hardware in the lab, that's not the kind of kit your average punter is going to want to run their corporate Unix server on.
In summary, then, Solaris x86 is a stable, robust Unix-family operating system with proper after-sales support which perpetuates Solaris' reputation for being an effective platform for network and Internet applications.
If ease of installation is more important than a commercial reputation or vendor support then one of the free Linuxes (Mandrake or Fedora) would be a good choice; if the opposite is true, Solaris is a serious alternative to the commercial "enterprise" Linuxes on the market.