Whenever a company launches a new software product, it has to make sure that there's something (or, preferably, a number of somethings) new about it that will persuade users to move to the new release. Release 10 of the Solaris operating system from Sun is no exception. Currently available as a "preview" release, the list of new features does a decent job of keeping up with progress both in Sun's own architecture (notably grid computing – see later) and in the industry as a whole (for example, the up-coming 10Gbit/sec Ethernet standard).

Three platforms
The first thing you notice is that support for Intel platforms, which kind of fell off Sun's radar for a couple of versions, is right back on the mainstream development list. The x86 and SPARC versions are being developed in parallel - not least because Sun is now making more and more of its own kit with Intel processors instead of SPARC. There's also a third CPU on the list - the AMD64 - for those who want to stick with a CISC architecture but need 64-bit computing. As with previous versions, you'll find (or at least we did, when we tried the preview version) that although support for peripherals such as LAN adaptors and video cards is still less extensive than, say, most Linux distributions, the core features have indeed moved forward.

Don't leave me…
Top of the official "what's new" list is Predictive Healing. As you might imagine from the name, the idea is to identify potential problems before they actually happen and to stop using the offending component(s) before they cause the system to crash. Anyone who, like me, has been frustrated when the death of a CPU in an eight-processor server has brought the entire machine tumbling down will welcome this concept with enthusiasm - though to be honest it's a surprise that it's taken this long to arrive.

Going grid
Next on the list is "N1 Grid Containers". N1 Grid is Sun's take on the Grid Computing concept (the idea of running your organisation's computer systems as a single amorphous blob instead of a collection of discrete computers). N1 Grid Containers allows you to have a number of "virtual computers" within a single instance of Solaris, with each of these entities independent of the others - to the extent that you can even reboot one virtual computer without affecting all the others that are running under that specific version of the operating system.

More security
One of the inevitable issues with moving to a virtual computing architecture is security - as you extend the "computer" outside the metal box and across the network, the security aspects of the business become more critical than ever. Sun therefore lists a number of security enhancements among Solaris 10's new features, at a number of levels. At the user identification level there's now support for smart cards, while at a lower level, access control has been extended to individual processes (as opposed to merely computers, applications or files). Unsurprisingly, the introduction of the new N1 Grid Containers feature has an associated bunch of security extras, so that individual processes, running under separate virtual computers on a single instance of Solaris, aren't able to interfere with each other.

The need for speed
The ongoing speedup in computer systems, combined with the extra complexity brought by features such as the N1 Grid stuff we've already mentioned, motivates the introduction of the last chunk of new features - faster running, plus analysis and troubleshooting tools. The "faster running" aspect of Solaris 10 is some tuning of the networking functionality so that it can keep up with connections up to 10Gbit/sec, though clearly the ability to stuff bits down a network card depends on rather more than some clever network libraries. The heart of the new analysis and troubleshooting facilities is Dynamic Tracing, or DTrace, a pile of low-level system parameter inspection libraries that you can use to drill into any aspect of Solaris' architecture and run-time information.

Preview version
Although Solaris 10 is yet to be launched, Sun is offering a preview via its Solaris Express programme. This allows you to download and try the new features of Solaris 10, albeit not in a proper "supported" release version as yet. You'll need an existing Solaris licence in order to try out the new version, but these are cheap at $99 for the desktop version of Solaris x86 version 9.0, or free (if you qualify).