Joyent launches a new OS for the cloud

Jason Hoffman

Joyent, the company behind private cloud software and the Node.js event-driven programming language, has open-sourced its cloud operating system. Called SmartOS and already utilized in Joyent’s public cloud and SmartDataCenter private-cloud software, it will be available via an open-source license much like the Joyent-led Node.js effort is, says Joyent CTO Jason Hoffmann.

Hoffman calls SmartOS the “only modern OS,” and the only new one developed in about a decade. In a conversation with me, he went through the details of SmartOS as well as the changes occurring in IT that merit a new operating system.

Regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of the offering, Joyent will be using SmartOS as part of its cloud buildouts for companies, including telecommunications firms; it is more efficient and more secure because it offers a container model. From the release:

Joyent is the only vendor that offers enterprises and developers the best of both virtualization worlds in a single operating system: One can employ hardware virtualization with KVM when there are operating system dependencies, and operating system-level virtualization when the language runtime is important, as in a Platform as a Service (PaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS) offering. With Joyent’s operating system-level virtualization, companies are able to host more users on a single server, realizing greater efficiency and increased revenue potential while saving on unnecessary hardware investments.

Because it is open source, anyone can license it if they like. Hoffman says Joyent open-sourced the OS because it was good, and Hoffman believes in offering high-quality tools back to the community and “making the world a better place.”

So what exactly is SmartOS? It’s an OS for servers akin to Windows Server or RHEL from Red Hat, or VMware’s ESX. Here is a breakdown of the OS package:

  • KVM Hypervisor: for abstracting the software from the underlying hardware
  • DTrace: for troubleshooting and systems monitoring
  • ZFS file system: to connect the servers to a variety of storage systems

KV-what? Just tell me why this is happening!

More than what it is, a more interesting question about this is, Why? While some might point to Android or iOS as entirely new operating systems, Hoffman has a more narrow view and is thinking in terms of servers and webscale applications. But Smart OS tries to build on that to take advantage of the virtualization hooks now built into chips and then looks ahead. As I see it, SmartOS could take advantage of the following trends:

  • A flatter network architecture inside the data center. By using ZFS, which allows data-center architects to connect a variety of storage to their servers, the Smart OS falls in line with those toward more commodity gear and less hierarchy in the data center. Where there was once a fine line between servers and storage, that line is blurring as companies want faster access to stored data.
  • Distributed compute nodes. The addition of DTrace helps sys admins see where issues might arise in their architectures when they are running SmartOS, and because they can see them, theoretically they can solve those issues quickly, making it faster and easier to build out distributed nodes.
  • The rise of embedded devices. SmartOS only requires 128 MB of RAM to boot, which means it can be used for a variety of smaller gadgets such as digital signs, set-top boxes and even high-end sensors. Looking ahead, having an OS that can work at both the data-center level and on sensors in the field enables a sensor-rich network.
  • The acceptance of virtualization. The KVM hypervisor aspect of SmartOS takes advantage of virtualization hooks that chip makers have been including in their silicon for the past few years. This makes it run faster and more efficiently. Other hypervisors also take advantage of these hooks but in their second- or third-generation versions.

Joyent launched SmartOS soon after VMware upset some of its customers by changing its VSphere licensing model. Although it changed the pricing in response to customer complaints, it’s possible that SmartOS could rise in popularity as folks become disenchanted with VMware, although there are still other options available. For more on SmartOS, check out the page dedicated to it.