I got my start as a UNIX sysadmin using Solaris back in college, and I’ve been a fan of Solaris ever since. Where I work, there is often talk of Sun versus HP for large UNIX systems, and I am always a proponent of Sun’s systems, mainly because of Solaris.

Many people are quick to dismiss my opinion as a simple personal preference, thinking that since I’m more familiar with Solaris I’m basing my opinion on my emotions and not giving HP fair consideration. I have spent a decent amount of time on HP-UX, though, and I have created the list below to detail the reasons why I believe that from a system administrator’s perspective, Solaris is a superior operating system to HP-UX.

For the comparison, I chose relatively older but still very popular versions of both operating systems:

  • Solaris 8 (also known as SunOS 5.8 or Solaris 2.8), released in 2000
  • HP-UX 11iv1 (also known as HP-UX 11.11), released in 2000

To be fair, I have found many features of HP-UX that I am quite fond of and wish Solaris had. I’ve pointed those out below as well.

What HP-UX gets wrong

No shadow passwords by default. Shadow passwords are possible, but you have to turn them on after installing the OS. Not having these is a huge security issue, and HP turns a blind eye toward it by making the administrator fix the gaping out-of-the-box security hole.

No process-tracing program by default. Out of the box, HP-UX has no equivalent of the Solaris truss or Linux strace program to let you trace a process’ system calls. One is available (tusc), but it’s on a supplemental CD. This is an essential tool of any operating system, and should be available on every installation.

No /usr/proc/bin-equivalent tools at all. The Solaris /usr/proc/bin utilities are incredibly useful. There’s pstack to show you a process’ stack (for each thread), psig to see the signal handlers for a process, ptree to draw an ASCII chart of a process’ parents and children, and several others. Most of these aren’t tools you need all the time, but when you need them, there is no substitute. HP-UX has none of these.

Difficult to tell how much physical memory is installed. This came as quite a shock to me, but there’s no sure-fire, easy way to quickly see how much memory is installed in an HP-UX system. The most common answer I see to this question is to run dmesg and look for a particular message that was logged at boot time, but that doesn’t work your system has been up a long time. There’s a C interface to get this information, but no built-in command line utility. I eventually wrote a simple C program to return the amount of physical memory, but it shouldn’t be that hard.

Difficult to tell if you have a more recent version of a particular patch installed. Let’s suppose you hear about a security vulnerability in your OS, and the vendor has already released a patch. You want to check whether you already have this patch (or a later version of it) installed on your system, but this is difficult with HP-UX. With Solaris, the patch you’re checking for would be named something like 123456-02. Any later versions of that patch would begin with “123456-” and increment the last number, so it’s easy to see if you have the patch in question or later (meaning you don’t need to worry about the issue the patch resolved). With HP-UX, the patch you’re looking for would be named something like PHKL_12345, but any later versions of it would have completely different numbers. There’s no way to easily tell if you have a later version of that patch — all you can easily tell is if you have the version in question or not.

Can’t use @ or # characters in passwords by default. By default, the @ and # characters won’t work in passwords because /bin/login interprets them as kill and erase, respectively. Sure, you can fix this, but would you ever have expected this? Suppose you’re running a mixed environment, where the HP-UX systems use NIS or LDAP to use passwords created on another platform. Any users with these characters in their passwords won’t be able to log in. Maybe these terminal settings were useful twenty years ago when we used our UNIX servers to connect dozens of 80-character terminals, but those days are long gone, and this default is ridiculous.

Can’t tell what a device is from its hardware path. Maybe I’m just stupid, but I could stare at the HP-UX hardware paths for devices all day without realizing that 0/1/1/0.1.0 is a disk and 0/4/1/0 is a network adapter. In Solaris, those would be more like /devices/pci@1f,4000/scsi@3/sd@0,0:a for the disk and /devices/pseudo/clone@0:hme for the network adapter. These seem just as arbitrary at first, but there are clues in the pathnames: “sd” is the driver for SCSI disks, and “hme” is the driver for hundred-megabit Ethernet NICs.

No single command to shut down and power off. In Solaris, an init 5 will shut down and power off, and an init 0 will shut down and halt. HP-UX gives you only the latter, and if you’re shutting down a system for hardware replacement, your only choice is to shutdown -h, wait for the console message that says it’s okay to power off, and either physically power off then, or log in to the MP/GSP and issue the poweroff there.

The kernel must be relinked when tunables are changed. I thought we were past the days when you needed a compiler and some source code to make a tuning change to the kernel, but HP-UX isn’t. Where Solaris would just need an edit to /etc/system, HP-UX needs to update some header files and relink the kernel.

Kernel tunable defaults are not reasonable. The HP-UX defaults for lots of tunables look like they haven’t been updated in 15 years. For example, the default for the maximum number of processes any non-root user can have running (maxuprc) is 75.

Startup scripts belong in /etc, not /sbin. Most System V unices place startup scripts in /etc/init.d and /etc/rc?.d, but HP-UX puts them in /sbin/init.d and /sbin/rc?.d. If it was 20 years ago and we were having a debate about where the startup scripts should go, I’d vote for /sbin instead of /etc. But other vendors have been doing things one way for 20 years, and HP-UX could at least give admins coming from another flavor of UNIX the courtesy of a symlink. But they don’t.

Huge copyright message at every login. If you’ve never logged in to a HP-UX system before, you’re missing out — your login is greeted by a 28-line list of copyright messages. Every time. Is this really necessary? Somehow, I doubt Sun is jeopardizing their copyrights to Solaris by not assaulting their users with these notices dozens of times each day.

Syslog rotation is inadequate. HP-UX’s idea of rotating the syslog is to copy syslog.log to OLDsyslog.log when the system boots. That leaves you with not much logging at all if you boot your system frequently, or probably too much logging if you rarely boot your system. Now, Solaris 8 isn’t too much better at log rotation, but it rotates your syslog once a week and keeps four old copies in addition to the current one, so you always know how much log information you have. With HP-UX, you may have a little or you may have a lot. You’ll probably never know until you need some old information and don’t have it.

Sendmail configuration is painful. HP-UX doesn’t give you the m4 configuration files for sendmail so that you can use the m4 macros to generate a Instead, they expect you to hack directly. This is not the way sendmail is intended to be configured.

Load average calculations are different. In HP-UX, unlike Solaris, Linux, or just about any other UNIX, load averages reported by uptime are divided by the number of processors in the system, so that a load average of 1.0 means the system has as many processes in the run queue as it has processors. That’s all well and good, and it might even be a better approach than the other vendors, but once again HP-UX breaks with tradition and confuses administrators of other platforms.

You need a patch and special mount option to read a CD-ROM with RockRidge extensions. The ISO9660 filesystem format, used on CD-ROMs, limits the filenames to 8.3-character names. RockRidge extensions allow longer filenames and allow UNIX file permissions to be stored on the CD-ROM. HP-UX is the only UNIX I’ve encountered that doesn’t handle this format natively. Not only do you need a patch to support it, but you have to mount your CD-ROM with -o rr to read RockRidge extensions.

Swap volumes/files can not be removed on the fly. HP-UX lets you add a new swap volume or file while the system is running, but to remove it you have to reboot.

There is no /etc/nsswitch.conf. By default, there is no /etc/nsswitch.conf, and name service switch library uses compiled-in defaults. If you don’t want to use the mysterious defaults, just create a file of your own.

Manual device file creation for LVM. LVM is nice, but when I create a volume group, I really shouldn’t have to run mknod myself and stick a device file in /dev/vgxx.

What HP-UX gets right

Believe it or not, I actually do like quite a few things about HP-UX. They are outweighed in importance by the things I don’t like, but I list them here nonetheless to prove I’m not just mean.

Startup/shutdown log. Many times I’ve watched a Solaris system boot and have seen a startup script print an error message. As soon as I can think, “hey, something’s not right,” it’s off the screen and lost forever. HP-UX saves the output of the startup and shutdown scripts in a /etc/rc.log, so you can investigate any failures later. Don’t beat them up about logging to /etc — /var isn’t mounted when they need to start writing to the log.

Startup/shutdown messages are pretty. Instead of showing me stdout/stderr from every startup and shutdown script, HP-UX gives me a one-line summary of each thing it’s doing, like “Starting NFS Server,” and then either “OK” or “FAIL.” This is nice, since some Solaris startup scripts print several lines of output and others print none at all. And since the detailed output is logged elsewhere, I don’t lose any information.

Boot-up can be interrupted. If you’re booting HP-UX, and you notice that a critical service failed to start, you can interrupt the boot with control-backslash, get a shell, and debug it immediately, rather than waiting for the system to come all the way up. This is useful when the service you’re trying to debug is so critical that you know you’ll need to reboot after making the fix anyway.

/etc/rc.config.d is nice. Most of the configuration of daemons that in Solaris would be done by editing various per-daemon configuration files in /etc is done in HP-UX by editing files in /etc/rc.config.d and setting the values of predefined variables. These files are sourced by the init.d startup scripts, and tell them things like whether an NFS server should start, where’s the NTP server, what IP address should an interface have, etc. It’s a more consistent interface to the system’s configuration.

Kernel tunables can be set in terms of other tunables. You can choose to set a tunable’s value absolutely — say, to 1024 — or in terms of another tunable — for example, to maxuprc * 10. This is pretty nice, since you can edit fewer tunables and have the relative ones scale automatically. This feature was removed in HP-UX 11iv2, though.

fstab is a better name than vfstab. Sorry, Solaris — /etc/vfstab should be /etc/fstab, because that’s what everybody else calls it.

Patch rating system. Every HP-UX patch has a rating, so you can tell how widely used the patch is and how thoroughly tested it has been.

Downloaded patches can be bundled into a depot. When you download patches from HP’s web site, you have the option of making the patches into a software depot. If you’re installing them on multiple systems, this makes it a lot easier than managing all the patches individually.

Separation of analyze phase from install phase for software/patch installation. HP-UX’s software distribution system (SD-UX) separates the analyze phase (checking disk space, checking prerequisites, etc.) from the installation phase when installing patches or software. With a bundle of patches, this can be a big time saver. You can perform the analyze phase for all the patches ahead of time, which won’t modify anything on the system, and do the installation phase during your system’s maintenance window. In Solaris, patches take a long time to install, and much of the time is spent calculating whether or not the patch should be applied at all.

The output of ioscan is easier to read than prtconf. If I want to quickly see what devices are attached to the system, HP-UX’s ioscan is much easier to read than Solaris’ prtconf. Of course, tea leaves are probably easier to read than prtconf, so that’s not saying much.