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Nikolai Bezroukov. Portraits of Open Source Pioneers
For readers with high sensitivity to grammar errors access to this page is not recommended :-)
Despite his initial success with GNU tools and, especially with GNU compiler RMS failed with development of the a Unix compatible GNU kernel. That might be because RMS was a newcomer to the Unix field at the early days of GNU project and his decision to concentrate efforts on compliers and utilities was a wise one. But when it come to the task of creating of the kernel he has his hands partially tied by the necessity to maintain already developed products as well as the lack of understanding of the OS design issues (which arguably made him a perfect candidate for the creation of the kernel, putting him into the same camp as Linus Torvalds).
But unlike Linus Torvalds vision, his vision of the GNU kernel development was more modest: not to reimplement using key ideas of BSD kernel as a blueprint, but to reuse an existing prototype. Unfortunately he had chosen Mach micro kernel as a prototype.
While technically fashionable and not without tech merits this RMS decision proved to be a very costly political mistake due to the complexity that did not well suit the open/free source software development.
Greed was probably also a factor. RMS wanted to hoard as much software as he can reach. GROKLAW has an interesting quote belonging to Thomas Bushnell who was responsible for the kernel efforts about the decision to go with Mach:
RMS was a very strong believer -- wrongly, I think -- in a very greedy-algorithm approach to code reuse issues. My first choice was to take the BSD 4.4-Lite release and make a kernel. I knew the code, I knew how to do it. It is now perfectly obvious to me that this would have succeeded splendidly and the world would be a very different place today.
RMS wanted to work together with people from Berkeley on such an effort. Some of them were interested, but some seem to have been deliberately dragging their feet: and the reason now seems to be that they had the goal of spinning off BSDI. A GNU based on 4.4-Lite would undercut BSDI.
So RMS said to himself, "Mach is a working kernel, 4.4-Lite is only partial, we will go with Mach." It was a decision which I strongly opposed. But ultimately it was not my decision to make, and I made the best go I could at working with Mach and doing something new from that standpoint.
This was all way before Linux; we're talking 1991 or so.
Although Mach (which oversimplified is not unlike PC BIOS, subsystem providing core Unix kernel services to the rest of the OS kernel) is a simple and attractive concept, in reality it failed to provide compelling advantages over the conventional (and more simple) monolithic operating system kernel. There were several successful commercial implementations (including IBM AIX and Apple OS X).
But the key deficiency was that micro-kernels are considerably larger and slower then monolithic kernels partially because of the complications of a modern virtual memory system (copy-on-write facility) as well as the need to support many different hardware devices and complex optimizations in communication facilities, all of which have been handled inside most micro-kernels. As such they are more difficult to implement as an open source project.
Development of Mach showed that performance problems forced services originally implemented on top of a micro-kernel back into the kernel, further increasing its size -- inter-machine network server has been added back into some versions of Mach. Micro-kernels do not support domain-specific resource allocation policies any better than monolithic kernels and this is an increasingly important issue with sophisticated applications and application systems. For example the standard page-replacement policies of UNIX-like operating systems perform poorly for applications with sequential access to data -- and that is too important class of applications to ignore.
Placement of conventional operating system kernel services in a micro-kernel-based server does not generally give the applications any additional control as the server is a fixed and protected system service. Adding resource management policies to the micro-kernel fails to achieve the efficiency that application-specific knowledge allows and increases the kernel size and complexity. Finally, size of the micro kernel is substantially bigger due to exception-handling mechanisms that are needed to secure the separation of the micro kernel from other system services. This problem with size was about important disadvantage due to severe constrain on resources and requirements for coordination of efforts.
Orientation on micro kernel delayed the project for at least two years and Linus Torvalds used this opportunity to provide an alternative to Hurd Linux kernel. Version 0.2 of Hurd was released on June 12, 1997. Losing four years to Linux was essentially a death sentence for the project because when Hurd beta version was available Linux was in v.2.0 and the game was over. Hurd lost on the user front, not on the technical front. Here Linus Torvalds proved to be a much better strategist than Stallman and the success make FSF essentially redundant as its goal of creating a free OS was formally achieved by Linux. For some time Stallman fought a bitter "renaming battle" (first he suggested to change name to Lignus and then to GNU/Linux; both suggestions were rejected by Torvalds.)
But later those abilities played slightly against Linus as he accepted a position (with half-joke half-serious rumors that his position is called the director of marketing ;-) in Transmeta -- a very secretive startup that develops VLIW (very long instruction word) CPUs. Funded by some heavy-hitting investors, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and billionaire investor George Soros, Transmeta was founded in 1995 by Ditzel, who was a key architect of Sun Microsystems' SPARC processor family and before that worked at Bell Laboratories. This sitting between two chairs (tricky position, about which, in order to preserve face, Linus claimed he has no problems at all) created uneasy feeling about Linux as a controversial movement and helped Stallman to underscore the importance of GNU project and FSF (The obsessively secretive Transmeta demanded that employees reveal no more than four pieces of information to anyone: the name of the company, its location in Santa Clara, that its CEO was David Dritzel, and that Linus Torvalds worked for the company.). Transmeta's culture of secrecy was exactly opposite to OSS culture and it may have been less about protecting revolutionary technology than about concealing the chip's not-so-stellar performance history (from Technology News from Wired News):
Speaking on condition of strict anonymity, engineers with a major computer manufacturer said that after years of painstaking design work, the earliest Transmeta chips were a big performance disappointment. The engineers would neither confirm nor deny their company's plans to build Crusoe devices.
"They were dogs," said a Transmeta engineer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were in trouble."
However, the engineers were confident the company would have no trouble turning a profit now that the design problems had been ironed out and the chips were poised for release.
Subsequent Linux IPO gold rush when Red Hat and VA Linux got multibillion initial valuations increased suspicions that something is rotten in the Dutch kingdom.
Paradoxically the commercialization of the Linux movement and the crowd of newly minted millionaires (including Linus Torvalds himself) and (for a short period) even paper billionaires around Linux startups created a second chance both for GNU project and FSF.
For example gave a second chance for Hurd -- Debian team was interested in continuing work on Hurd in parallel with Linux. But the availability of resources was not there and nothing important materialized from Debian efforts. Moreover Debian project itself suffered severe setback by being over marketed and overshadowed by Ubuntu team which wisely preserved compatibility of packages to be able to reuse Debian huge package repository.
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Created May 1, 1996; Last modified: January 11, 2013