Barrelfish: Multikernel Operating System out of Zurich

Sep 30, 2009

A group from the ETH technical institute in Zurich is working together with software giant Microsoft on a new kind of operating system called Barrelfish. The first results are now available under an open source license.

Barrelfish is based on the multikernel concept that considers each core of modern processors a separate network node. Each core runs a mini operating system that communicates and swaps data with its peers. In this way a small distributed system is created on each computer that looks and feels like a full-fledged operating system. This allows tasks to be better distributed among the processor cores and use the processing more efficiently -- in most current PCs many processor cores lie fallow, depending on the application used. The whole concept is distinctly close to that of cloud computing.

The developer team is a mix of the researchers at the ETH Zurich and members of Microsoft Research Cambridge out of the UK. The joint venture wants to discover "how to structure an OS for future multi- and many-core systems." The project is not just limited to theory. The fairly sparse and unassuming homepage does have its list of publications, theses and reports, but it provide the source code that has been available since mid-September under a BSD license.

The reference implementation known as Barrelfish should primarily give other researchers and developers an insight into the team's methodology and practicality of the concept. Because many of the functions of a typical operating system are (still) missing in Barrelfish, it is not intended for everyday use -- some fundamental appropriate expertise is assumed upon installation.

The project webpage points to a number of supportive documents. In them, developers not only certify that Barrelfish provides better performance than current operating systems like Windows and Linux, but the system is significantly more scalable. The new multikernel operating system affords this by message passing instead of shared memory. Above all, the concept isn't bound to specific hardware and can be applied (more) easily to other architectures and systems.

In the project FAQ, the joint venture emphasizes that Microsoft provides no financial support and stems solely from a previous project shared by the ETH and Microsoft Research.

Apart from Barrelfish, Microsoft is working behind the scenes on other alternative operating systems that might replace or at least flow into the Windows product lines. A well-known example is the Singularity operating system that is totally based on .NET programs and, like Barrelfish, a distributed microkernel platform.

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  • Patents!

    Not only does Micro$oft totally twist the definition of "open source", I'm sure they've patented all software they choose to label as such. It's all a trap. GPLv3 was given a patent clause for a good reason, and everyone would be wise to avoid any "open source" licenses that don't come with patent protection (AFAIK, GPLv3 is the only license that does this). People will start using Microsoft's code, and maybe they'll be quiet about it for awhile while the free software community goes to war with itself -- on one side you have RMS, who knows exactly what MS's intentions are and ALWAYS HAVE BEEN, and then you have people like Miguel de Icaza, who want us all to trust Microsoft, and argue that we're treating them unfairly and hurting interoperability, until... BAM! The patent guns are fired at everyone who didn't sell their souls for patent protection. Interoperability is great, but it's inherently not very compatible with proprietary software, no matter what anyone tries to argue.
  • Even it is now, it will not be later...What BIOS?

    Even if they claim open source, yet use a license that is not 100% open, you can count on it becoming closed source down the road if Microsoft is involved. Until I see a 7 year track record of them not harming open source and/or Linux I will not believe anything I read. Instead I will base all future decisions based on their actions over the last 7 years. One misstep harming open source, that 7 year clock gets reset. They are too far along as a company to not understand what does and what does not harm open source, therefore, missteps can be safely assumed to be premeditated at this point.

    Why 7 years; because they have been spreading FUD and the game of embrace, extend and extinguish for well over 20 years now. If they were a new company just treating open source poorly than I would say a 3 year clock reset would be enough. But not for an established company that we all know, knows better, but makes these types of decisions anyway.

    Are they building their new Operating System on top of a Coreboot BIOS? After all ONLY Coreboot is open source. That in an of itself will telegraph their true intentions.

  • Open Source?

    It was my understanding that while the project does utilise some open source libraries (none of which are GPL), the project its self is not open source.
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