Minix seems to be inspiring more operating systems nowadays. Microsoft Research is investing on a micro-kernel (they call it multi-kernel, as there are slight differences) called Barrelfish.

Despite being Microsoft, it’s BSD licensed. The mailing list looks pretty empty, the last snapshot is half a year ago and I couldn’t find an svn repository, but still more than I would expect from Microsoft anyway.


The basic concept is actually very interesting. The idea is to be able to have multi-core hybrid machines to the extreme, and still be able to run a single OS on it. Pretty much the same way some cluster solutions do (OpenMPI, for instance), but on a single machine. The idea is far from revolutionary. It’s a natural evolution of the multi-core trend with the current cluster solutions (available for years) and a fancy OS design (micro-kernel) that everyone learns in CS degrees.

What’s the difference, then? For one thing, the idea is to abstract everything away. CPUs will be just another piece of hardware, like the network or graphic cards. The OS will have the freedom to ask the GPU to do MP floating-point calculations, for instance, if it feels it’s going to benefit the total execution time. It’ll also be able to accept different CPUs in the same machine, Intel and ARM for instance (like the Dell Latitude z600), or have different GPUs, nVidia and ATI, and still use all the hardware.

With Windows, Linux and Mac today, you either use the nVidia driver or the ATI one. You also normally don’t have hybrid-core machines and absolutely can’t recover if one of the cores fail. This is not the same with cluster solutions, and Barrelfish’s idea is to simulate precisely that. In theory, you could do energy control (enabling and disabling cores), crash-recovery when one of the cores fail but not the other, or plug and play graphic or network cards and even different CPUs.

Imagine you have an ARM netbook that is great for browsing, but you want to play a game on it. You get your nVidia and a coreOcta 10Ghz USB4 and plug in. The OS recognizes the new hardware, loads the drivers and let you play your game. Battery life goes down, so once you’re back from the game, you just unplug the cards and continue browsing.


So, how is it possible that Barrelfish can be that malleable? The key is communication. Shared memory is great for single-processed threaded code and acceptable for multi-processed OSs with little number of concurrent process accessing the same region in memory. Most modern OSs can handle many concurrent processes, but they rarely access the same data at the same time.

Normally, processes are single threaded or have a very small number of threads (dozens) running. More than that is so difficult to control that people usually fall back to other means, such as client/server or they just go out and buy more hardware. In clusters, there is no way to use shared memory. For one, accessing memory in another computer via network is just plain stupid, but even if you use shared memory in each node and client/server among different nodes, you’re bound to have trouble. This is why MPI solutions are so popular.

In Barrelfish there’s no shared memory at all. Every process communicate with each other via messages and duplicate content (rather than share). There is an obvious associated cost (memory and bus), but the lock-free semantics is worth it. It also gives Barrelfish another freedom: to choose the communication protocol generic enough so that each piece of hardware is completely independent of all others, and plug’n’play become seamless.


It all seem fantastic, but there’s a long road ahead. First, message passing scales much better than shared memory, but nowadays there isn’t enough cores in most machines to make it worth it. Message passing also introduces some other problems that are not easily solvable: bus traffic and storage requirements increase considerably, and messages are not that generic in nature.

Some companies are famous for not adhering to standards (Apple comes to mind), and a standard hardware IPC framework would be quite hard to achieve. Also, even if using pure software IPC APIs, different companies will still use slightly modified APIs to suit their specific needs and complexity will rise, exponentially.

Another problem is where the hypervisor will live. Having a distributed control centre is cool and scales amazingly well, but its complexity also scales. In a hybrid-core machine, you have to run different instructions, in different orders, with different optimizations and communication. Choosing one core to deal with the scheduling and administration of the system is much easier, but leaves the single-point-of-failure.

Finally, going the multi-hybrid-independent style is way too complex. Even for a several-year’s project with lots of fund (M$) and clever people working on it. After all, if micro-kernel was really that useful, Tanembaum would have won the discussion with Linus. But, the future holds what the future holds, and reality (as well as hardware and some selfish vendors) can change. Multi-kernel might be possible and even easier to implement in the future.

This seems to be what the Barrelfish’s team is betting on, and I’m with them on that bet. Even if it fails miserably (as did Minix), some concepts could still be used in real-world operating systems (like Minix), whatever that’ll mean in 10 years. Being serious about parallelism is the only way forward, sticking with 40 years old concepts is definitely not.

I’m still aspiring for non-deterministic computing, though, but that’s an even longer shot…