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Mark Nelson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Happy Birthday to GNU

September 03, 2008

I've seen a lot of talk about the 25th Birthday of the GNU Operating System . But I'm confused. I was around in 1983, and as I recall, at the time, GNU had a nice roster of miscelleneous utilities, along with a complete set of software development tools. But I don't recall having a complete operating system.

Maybe I'm indulging in revisionism, but I remember a few free operating systems showing up in the 80's and 90's, ranging from toys to production quality: the 386BSD release showcased by DDJ in 1991, MINIX, and most famously, Linux. None of these projects seemed to be particularly attached to GNU until the name was stapled to the word Linux like a star-struck stage mother, giving us the current GNU/Linux naming failure.

Going straight to the source,  Richard Stallman notes in the history of GNU :

By 1990, the GNU system was almost complete; the only major missing component was the kernel. We had decided to implement our kernel as a collection of server processes running on top of Mach. Mach is a microkernel developed at Carnegie Mellon University and then at the University of Utah; the GNU HURD is a collection of servers (or “herd of gnus”) that run on top of Mach, and do the various jobs of the Unix kernel. The start of development was delayed as we waited for Mach to be released as free software, as had been promised.

This is much like the all-but-thesis designation used by grad students - an attempt to pass off the notion you just have one tiny detail left to attend to. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. You don't get to use that revered Doctor title until you finish the thesis, and you don't get to call yourself an operating system until you have a kernel.

So yeah, it's the 25th anniversary of something - something pretty significant. Maybe the most signficant thing in 20th century software development. (Would there be an open source movement without Richard Stallman? I don't think that is a given.)

Just don't tell me it's the 25th anniversary of an operating system and I'll stop griping.

 

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