Rethinking Operating Systems
An unpublished draft explaining that current operating systems are the result of an evolutionary process and are still focused on the needs of the 1960's.
01-May-1995Version 2: 2023-03-27 08:43:16

© 1995 Bob Frankston

Updated Preface

This essay is primarily a critical examination of many of the assumptions about systems design. Namely the concept that we must add a lot of mechanism to build systems. Since writing this I've been focusing more on what we can and do to make effective use of computational technologies. At some point my thinking will be clear-enough to post.


The idea of operating systems have been around since the mid 60's. It is time to reexamine the basic rationale for such systems as we prepare the next generation of systems and as computers become the basic components of our infrastructure.

The direction of computer science/software engineering was set in the 1960's when the primary concerns were making effective use of expensive computers and managing what were then large efforts. Though the world has changed greatly since then, we are still pursuing the same basic directions. A general-purpose computer comes as a set of hardware matched to an operating system that manages resources. Software Engineering methodologies are focused on assuring that one can specify and follow through on large projects.

But the computers are getting smaller and cheaper. PC's are only a middle stage in this evolution. Individual systems are becoming simpler but their interactions are becoming more important and more complex.

The Future

Before reviewing the sins of the past, it is important to remember that we are just starting to learn how to create effective interacting systems. Despite the issues presented here operating systems as we know it are not going away. They are the common platform for interacting systems. We will need to evolve the rules for how these systems interact. More important, as software becomes the key infrastructure element, must assure that we can still provide an effective mechanism for supporting the "rules of the road". We may even choose to call these frameworks "operating system". We have attempted to use terms like "Operating Environments" which are more appropriate, but they have not caught on.

The operating system is passé, long live the operating system.


The computer operating system was a major accomplishment of the 1960's. The 1960's was the age of discovery in computers. Compilers (automatic programming), databases (network and then relational) were all-important.

With the perspective of time we can rethink our assumptions and the results. The operating system has persisted as a central theme because it seems that there should be a conductor for every orchestra. But we've mistaken a powerful, though pragmatic, solution for a fundamental principle.

This is not merely an historical exercise to see why one particular set of ideas won. With computers we have an unusual degree of freedom to not only rethink the past but rework the present.

There is no perfection, just tradeoffs. The operating system itself is one such tradeoff.

Operating Systems

Not all systems have operating systems. Embedded systems are often written to standard libraries or direct to the "iron".

The operating system evolved from such libraries into a resource manager at the heart of a complex system. In the days of the IBM 7094, the Fortran Monitor System (FMS) was little more than a set of standard subroutines and I/O routines that operated according to a set of conventions. They supported one job at a time as part of a stream of jobs conforming to local conventions. Typically unit #5 was the input tape and #6 was the output tape. Eventually, these became magic numbers no longer associated with tapes.

By the time of Multics, we saw the operating system as a manager of system resources. The computers were expensive and it was very important that we provided for sharing. More to the point, fair sharing, of the resources among the competing interests. The fundamental model assumed a large system managed by a trustworthy systems manager with software provided by the systems supplier.

The concept of a security kernel which added incentive to the idea of simplifying the operating system to its basics so that it could be understood. This was also considered important for reliability. The file system, once central, was reduced to some basic disk management functions with the rest of the system being moved to outer levels. Interestingly, OS/360 didn't even have a file system initially, just some optional cataloging. Multics at the high end and RSX-11M were systems that separated naming of files from managing their on-disk structure. Files had a unique id or a disk block id.

The notion of rings ran into trouble when the simplifying assumption of a central authority gave way to the need to support mutually suspicious subsystems. A third party database manager could not be trusted unfettered access to all of the user's environment.

Security has stayed important but a poor step-child of operating systems since it was simply not important within small groups. Fundamentally complex, heavyweight, secure operating systems were artifacts of expensive mainframes domiciled in computer rooms.

Unix has been at the center of moving operating system concepts from the heavy mainframe to a more pragmatic small system though it didn't reach full maturation until the 1980's and has continued to evolve to the 90's.

Enter the PC

PC's evolved from chip sets with little software. They either ran "on the iron" or had small monitors to assist in writing simple applications. For those of us who wanted to deliver capability, this was fortuitous. Though well versed in operating systems, we also had experience with earlier, smaller systems and specialty hardware. If we could write operating systems, we could write applications that did the same things themselves.

Much more important was the realization that the user's didn't care what was going on inside the system, what mattered was whether they could make the machine do what they needed it to do. If the operating system were convenient then we'd use it, if not, then we would ignore it and, if necessary, work around it.

As the PC evolved, we got more and more services provided. But those of us who kept to the notion that the user experience was paramount would pick and choose which of these services we would use and which we would work around.

The Abort, Retry, Ignore message separated the pros from the amateurs. The pros took responsibility for handling all eventualities and the amateurs just used the standard C-language I/O packages which placed the burden of handling contingencies on the users.

At this point, PC's have evolved sophisticated operating systems that have grown far larger and more complex than any mainframe from the 70's and has lost of its simple innocence.

We already see this happening within the PC as interactions between components dominates the basic systems services. We cling to the notion that the operating system is at the center as all the activity goes on around it and between systems. Yet it is in the interaction between the applications that our challenges lie.

We have lost sight of the fundamental idea that the operating system is merely a set of conventions that we abstract from common practices and there is nothing fundamental. Using standard services is useful as a cost/benefit tradeoff. It requires that there be enough slack in the system to allow for it and the that its complexity doesn't overwhelm the architecture.

An Applications Platform

In building applications, the PC will continue being the platform of choice for a long time. The problems of building applications that work together is not limited to the PC, the issues recur whether the applications are cooperating within a single system or are communicating over a network. In order to address the issues of complexity, we need to rethink some of the standard paradigms.

This is occurring, as computing itself becomes the fundamental building block of our infrastructure. This involves creating many interacting systems. But we have little understanding of how to make these complex interactions scale.

The most important lesson to learn is that we can and should be able to discard the comfort and overhead of the operating system and reinvent the services we need. We need to reexamine some of the basic gospel of computer science:

Reusability. It is better to build out of existing pieces than to create new ones every time. But this notion easily goes awry when the effort involved in assuring reuse overwhelms the cost of rebuilding. Consumer electronics provides great lessons in the advantage of just replacing entire systems than reusing pieces.

Layering. Breaking problems down into simpler elements is a powerful technique for building systems. After sufficient experience we develop a set of conventions that allow arms length cooperation.. Out of this arose the notion of the operating system API. What is lost is the notion that these API's must be renegotiated as the circumstances change. A network is not simply a remote disk drive.

Networks represent very different semantics from a local disk reference. Not only are there additional failure modes that should be handled, notions of performance and delay don't even have analogs when dealing with a local disk drive. When we take this into the wireless domain, the lie is put to the test and fails miserably. Yet we continue to model network as simple extensions of the local system. This only touches upon the complexities introduced by networking among mutually suspicious systems.

Uniformism. The purpose of layers is to try to provide a uniform basis upon which to build our applications. But it is often the idiosyncrasies of each system that make the system what it is.

We also need to question the scope of specific techniques and paradigms. These do represent good practices but can readily become dogmas.

Objects. Objects are a good technique for encapsulating methods and instances as unit. They are a nice way of structuring systems. Like other forms of layering they can serve as an internal structuring tool and, to a limited extent, as a way to codifying arms length relationships. Objects go beyond layering in that they are more independent of underlying systems and have relationships among themselves and isolation between themselves. This leads to complex interactions.

With objects, we take the dangers of layering – the lies and misrepresentations – and multiply them as objects build upon other objects as both layers and peers. Without oversight, these relationships drift apart as in a whispering chain. Adding the notion of distribution, implicit networking, creates a volatile mix that is likely to explode or simply fail.

Minimal Kernels. These are still operating systems but the foist the blame onto the applications by declaring all the service subsystems to be outside the kernel. This isn't necessarily bad but neither is it necessary good. It attempts to preserve the notion of a standard environment into which one can load applications. An alternative is to statically link systems together rather than relying on the dynamic environment of the kernel. Key to this is the merging of the embedded system and the general-purpose system. The embedded systems come to the fore as hardware becomes a trivial part of the cost of systems. This is not to say that the notions of operating systems are obsolete. But it is as knowledge rather than code that they survive.

CPU Centricity. Just like a car might be characterized by its horsepower, a computer is characterized by its CPU. We need to identify systems of cooperating components as the entity that is important. This goes beyond the notion of the network as the system since we are not positing the form of cooperation and can reduce the network complexity and scope in these systems.

Paging. Generally paging is used to give the user the illusion of having more physical memory than there really is. Hence the term virtual memory. As long as there was sufficient memory to keep a working set in real memory, the illusion could be maintained. The problem is that as systems become more complex more and more components are required to maintain the user interface (as well as support other functions). If these aren't used constantly they will get displaced by more active components. But when one shifts tasks, the system goes into a frenzy of paging in order to bring in the main components, each of which has responsibility of a small portion of the user interface that must be repaired at each change.

Secure systems. Users have physical possession of much of their devices and much of the infrastructure. The idea of a security kernel is limited by physical possession. We can have some security in parts of the infrastructure. Encryption allows some degree of security for information in insecure systems. As the infostructure becomes more important integrity and security of data become more important. The mechanisms must be robust and assume both technical and human error as the norm. Security is only useful to the extent it is understandable by the user and there is a way to specify "intuitive" security policies.

Trust and reliability. These are at the heart of how computers have differed from other appliances. We have had the luxury of factors of a trillion in scale. We are now at the limit of the complexity of interactions compounded by the distributed authority that frustrates the ability to assure proper behavior even if such behavior was well-defined.

Software design methodology. Obviously the idea of doing a design is not bad. What is bad is the assumption that one can design a system as a whole and then implement it. At the same time as we take more responsibility for an entire system including the silicon, we have less control of the environment in which it runs. We are incrementally adding capability rather than building entire systems. Of course, we really don't have any idea how to do this.

Common purpose. We don't really have the luxury of designing a system as a whole. Not only are there the software design issues and trust issues, but we are writing application in a real world of disparate parties, with little in common. The ability to add function quickly and incrementally will win over a full-blown design that doesn't add sufficient additional value and will win over a design that requires too much cooperation between competing parties.

Error reporting. It does little good,, beyond frustrating the user to report that something has gone wrong. Add the words "fatal" is just an attempt to heighten the user's anxiety and bring on a heart attack. Rather than reporting errors, we must report solutions – what should or can be done to resolve the problem. This is nontrivial because the explanation must be tailored to each user and each situation

What to do?

Build simple intelligence devices. The notion of simple given that we can place the equivalent of an early PC on a single chip has grown. But just like PC's freed us up from the need to assure full utilization of all the hardware, these new devices needn't do more than one or, at best, a handful of functions. Instead of reusability build for function. If one is building a golf watch, make it have a golf scoring button and color it green and use a different watch off the course.

Build-in simple cooperation. We can design some simple protocols for cooperation and evolve them over time. This is the secret of the Internet. Perhaps the golf watch can transmit scores to the PC but it doesn't need to be your digital communicator since you've got a phone in your pocket anyway and don't want the weight on your wrist.

Assume failure. It is normal for systems to fail. You should expect that services you call upon are unreliable. You should depend on what runs locally and be able to survive failures as minor annoyances. Do not do any nontrivial error recovery since the interactions between failures are major sources of untestable failures of their own. Better to isolate the failure than to do complex recovery. At the same time, you shouldn't hide failures since then the system still fails but behaves perversely. The World Wide Web provides one example, other servers are likely to fail but you can still use the rest of the infrastructure and can retry if necessary. This is more problematic as we build layers of middleware upon the Web.

Learn by doing. If we are to build large systems out of simpler systems, the individual components should be effective individual. It follows that sets of them should also be useful. An incremental implementation not only assures early utility, it allows for learning as one implements. But this must be done with an expectation of reworking and revisiting earlier decisions. Loose coupling between components helps maintain the system through change as welling as making it robust against minor failures and mismatches. Despite these, we are still subject the to complexities of the growing interactions between systems.

Learn how to composite systems. We don't have an understanding of how to manage the interactions as we composite individual systems. How do the policies interact? We cannot know the full consequences of these interactions so how do we prepare for the contingencies? I think of this as a policy interaction. One general approach is to have an overseer for each interaction but how does on do this in practice. This is a vital area in research, one long past due.

Summary and Looking Ahead

The operating system has come to characterize the substrate upon which the applications and services are to be built? This has been a powerful idea that has been the underpinnings for much that we have done.

But each time we reinvent computing we need to reexamine these notions. And with each generation the operation system becomes less the core issue. Minis were dependent upon operating systems for their generality. PC's didn't get full operating systems until very late in their evolution.

As software becomes the key infrastructure element, we will shift from the OS Centric model of software to more a federation of independent systems. The focus will be on the services they deliver to each other and the resilience of the federation. If it is the infrastructure then there is no option for the system as a whole failing.

Please send comments and suggestions to me at