More on OS innovation

The other day on vacation, I ran across a Slashdot article on UNIX branding and GNU/Linux. Tne original article was mildy interesting, to the point where I actually bothered to read the comments. Now, long ago I learned that 99% of Slashdot comments are worthless. Very rarely to you find thoughtful and objective comments; even browsing at +5 can be hazardous to your health. Even so, I managed to find this comment, which contained in part some perspective relating to my previous post on Linux innovation:

I have been saying that for several years now. UNIX is all but dead. The only commercial UNIX likely to still be arround in ten years time as an ongoing product is OS/X. Solaris will have long since joined IRIX, Digital UNIX and VMS as O/S you can still buy and occasionaly see a minor upgrade for it.

There is a basic set of core functions that O/S do and this has not changed in principle for over a decade. Log based file systems, threads that work etc are now standard, but none of this was new ten years ago.

The interesting stuff all takes place either above or below the O/S layer. .NET, J2EE etc are where interesting stuff is happening.

Clearly, this person is not the sharpest tool in the shed when in comes to Operating Systems. But it begs the question: How widespread is this point of view? We love innovation, and it shows in Solaris 10. We have yet to demo Solaris 10 to a customer without them being completely blown away by at least one of the many features. DTrace, Zones, FMA, SMF, and ZFS are but a few reasons why Solaris won't have "joined IRIX, Digital UNIX, and VMS" in a few years.

Part of this is simply that people have yet to experience real OS innovation such as that found in Solaris 10. But more likely this is just a fundamental disconnection between OS developers and end users. If I managed to get my mom and dad running Java Desktop System on Solaris 10, they wouldn't never know what DTrace, Zones, or ZFS is, simply because it's not visible to the end user. But this doesn't mean that it isn't worthwhile innovation: as with all layered software, our innovations directly influence our immediate consumers. Solaris 10 is wildly popular among our customers, who are mostly admins and developers, with some "power users". Even though these people are a quantitatively small portion of our user base, they are arguably the most important. OS innovation directly influences the quality of life and efficiency of developers and admins, which has a cascading effect on the rest of the software stack.

This cascading influence tends to be ignores in arguments over the commoditization of the OS. If you stand at any given layer, you can make a reasonable argument that the software two layers beneath you has become a commodity. JVM developers will argue that hardware is a commodity, while J2EE developers will argue that the OS is a commodity. Even if you're out surfing the web and use a web service developed on J2EE, you're implicitly relying on innovation that has its roots at the OS. Of course, the further you go from the OS the less prominent the influence is, but its still there.

So think twice before declaring the OS irrelevant. Even if you don't use features directly provided by the OS, your quality of life has been improved by having them available to those that do use them.

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Musings about Fishworks, Operating Systems, and the software that runs on them.

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