New version of Plan 9 Fork 9front released • The Register

9front is a fork and continuation of Bell Labs’ Plan 9, which is what the minds behind UNIX and the C programming language did next. It’s also pretty weird.

The Golden Age of Ballooning is the rather obscure name of the latest release from the 9front project. 9front is one of several projects continuing work on the Plan 9 operating system, relicensed under the GPL in 2014. Plan 9, or more formally (and a little vague these days since it was spun off from Bell Labs last year) Plan 9 from Bell Labs is a research operating system.

There are a great many research operating systems out there. What is special about Plan 9 is that, with its special dialect of the C programming language, it is the direct continuation of the original UNIX research project. In a way, Plan 9 was an attempt to fulfill some of UNIX’s original promises while also bringing it into the 1990s.

Probably the most active fork of Plan 9, 9front improves the OS in several ways: more drivers, more hardware support, a native x86-64 version, and so on. There is a reasonable summary here from 9front and the project’s own FQA [sic] File explains what’s new in this version. You may be wondering what an FQA is and don’t you mean FAQ? Well, a list of questions isn’t much help, even if it is are often asked; a list of common answers much more useful.

Converting FAQs to FQAs is a symbol of the 9front community approach. The community has gotten into trouble before for their odd sense of humor, such as posting some uncomfortable or shocking images on their website. That has been remedied somewhat, and this new home page is one example, but don’t be fooled. It’s still not serious at all, and for a taste check out the links at the bottom of this page – and note that you won’t get the same results every visit.

9front is a quirky, facetious project, one that knows it’s basically of no use to ordinary computer users. Instead of just saying that, the site maintainers joke until most people just give up and walk away. Even the name and slogan of 9front – “The plan worked” – is inspired by a classic Australian comedy skit, “the front fell off”. If you don’t get the humor, you probably don’t like the site or the operating system – and that’s the point.

The Golden Age of Ballooning (this time the name is a Monty Python reference) features new and improved hardware support, including for various models of Raspberry Pi and the open-source MNT Reform laptop. 9front even has an installer and that Registration number FOSS Desk had it up and running in a VM in just a few minutes. That alone is quite a departure from the classic Plan 9.

9front is not for everyone. In fact, it’s hardly for anyone: the FQA page has a helpful “Plan 9 isn’t for you” section, and it’s right. But this is followed by “Why Plan 9?” and “What do people like about Plan 9?” and they are all worth reading.

9front is an operating system for programmers and hackers who enjoy writing code more than deploying it or running someone else’s. Apart from that, it is an important operating system and points the way to future computers. While Unix was designed for a text-based, standalone minicomputer, Plan 9 has an integrated network and GUI that are integral parts of the operating system. Actually pretty much everything is one file, with much less special devices and APIs.

Everything is mediated through the filesystem, so huge amounts of drivers and code that in traditional Unixes have to live in the kernel – which definitely encompasses the huge Linux kernel – are userspace processes in Plan 9. As an almost random result, this means that Plan 9 makes much of the difficult design of microkernel operating systems just irrelevant.

Plan 9 is tiny in comparison, and most of its components are ordinary programs running in user space. Each process has its own namespace, which in turn eliminates the need for tooling around containers on traditional Unixes. The local network is part of the namespace, and subject to security, a user on a Plan 9 computer can launch processes on any other computer on the network: it turns the entire network into your personal workstation, confirming an old Sun slogan.

It has practical uses: for example, it is the basis of the ATA over Ethernet protocol developed for NAS clusters, which survived the collapse of its backer and is back in business.

Moore’s Law stopped making big single-threaded performance gains about 15 years ago and was replaced by Koomey’s Law. Now Wright’s law is more important. Small cheap chips are getting smaller and cheaper, but the big ones aren’t likely to get dramatically faster. The future has lots of tiny, interconnected processors instead, and tools like Plan 9 show better ways to use them. ®

https://www.theregister.com/2022/11/02/plan_9_fork_9front/ New version of Plan 9 Fork 9front released • The Register

Rick Schindler

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