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Andrew Tanenbaum On Minix, Linux, BSD, and Licensing 480

An anonymous reader points out an interesting, detailed interview with Andrew Tanenbaum at; Tanenbaum holds forth on the current state of MINIX, licensing decisions, and the real reason he believes that Linux caught on just when he "thought BSD was going to take over the world." ("I think Linux succeeded against BSD, which was a stable mature system at the time simply because BSDI got stuck in a lawsuit and was effectively stopped for several years.")
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Andrew Tanenbaum On Minix, Linux, BSD, and Licensing

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  • Disagree (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @10:39AM (#38116142)

    No, Linux "succeeded" because BSD was frozen out of the market by AT&T at a crucial time.

    Having lived thru that, I'd disagree. BSD was way too elitist, "oh, you wanna run a BSD flavor on a 386? Oh how cute, but you suck. We all use PDP11s here. We'll let you try, if you promise not to pester us with bug reports and things, now here's a nickel kid, go buy youself a real computer like a VAX.". Minix wanted you to buy a book and the hardware support was kinda limited so its unclear if you'd be wasting your money or not, which in the pre-amazon days meant finding out the ISBN and pestering an intimidating bookstore clerk to order it for you and then rolling the dice once it arrived. Linux? That was just some downloads off the local BBSes and/or early internet provider link, and everyone was mostly friendly most of the time, unlike the *BSD guys.

  • by omar.sahal ( 687649 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @10:43AM (#38116158) Homepage Journal

    "I think Linux succeeded against BSD, which was a stable mature system at the time simply because BSDI got stuck in a lawsuit and was effectively stopped for several years."

    The reasons may also be more to do with Linux and the way it was run! Early hackers have noted that they preferred BSD, but could not use it due to lack of dual booting, this would have meant deleting windows which may have been needed for work. It was also easier for aspiring hackers to contribute to Linux, you didn't have to be one of the inner circle to contribute. There was also a lack of politics, persons within the rival operating systems had noted and open differences which would have affected work.

  • Thanks! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by John Bresnahan ( 638668 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @10:48AM (#38116184)
    Minix was my first experience with a Unix-like OS (on my original IBM Personal Computer). It was a wonderful starting point to lead on to bigger and better things.
  • Re:Disagree (Score:5, Interesting)

    by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Sunday November 20, 2011 @11:03AM (#38116294) Homepage Journal

    Linux was the new "cool" thing, and it also lacked some annoying BSD-isms that were really a pain in the butt for the SystemV people - even if those weren't in any way critical to the functionality.

    You've been able to run the GNU userland tools on BSD for a long time, much as SunOS5 included the BSD userland from SunOS4 to keep the BSD-heads happy.

    The truth is that it was actually easier to install Linux! If you compared Slackware to the BSD of its day, you hardly had to know anything to install Linux, less than you had to know to install DOS actually since it would actually find your network card and already had a driver. You did have to know more than you had to know to install Windows to get the GUI going, though :)

    As you say, Minix had a restrictive license. But BSD also had an inferior license to Linux from the standpoint of those who wanted their changes to remain free. And today, Linux towers over the Free BSDs, though not over BSD in general thanks to Apple... where the license is not friendly. That suggests at least to me that there are considerations other than licenses that are important to users, so I suggest that Minix has problems OTHER than the licenses... and so does (did) *BSD.

  • by epine ( 68316 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @11:24AM (#38116420)

    In hindsight, perhaps, this is all clear. At the time, would you have bet your house on the proposition of 386BSD remaining unscathed if the BSDi lawsuit had come to a different outcome? But wait, I have a reference.

    From Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution []:

    Like the other groups, they started by adding the six missing files that Bill Jolitz had written for his 386/BSD release. ... At the preliminary hearing for the injunction, BSDI contended that they were simply using the sources being freely distributed by the University of California plus six additional files. They were willing to discuss the content of any of the six added files, but did not believe that they should be held responsible for the files being distributed by the University of California [which 386BSD also used, one would think]. The judge agreed with BSDI's argument and told USL that they would have to restate their complaint based solely on the six files or he would dismiss it. Recognizing that they would have a hard time making a case from just the six files, USL decided to refile the suit against both BSDI and the University of California.

    Yeah, totally clear how 386BSD was free and clear of the legal fog of war. And a huge debt owed by everyone to Marshall Kirk McKusick and friends who fought this battle on our behalf while Linux thrived under the legal radar.

    In my own view, Linux had a crazy-making anthill culture, which appealed to many young coders with more energy than brains. But you know, I wouldn't bet against energy in retrospect. The annual ipchains rewrite boggled my mind. Not my cup of tea. An even crazier splinter group made hay with PHP, breaking just about every rule of thoughtfulness and elegance known to God and man. And look where that got them: pretty damn far.

    I would personally, however, have jumped on the BSD wagon at the time had it been able to promote a coherent vision of life after lawsuit. What would be the balance be now if BSD had gathered twice as many elitist greybeards into the fold? I have a feeling it would have continued to lag in the department of crappy consumer product device drivers, compromising a major defection path from Windows 98. Greybeards don't do popularity worth a damn.

    Debian zealots notwithstanding, Linux quickly became popular enough to become a willing host for binary blobs.

  • Why so harsh? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by aglider ( 2435074 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @11:30AM (#38116458) Homepage

    No, Linux "succeeded" because BSD was frozen out of the market by AT&T at a crucial time. That's just dumb luck. Also, success is relative. I run a political website that ordinary people read. On that site statistics show that about 5% is Linux, 30% is Macintosh (which is BSD inside) and the rest is Windows. These are ordinary people, not computer geeks. I don't think of 5% as that big a success story. [AST]

    I'm still convinced that it's one of those ideas that sounds nice on paper, but ends up being a failure in practice, because in real life the real complexity is in the interactions, not in the individual modules. And microkernels strive to make the modules more independent, making the interactions more indirect and complicated. The separation essentially ends up also cutting a lot of obvious and direct communication channels. [LBT]

    Maybe the webserver itself is running Linux, though. As well as your home broadband router, prof. Tanenbaum!
    I'm sad because of the short sight.
    Linux is successfull (no quotes). This is a fact. Also Windows is (used to be) successful at some time.
    Do you see Windows everywhere? Nope. Do you see Linux everywhere. Nope as well, but it's very, very popular.
    Maybe it's not popular in desktops. But it is, indeed.
    With the computing power available today, wasting a bunch of cycles in safer communication for microkernels is not a sin, Linus.
    So, why being so harsh to each other?
    I'm really convinced that Linus could help making Minix a better kernel. And the other way around as well.
    So, please, Andy and Linus, stop it.
    You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one ...

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @11:38AM (#38116498) Homepage

    So the HP guy comes up to me (at the Melbourne conference) and he says, 'If you say nasty things like that to vendors you're not going to get anything'. I said 'no, in eight years of saying nothing, we've got nothing, and I'm going to start saying nasty things, in the hope that some of these vendors will start giving me money so I'll shut up'.

    Hardware donations do not come from vendors who use OpenSSH on parts of their stuff. They come from individuals. The hardware vendors who use OpenSSH on all of their products have given us a total of one laptop since we developed OpenSSH five years ago. And asking them for that laptop took a year. That was IBM.

    Yes, people have mentioned a million times how much BSD has done for OS X. What has OS X done for BSD? On the desktop it's fallen off the map, it used to be listed at 0.01% at hitslink now it's nothing. Nobody uses just BSD and I strongly doubt anyone using OS X contributes much to BSD so that the next version of OS X will be better. That I think would have happened with or without Linux. At least on the server side there's a few using BSD as-is, perhaps we'd have a BAMP stack instead of a LAMP stack. But without all the corporate contributions I'd probably be more of a Win/Unix market with BSD as a simplistic, free server.

    BSD depends on people and corporations that are willing to give, give and then give some more. Would Linux be where it is if everybody has constantly grabbed features to put in AIX, SCO (before they turned troll), Solaris, OS/2, MacOS, Windows and so on? No. The BSD license lacks the self-preservation to exist as an independent product, sure the code won't go away but all the users disappear on proprietary spin-offs and so too in essence all the potential developers. With or without Linux it'd end up just as libraries for products people actually use. Then you can pound your chest and say our BSD code is in the TCP/IP stack of Windows, while Microsoft laughs all the way to the bank.

  • by tokul ( 682258 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @11:39AM (#38116514)

    BSDI got stuck in a lawsuit and was effectively stopped for several years

    Linux kernel started in 1991. Lawsuit started in 1992 and settled in 1993. Linux kernel 1.0.0 was released in 1994.

    Good to know that mature BSD was no match to Linux v.1.0.0.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RyuuzakiTetsuya ( 195424 ) <taiki@[ ].net ['cox' in gap]> on Sunday November 20, 2011 @11:44AM (#38116546)

    I think that Linux succeeded because early Linux users were enthusiastic and evangelistic. In that time between 92 and 96, I don't think I saw anyone singing BSD's praises except hardcore sysadmin types. Whatever system usability advantages Linux had was because of its fanatical user base.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 20, 2011 @11:50AM (#38116590)

    You'd think he's sore because Linux took his ball away.

    Surely not? :-)

    One of the main reasons Minix crashed and burned was the difficulty in getting the bloody thing. I have a copy of his book "Operating Systems, Design and Implementation", published by Prentice Hall INternational Editions in 1987. I bought a copy in 1990 as I was interested in Unix like operating systems. The prices listed for the Minix software at the end of the preface were out of date even then, Prentice Hall in the UK wanted about £140 for the IBM PC (640K) build and you had to fill out a rather odd invioce to get it.

    Needless to say, I didn't proceed.

    My requirements for a functioning Unix-like system were then filled by Coherent which was half the price and came with a really good printed manual. I've still got that too... Then in 1993 the MCC distro showed what could be done; that and Slackware launched the Linux revolution as far as I was concerned. Minix got left behind - it was irrelevant. I downloaded the Minix 2 installs some time ago but I've never installed them on a system.

  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @12:28PM (#38116844) Homepage Journal
    I think I looked into it in '89, as a potentially free alternative to SCO Xenix, which my company was running at the time. They'd bought the base OS, but didn't feel like shelling out an extra $1200 for the C compiler. I don't recall finding a whole lot of information on BSD, though I do seem to remember something along the lines that they'd send you some tapes with the system on it. It sounded like it'd take a whole lot more investment of my time than I or my company was willing to commit to even try to get it running.

    A few years later I heard somewhere (May have been Wired) about this spiffy new Linux operating system. By then I had a (more or less) stable internet connection and the instructions were quite easy; download 20-some-odd slakware diskettes from Sunsite and you were in business. Nothing was mentioned about BSD. So I downloaded 20-some-odd diskettes from Sunsite and I was in business.

    At least in my case, Linux won out over BSD largely due to marketing and the easy distribution method. No one every really talked about BSD, and Linux worked brilliantly for me, so I used Linux.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jruschme ( 76180 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @02:27PM (#38117658) Journal

    Having also lived through this....

    Remember, that prior to Minix, Linux or any of the x86 BSDs, the idea of a personal, affordable, up-to-date Unix platform was something of a Holy Grail. The basic options were either expensive (SCO XENIX), loosely compatible (Coherent, PC-Unix) or discontinued surplus (AT&T UnixPC). The stage was set for somebody to take over the world.

    In the beginning, you had two choices for running BSD on a 386- BSD/386 or 386BSD. BSD/386 was an expensive commercial product. 386BSD was free, but initially flawed and slow to release updates. It was a project basically under the control of a single person, William Jolitz, and his wife.

    Quoting from the Wikipedia entry for 386BSD:

    "After the release of 386BSD 0.1, a group of users began collecting bug fixes and enhancements, releasing them as an unofficial patchkit. Due to differences of opinion between the Jolitzes and the patchkit maintainers over the future direction and release schedule of 386BSD, the maintainers of the patchkit founded the FreeBSD project in 1993 to continue their work.[2] Around the same time, the NetBSD project was founded by a different group of 386BSD users, with the aim of unifying 386BSD with other strands of BSD development into one multi-platform system. Both projects continue to this day."

    In this case, the issue was not elitism so much as vested self-interest. (The Jolitzes has various ties to Dr. Dobbs Journal and the original 386BSD porting effort was documented in a series of articles.

    The AT&T lawsuits did occur at this time, but is has been noted that 386BSD was never party to any of them.

    My personal feeling is that the success of Linux was a combination of timing, personality and community response. Had Linus taken a more controlling stance (not a benevolent dictator), things might have gone very different.

  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @02:56PM (#38117846)

    Linus Torvalds himself says the same thing - that if it weren't for the BDSI lawsuits, he would have just used BSD.

    That is not the same thing. Torvalds is saying Linux likely would not have existed. That doesn't mean the success of Linux is correlated to the temporarily hamstrung BSD, that simply means Linux may not have had an opportunity to succeed if BSD was not hamstrung because it would not have existed.

    No, the most enthusiastic Linux developer and hobbyist is saying he would have spent his time somewhere else if BSD were available. Other early developers would have had similar behaviors. The pool of people willing to work on Linux would have been severely diminished. In other words, there would not have been a vacuum for Linux to fill.

  • by DrJimbo ( 594231 ) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @04:51PM (#38118802)

    As far as AST's assertion that Linux is "spaghetti" code, no no no, look at the code for yourself. The components in Linux are very well separated. Linux keeps them separated by coding discipline rather than by some technical enforcement (like different address spaces), but this discipline is kept up very well.

    Here is a link [] to a good example of of such discipline. It contains excerpts from a discussion on the lkml over the use of "goto" in Linux kernel code. The kernel devs have found a situation where the judicious use of "goto" makes the code cleaner, clearer, and easier to maintain. The wisdom of this use is challenged by someone who dogmatically believes that all goto statements are evil. It is quite amusing (and a little sad).

  • by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Monday November 21, 2011 @12:53AM (#38121258) Journal

    You mean, once FreeBSD got SMP, in 1999? Three years behind Linux? You're right, that's not a decade, but it's still poor.

    For a complete counter example, try USB support. Now that was a nightmare...

  • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Monday November 21, 2011 @06:55AM (#38122442) Journal

    Mac OSX is effectively BSD, though - the proof of the pudding and all that is that when I'm writing system software tools on my OSX machine, to port them to OpenBSD or NetBSD, I simply have to run "make". However, to port to Linux there's usually one or two small #ifdefs I have to add to get it to work (and of course, for Windows generally quite a lot more). While it might not be a BSD kernel, it feels like a family member of BSD when writing system tools.

Vitamin C deficiency is apauling.