Comparing Linux to System VR4

- by Paul Murphy -

Two weeks ago I asked for reader help in getting documentation on early ninties System VR4 Unix to help understand what things you can do with Linux today but could not do with AT&T System VR4.

The question was naive and I need more help (and aspirin) in struggling toward a better answer than I've reached so far. In fact, because my interest was originally sparked by Mr. Torvald's comment that he has nothing to learn from Solaris, the comparison should have been to the SunOS 5.0 kernel from 1992. That kernel, of course, was the first to extensively address the two things that most differentiate the Linux kernel today from SVR4 then: threading and user space operations.

My request for help included a list of some things you can do with Solaris but not with Linux and over forty readers sent me email responding to this by telling me that Linux (or, in several cases, Windows) can do all of those things. I'm sorry to say that I got a little brusque in my responses after the first half dozen or so of these -so as you'll see below, I do need more help, but please don't tell me that MPO is NUMA or that ZFS is an LVM.

On the other hand those responses suggested a frightening thought for future exploration: that the knowledge gap between the Linux and Solaris communities may be much bigger than I think it is. If true, that has interesting implications for Sun's OpenSolaris effort.

On the other hand, ignorance cuts both ways. Not only had I asked the wrong question to start with, but I found myself feeling less and less adequate to understand just what is going on with the Linux kernel as I dug deeper into it. The udev stuff seems pretty clear, but threading isn't. Indeed I'm starting to believe that threading doesn't have a legitimate role in the Intel x86 hardware environment because the hardware itself defeats the goal of true concurrency between threads -and if you can't achieve concurrency, what point is there in threading?

Imagine, for example, trying to build a compiler able to produce an efficient executable in exactly one pass. Nobody does this now, for obvious design reasons consequent to an underlying sequential processing assumption, but it shouldn't be impossible. "All" it would take is a complete re-appraisal of everything we know about optimization and related issues in a truly concurrent, shared-everything, multi-threading environment with enough threads. That's not in cards for Linux on either x86 or Cell, but may soon become possible on Sun's throughput computing chipsets as these gain in both number of threads and cache size.

The original question can probably be better rephrased in terms of a comparison of the ideas and inventions made real in the two kernels: VR4 vs. generic Linux 2.6. In other words, if you had to teach an advanced course in operating systems theory, which kernel would better illustrate the implementation ideas you'd need to get across? Pending further research my guess is that the right answer here is System VR4, mainly because it's almost equally portable but simpler and clearer. On the other hand this variation on the main question also raises new issues because many of the changes made to process and memory management between the 2.4 and 2.6 Linux kernels look a bit artificial -meaning that they don't seem to be direct continuations of code evolution up to 2.4 and thus raise the suspicion that the SCO/IBM lawsuit may be having some unexpected design consequences.

Change the focus, however, to imagine a course in kernel level programming and the Linux kernel is an easy winner because the intervening twelve years of widespread effort and peer review have produced some extremely high quality code. Look, for example, at system calls and interfaces and you see first that they've more than doubled in number since VR4, but more importantly that overheads have generally shrunk in response to performance and reliability benchmarks that reward better kernel integration, better algorythms, and better coding.

Beyond the qualitative improvements there seem to be two main differences resulting, respectively, from the real emergence of Unix threading as a design technology and the somewhat imaginary emergence of the server/desktop distinction fomented by Microsoft marketing. In practice these mean that two things you can do easily with Linux: plug in a USB (or other bus) device like a camera and run a memory resident psuedo server like the Java Virtual Machine efficiently on a dual processor, cannot be done with comparable efficiency and reliability using System VR4. (Note that NCR MP-RAS on the voyageur architecture could have assimilated the USB and run the JVM, just not as efficiently and not as reliabily (especially with respect to service umounts).

This isn't to suggest that there aren't any cool new technologies in Linux; there are quite a few, but most seem to be implementations of things done elsewhere (particularly BSD) first rather than new solutions. Indeed I think that's the general conclusion I'm tending toward with respect to the comparison between Linux today and System VR4 then: the things that are new in Linux generally reflect adaptations of existing ideas to external change, while the things that are better reflect incremental code improvement rather than structural innovation.

The other half of the comparison, Linux to BSD, suggests an almost opposite effect. Both groups benchmark their efforts against performance and reliability, but the history of Linux, at least up to 2.4, has been far more evolutionary than BSD's. Compare Microport's AT&T Unix port for x86 running OpenLook on a PC with a Cornerstone card and monitor in 1992 to CDE running under Linux 2.4 for x86 today and there are enormous practical differences, but few conceptual ones. (Gnome and KDE, of course, are very different in both concept and execution -but they didn't come from the Minix/SysV foundation.)

In contrast the BSD people have had their technical focus fractured by more than a few explosive rebellions. As a result then and now comparisons reveal significant conceptual differences in the underlying technologies but fundamentally the same operational look and feel. Take a good look at Darwin, for example, and you'll find essentially nothing in the kernel that's directly from either BSD 4.3 or SunOS 4, but the ancestral relationship is blindingly obvious to anyone who's used both. That's counter-intuitive, but lots of things in these comparisons are. Straying beyond technology, for example, it seems that, despite the best efforts of and others, there are now more marginally incompatible Linuxes than BSDs -while many BSD people make a strong case for the belief that their periodically explosive development model is more cohesive than that imposed on Linux by major commercial interests like Red Hat and IBM.

If there's a real bottom line here, the one thing I'm clear on is that I haven't found it yet, but the questions raised have been more interesting that the answers -so more help would be welcomed.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.