Bell Labs transfers copyright of influential ‘Plan 9’ OS to new foundation

Unix creators’ sequel-of-sorts seeks simpler licensing, fewer forks of OS that offered precursors to Linux, microservices, etc


Bell Labs has decided the time is right to transfer copyright of Plan 9, the not-Unix OS it created in the 1980s.

Now a unit of Nokia, Bell Labs’ announcement of the shift offers a brief history of the OS.

“Starting in the late 1980s, a group led by Rob Pike and UNIX co-creators Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie developed Plan 9,” wrote Marcus Weldon, corporate CTO and president at Nokia Bell Labs. “Their motivation was two-fold: to build an operating system that would fit an increasingly distributed world, and to do so in a clean and elegant manner. The plan was not to build directly on the Unix foundation but to implement a new design from scratch.”

That design was described as follows:

Plan 9 is built around a radically different model from that of conventional operating systems. The OS is structured as a collection of loosely coupled services, which may be hosted on different machines. Another key concept in its design is that of a per-process name space: services can be mapped on to local names fixed by convention, so that programs using those services need not change if the current services are replaced by others providing the same functionality.

The Register reviewed the OS in 2013 and described it as "weird" and "very minimal and lightweight."

While those are all fine qualities, Plan 9 never took off. But Weldon writes that the concepts it espoused have become popular.

“Plan 9's innovations found their way into many commercial OSes: the concept of making OS services available via the file system is now pervasive in Linux; Plan 9's minimalist windowing system design has been replicated many times; the UTF-8 character encoding used universally today in browsers was invented for, and first implemented in, Plan 9; and the design of Plan 9 anticipated today’s microservice architectures by more than a decade!”

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The new Plan 9 Foundation has shared an email between its members and Bell Labs that explains the reasons for the copyright transfer as follows:

"The transfer will benefit Plan 9 users both outside and inside of Nokia. Outside use and development has been stifled by the confusion around the current LPL license. Inside use is discouraged by a lack of community involvement and support. The foundation has been founded to maintain a ’common root’ under a less encumbering license such as the BSD or MIT ones."

Downloads and source code for the OS can be found here, including a Raspberry Pi version.

There’s more to come, eventually, as the foundation says its mission is to conduct “future development by following the practice and processes set forth by the original authors.” ®


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