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9front releases new version of Plan 9 OS fork: The Golden Age of Ballooning

Prepare to be confused

9front is a fork and continuation of Plan 9 from Bell Labs, which is what the minds behind UNIX and the C programming language went on to do next. It is also rather strange.

The Golden Age of Ballooning is the rather inscrutable name of the latest release from the 9front project. 9front is one of several projects that continues work on the Plan 9 operating system, which was relicensed under the GPL in 2014. Plan 9, or more formally (and nowadays somewhat inaccurately, 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 OSes out there. What's significant about Plan 9 is that it, and its special dialect of the C programming language, are the direct continuation of the original UNIX research project. Plan 9 was in some ways an effort to deliver some of the original promises of UNIX while also bringing it into the 1990s.

9front is probably the most active fork of Plan 9, and improves on the OS in a number of small ways: more drivers, more hardware support, a native x86-64 version, and so on. There's a reasonable potted summary of 9front here, and the project's own FQA [sic] file explains what's new in this release. You might well ask what an FQA is, and don't they mean FAQ? Well, a list of questions isn't much help, even if they are frequently asked; a list of frequent answers is much more use.

Turning FAQs into FQAs is emblematic of the 9front community's approach. The community has got into trouble for its odd sense of humor before, for example by including some unpleasant or shocking images on its site. This has been remedied somewhat, and this new homepage is an example, but don't be deceived. It's still not at all serious, and for a flavor, check out the links across the bottom of that page – and note that you won't get the same results every visit.

9front is a whimsical, jokey project, one that knows it is basically no use to ordinary computer users, so rather than just saying that, the maintainers of the website joke around until most people will just give up and go away. Even the 9front name and slogan – "the plan fell off" – is inspired by a classic Australian comedy sketch, "the front fell off". If you don't get the humor, you probably won't like the website, or indeed the OS – which is the point.

The Golden Age of Ballooning (this time the name's a Monty Python reference) delivers new and improved hardware support, including for various models of Raspberry Pi and the MNT Reform open-source laptop. 9front even boasts an installation program, and the Reg FOSS desk had it running in a VM in just a few minutes. That alone is quite a departure from classic Plan 9.

9front is not for everybody. In fact, it's for hardly anybody: the FQA page has a helpful "Plan 9 is not for you" section, and it's right. But that is followed by "Why Plan 9?" and "What do people like about Plan 9?" and they're all worth reading.

9front is an OS for programmers and hackers who enjoy writing code more than deploying it or running other people's. Saying that, it's an important OS and points the way to future computers. While Unix was designed for a text-based standalone minicomputer, Plan 9 has networking and a GUI built in and integral parts of the OS. Pretty much everything really is a file, with far fewer special devices and APIs.

Everything is mediated through the filesystem so huge amounts of drivers and code that have to live inside the kernel in traditional Unixes – which very definitely includes the vast Linux kernel – are userspace processes in Plan 9. As an almost accidental result, that means that Plan 9 renders a lot of the difficult design of microkernel OSes simply irrelevant.

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

It does have practical uses: for instance, it's the basis of the ATA over Ethernet protocol, designed for NAS clusters, which survived the collapse of its backer and is back in business.

Moore's Law stopped delivering major single-threaded performance gains about 15 years ago now, replaced by Koomey's Law. Now Wright's Law is more important. Small cheap chips will get smaller and cheaper, but the big ones probably won't get dramatically faster. The future has lots of tiny interconnected processors instead, and tools like Plan 9 show better ways to use them. ®

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