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The Daemon, the GNU & the Penguin, Ch. 14, by Dr. Peter H. Salus
Thursday, June 30 2005 @ 08:30 PM EDT

Here you are, Chapter 14 of Peter Salus' The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin. This chapter in his ongoing history of Free and Open Sources is on Plan 9 and Inferno. More information on Inferno on Freshmeat and on Plan 9 and Inferno in this interview with Michael Jeffrey, CEO of Vita Nuova, who says this:

"In the mid-80s Bell Labs stopped research and development into UNIX. It is reported that they considered ‘the problems with UNIX were too deep to fix’. Instead they focused their energies on the design and implementation of a new operating system that became known as Plan 9. The Plan 9 operating system at one level will feel familiar to anyone with a UNIX background; many of the UNIX commands and utilities are available in Plan 9 and programs are written in C. Plan 9 however, is fundamentally different in its structure."

Inferno is dual licensed; the Free version is distributed with subcomponents under the GPL/LGPL, the MIT-template, the Lucent Public License, and Free Type, or, "if the result of your work using Inferno will not or cannot be made Free Software," you can choose the Vita Nuova Commercial Developer Licence. Plan 9 is distributed under the Lucent Public License Vs. 1.02.

Here are the earlier chapters of Dr. Salus' book:


The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin

~ by Peter H. Salus

Chapter 14. BTL after UNIX: Plan 9 and Inferno

In July 1990, I flew from Boston to London for the UKUUG Conference. (I was to give a talk on UNIX standards and specifications.) But there were three talks on the program that blew me away.

They concerned "Plan 9" a new OS being worked on at Bell Labs. It was named Plan 9 from Bell Labs after "Plan 9 from Outer Space," perhaps the worst science fiction movie ever filmed.

Plan 9 is a UNIX clone. But it presents a consistent interface which is easy to use. I am not going to go into it at any length. But, it was the successor to UNIX, which, Rob Pike said, was dead: "It's been dead for so long it doesn't even stink any more." 1

Rob delivered the keynote address at the UKUUG: "Plan 9 from Bell Labs." He's now at Google.

Dave Presotto then spoke about "Multiprocessor Streams for Plan 9." He's at Google, too.

Tom Duff talked about "Rc -- A Shell for Plan 9 and UNIX Systems." Tom's now at Pixar, the proud owner of parts of several Oscars.

Fifteen years later, what had been the UNIX group (1127) has been dispersed. In addition to Rob, Dave and Tom,

  • Ken Thompson retired to California;
  • Brian Kernighan is a Professor at Princeton;
  • Phil Winterbottom is CTO at Entrisphere;
  • Gerard Holzmann is at NASA/JPL Laboratory for Reliable Software;
  • Bob Flandrena is at Morgan Stanley;
  • Sean Dorward is at Google;
Dennis Ritchie and Howard Trickey remain at Lucent/BTL.

But, before it disappeared, the "1127 group" made yet another contribution to OS development: Inferno.

Inferno is a compact OS designed for building "cross-platform distributed systems." It can run on top of an existing OS, or as a stand-alone. The nomenclature owes much to Dave Presotto, who founded it firmly in Dante. The company marketing Inferno is Vita Nuova; the communications protocol is Styx; applications are written in type-safe Limbo, which has C-like syntax.

The 4th edition of Inferno was released in 2005 as free software, but under a mixture of licenses.

1In the July 2005 issue of IEEE Spectrum, there's an article "The End of AT&T" with the blurb:

Once the world's largest company, Ma Bell will soon vanish. But its innovations -- from the transistor to communications satellites to laser cooling-live on. By Michael Riordan

Note what's important. CS isn't.

Dr. Salus is the author of "A Quarter Century of UNIX" and several other books, including "HPL: Little Languages and Tools", "Big Book of Ipv6 Addressing Rfcs", "Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Imperative Programming Languages", "Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and Beyond", and "The Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Functional, Concurrent and Logic Programming Languages". There is an interview with him, audio and video,"codebytes: A History of UNIX and UNIX Licences" which was done in 2001 at a USENIX conference. Dr. Salus has served as Executive Director of the USENIX Association.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

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