Chapter 16. The Hurd and BSDI

The Hurd

Richard Stallman had long wanted a GNU replacement for the UNIX kernel. A first pass, Trix, barely got going in the late 1980s. This changed, however, when Thomas Bushnell came to Boston and joined the GNU effort.

Thomas was born in Albuquerque, NM. He attended Carnegie-Mellon University for a year (1985-86), the University of New Mexico for nearly two years, worked, enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and received a B.A. summa cum laude in 1999 in philosophy and classics. Thomas is a brother in the Brotherhood of St. Gregory, an Episcopal order. He received his M.A. in Philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, in 2003 and is currently a Ph.D. candidate there.

Thomas worked as an Assistant Systems Administrator at UNM from 1986-89 and for the FSF from 1990-1998. He told me:

I wrote a BASIC interpreter as a demonstration that I could code before I was hired. My interpreter had a feature that would let you dynamically load math functions out of the C library -- before shared libraries existed.

I worked on GNU tar as well, before my main work was the Hurd.

The GNU Hurd is the GNU project's replacement for the UNIX kernel. The Hurd is a collection of servers that run on the Mach microkernel to implement file systems, network protocols, file access control, and other features that are implemented by the UNIX kernel or similar kernels (such as Linux). Thomas told me:
RMS was a very strong believer -- wrongly, I think -- in a very greedy-algorithm approach to code reuse issues. My first choice was to take the BSD 4.4-Lite release and make a kernel. I knew the code, I knew how to do it. It is now perfectly obvious to me that this would have succeeded splendidly and the world would be a very different place today.

RMS wanted to work together with people from Berkeley on such an effort. Some of them were interested, but some seem to have been deliberately dragging their feet: and the reason now seems to be that they had the goal of spinning off BSDI. A GNU based on 4.4-Lite would undercut BSDI.

So RMS said to himself, "Mach is a working kernel, 4.4-Lite is only partial, we will go with Mach." It was a decision which I strongly opposed. But ultimately it was not my decision to make, and I made the best go I could at working with Mach and doing something new from that standpoint.

This was all way before Linux; we're talking 1991 or so.

Currently, the Hurd runs on IA32 machines. The Hurd should, and probably will, be ported to other hardware architectures or other microkernels in the future.

According to Thomas:

`Hurd' stands for `Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons'. And, then, `Hird' stands for `Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth'. We have here, to my knowledge, the first software to be named by a pair of mutually recursive acronyms.
The FSF states: "The Hurd, together with the GNU Mach microkernel, the GNU C Library and the other GNU and non-GNU programs in the GNU system, provide a rather complete and usable operating system today. It is not ready for production use, as there are still many bugs and missing features. However, it should be a good base for further development and non-critical application usage."

Unfortunately, the Hurd is late. By 1995, Linux had many users. By 2000, it was a well-understood and popular system. By 2005, Linux had millions of users and the support of IBM. It was seen as a threat by Microsoft. The Hurd, unfortunately, is still "not ready for production use."


BSDI was the first company to offer a full version of BSD Unix for the Intel platform.

Despite the fact that everything was in the public eye and exposed at the USL vs. BSDI trial, there appears to be confusion as to the history of BSDI.

I think Thomas was right, to a certain extent.

While several Berkeley developers were involved in the formation of BSDI in 1990-91, none left the University of California to join Berkeley Software Design, Inc. at the outset. BSDI was founded by Rick Adams, who told me: "It was my idea and my funding. I also handled the logistics (via UUNET) and the little matter of the lawsuit."

Donn Seeley related:

The first organizational meeting occurred at a bar in Boulder during the Boulder Berkeley Workshop in October 1990. I was invited to the meeting without any advance warning and to my surprise, I was offered a job. My recollection is that Rick, Mike, Kirk, Keith, and Bill J[olitz] were present at the meeting. I believe that a more formal meeting was held in early December 1990 at Kirk's house [in Berkeley], where we voted to go ahead with the proposal. I think this meeting was when we came up with the name BSDI.

We decided to work under UUNET's wing for a while so that we would not alert any potential competition; that continued until the summer of 1991. I was to start work as soon as possible; I took an extended vacation from my job at the University of Utah, and set up shop in my parents' basement in Bellingham, WA, with a PC provided by Rick, running mt Xinu Mach/BSD (I think). (I don't remember exactly when I gave notice at Utah, but I set things up so that my employment terminated shortly before the Winter Usenix [21-25 January 1991; Dallas].) I couldn't actually work directly on the OS, since it still contained licensed code at that point.

The BSD distribution was still hung up on the issue of certain possibly licensed files, so my job was to work on freely available software. I started with the compiler toolchain (based on GCC 1). Once it was clear that there would be missing files, I went ahead and wrote a replacement for the Berkeley init(8) program. I'm not sure whether Bill was working on BSDI-related stuff at this point, but I'm pretty sure that he had started by the time of the 1991 Winter Usenix, where we all met again.

At that time Kirk McKusick was President of USENIX, Rick was in Dallas to report on UUNET and recruit, Trent Hein was chairing the session on File Systems, and Keith Bostic and Mike Karels were part of the CSRG. It wasn't hard to call a meeting.

Trent was a student at the University of Colorado, where he was a co-author of both the UNIX and the Linux system administration handbooks. He worked on the 4.4BSD port to the MIPS architecture. More recently, he was co-founder of Applied Trust Engineering. He said:

I can concretely say that the original engineering team "hired" by BSDI (Spring, 1991) consisted of Donn Seeley, Bill Jolitz and myself. Bill left BSDI later that year. Rob Kolstad joined the BSDI team much later. [Kolstad was Secretary of USENIX at that time.]

Mike Karels told me:

I'd say that the founders were Rick Adams, Keith Bostic, Kirk McKusick, me, Bill Jolitz and Donn Seeley, in approximately that historical order. This group was involved at the time of formation. Bill and Donn were the first two full-time employees, and Trent started about the same time at just less than full-time. They worked for UUNET temporarily until the company started operations, which I think was about July 1991. Bill left at the end of November '91, and Rob [Kolstad] started December 1. The proximity of the dates is not a coincidence. I started February 1, 1992, at which time two Russians had also started, and also Jeff Polk. My departure from Berkeley and position at BSDI were announced at USENIX in January '92 [San Francisco], at which Bill made a famous appearance.
I asked Rick to clarify and he affirmed:
The first employees were Donn Seeley and Bill Jolitz. Peter Collinson signed on very early for European sales and Bob Kummerfeld for Australia.

We picked up Vadim Antonov and Igor Belchiskiy from USSR that fall (1991). Rob Kolstad came on as president in December 1991.

Donn Seeley provided yet more detail.
Bill believed that he deserved a larger role as systems architect, press contact and marketer. His coding contributions mainly came before he started working for UUNET/BSDI, by porting to PCs the drivers we'd written at Utah for HP 68k systems, and writing the locore assembly source and related files. As for Bill's departure, the straw that broke the camel's back was an issue with Bill's unauthorized expenses for a trip to Europe, if I recall correctly, but it was clear long before this point that Bill was not happy. Rick was BSDI's original president, but he was asked to separate UUNET from BSDI by UUNET's first big investors, so he enlisted Rob to replace him.
[There is a long and complex tale concerning Jolitz' departure and his appearance at the January 1992 USENIX meeting. I do not think it relevant to this narrative. One view may be found here.]

Insofar as Keith Bostic was concerned, he said:

I joined much later than Mike and the founders, though. I stayed at UC Berkeley for quite some time after BSDI was founded.
Another person mentioned by Rick was Peter Collinson. In 1980-81, Collinson (then at the University of Kent in Canterbury) was offered a USENET feed by Teus Hagen at the CWI in Amsterdam. They couldn't dial out, but the CWI would dial in, via a modem brought into the UK by Martin Levy. In April 1982, he was instrumental in the formation of EUnet.

"I think it was the Fall of 1993 that Rick asked me to sell things in Europe," Collinson told me.

The earliest date on a file that I have is September 1993. I think I was at a BSDI meeting at the Usenix conference in San Francisco in January 1994 [January 21-24].

When did I leave? -- we were forced out by the sales department at the end of 1995 -- we had the fax in September -- we settled and were gone by Jananuary 1996.

We in Europe did OK -- but we were not that good at Sales -- and would have had to think hard about Sales-led sales rather than Techy-led sales very soon anyway.

In 2000, BSDI merged with Walnut Creek CDROM and then with Telenet Systems. The next year, Wind River Systems purchased the software business. Renaming itself iXsystems with plans to specialize in hardware, the server business was acquired by Offmyserver in 2002. I asked Collinson why he thought BSDI had failed.
BSDI didn't really fail. It allowed Linux to flourish unhindered by lawsuits; but it was not really technically viable. BSDI couldn't move quickly enough to keep up with the technical changes -- and Linux could because of the customer base which was a new generation of UNIX hackers and lovers.

Excursus: The GPL and other licenses

A license is formal permission for something. In general, this is written permission. Historically, such things began with (unwritten) permission to "go upon or use the land of another" -- to cross a lord's manor or forest, for example -- as a "personal privilege, not constituting an interest in the land."

Copyright is a form of license. It is a license granted by the state to the "author." The first copyright statute was the Statute of Anne, usually cited as 1709. (As with almost everything, the date is ambiguous: the Statute was introduced in 1709, but "passed into law" on 10 April 1710. The actual publication of the Act [BL 8 Anne c. 19, 261] is just headed "Anno Octavo." But, as the eighth year of Anne's reign terminated on 17 March 1710, contemporaries must have thought of the statute as dating from 1709. On the other hand, Adam Budd [TLS 15 July 2005, p. 24] calls it "The Copyright Act of 1710.")

At any rate, the Statute required booksellers to record their titles in the Stationer's Register to gain protection for their "literary property." All registrations stem from this. [[Anyone interested in the history should read Ronan Deazley's On the Origin of the Right to Copy (Oxford, 2004).]]

In addition to copyright, the law recognizes patents and trade secrets (as well as trademarks and "trade dress"), insofar as intellectual property rights are concerned. Until a few years ago, it was generally held that patents needed to be capable of physical instantiation. In 1997, patents on "business methods" were recognized. The next year, filed for a patent on "one-click" purchasing. In 2005, the battle over software patents is still being fought.

There is no formal filing where trade secrets are concerned, and most suits have concerned improprieties: breach of contract and outright theft, for example. Attempting to keep the knowledge secret (think of the famed Coca-Cola recipe) is basic here.

To all effects and purposes, software licensing began when UNIX was ported to the Interdata 7 (in Australia) and the Interdata 8 (at BTL). Prior to that, an OS ran only on the machine with which it was sold or, in the case of UNIX, on the PDP-11. (And, if you were running UNIX and had the misfortune to call DEC service, they would tell you they "didn't know" about the alien system.)

The first "open source" license was that of the University of California at Berkeley (I will not distinguish between "free" and "open" source at this time). It came about through an active belief in academic freedom -- the right to examine and investigate.

As has been related earlier, the specific impetus given to Stallman to write the original version of the GPL was the refusal of LISP Machines to share their code.

Though there are now over 50 variants on the BSL and the GPL, they all trace their roots to these two. And, actually, I see both of these as having a common origin in "the right to tinker."

My guess is that there is no one reading this whose childhood is not littered with the parts of alarm clocks, toy trains, toasters, robots, radios, etc. (Yes, there is always an extra screw, gear or spring.) Part of learning how things work is taking them apart and reassembling them (or attempting to). Part of learning is destructive analysis.

And that tinkering leads to improvements.

Both the BSL and the GPL are founded in the notion that opening source code to examination leads to extensions and improvements that can subsequently be reincorporated into future code.

But proprietary software (and hardware) don't permit that.

In fact, as Professor Edward Felten has repeatedly pointed out, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), specifically criminalizes tinkering. It also criminalizes, for example, access to no-longer-current Web pages (The Wayback Machine was sued by Healthcare Advocates for retaining archived pages to be recalled: New York Times 13 July 2005. While the courts may dismiss the suit, its very presence chills debate.).

(In Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," the wolf, in his haste, swallowed the duck whole. In their headlong run to "protect" everything, the US Congress added DMCA Title V, sections 1301-1332, to protect "Vessel Hull Designs." Formerly, because, hulls are "useful articles whose form cannot be clearly separated from their function," their design was not protected under copyright law. Such design now is.)

To take a bad law to its extreme, the letter of the DMCA would appear to make, for example, tinkering with the mechanism on a child's bank (if a key is lost or mislaid) criminal, for it does not distinguish among "security devices" (though, in general the DMCA does specify copyright matters).

While the evils of the large media-producing companies are many, this "slop-over" into other areas was, I'm sure, unintentional. However, the DMCA in the US (the parallel has not yet been enacted in Canada, though it has been tabled in Parliament), and its support by WIPO, are truly stultifying where research and development are concerned.

For details on the run of licenses, see Rosen's superb book [[Lawrence Rosen, Open Source Licensing, Prentice Hall PTR, 2005]]. However, I'd like to mention some things I believe make a few licenses beyond the GPL and Berkeley important. (A large number of licenses may be found on

"Free as in freedom."