CIO Blast from the Past: 40 years of Multics, 1969-2009

CIO Blast from the Past: 40 years of Multics, 1969-2009

Multics pioneered hierarchical file systems, file access controls, and dynamic linking on demand

Multics lead developer and Turing Award winner, MIT's Professor Fernando J. Corbato [photo by Jason Dorfman, Creative Commons Attribution and ShareAlike licence]

Multics lead developer and Turing Award winner, MIT's Professor Fernando J. Corbato [photo by Jason Dorfman, Creative Commons Attribution and ShareAlike licence]

14. The source code of Multics MR 12.5 (November 1992) has been provided to MIT. What is it used for now and is it still relevant to people looking at operating system design?

The person to answer this question would be Roger Roach who managed and maintained the MIT version of Multics for many years and was instrumental in making the system listings public.

The general goal was to allow open inspection of all the machinery that was the system to any interested person. In a similar vein, Tom Van Vleck has taken a very inclusive historian's view of the project in his monumental compendium which is the Web site:

15. More generally, what do you think of the modern open source movement for operating system (and generally software) development? Have things changed much in the past 45 years of software research and development? Of course, nowadays we have the Internet which makes collaboration easier, but has the underlying concept changed much?

Open software, in contrast to proprietary software, is good since it minimizes mysteries. But as the tools and environments have improved and expanded over the last several decades, so have the sizes of software projects vastly mushroomed.

Some of this increase in size is just the inevitable accretion of new features offered to users, but I suspect some of it is bloat caused by too many modules overwhelming the programming team.

16. Another emerging trend in computing is the concept of grid or "cloud computing". Again, this is not new, but it has risen to prominence in recent years as suppliers offer computing capacity and applications "on demand". This is like time-sharing of computer resources for the public and a way of "continuous operation analogous to that of the electric power and telephone companies", which was a Multics design goal. What are your thoughts on public cloud computing and whether the model is a good one as more people adopt it?

Cloud computing sounds like a resurrection of time-sharing, but with important differences. A key issue is the integrity and physical location of the stored data. Also who keeps the data and how much can you trust them are fundamental questions that seem to be unaddressed. The descriptions I have seen of cloud computing gloss over these questions.

17. Where to now for Multics? What would you like to see happen with it over the next 40 years? The Web site seems to be keeping an active interest in all things Multics.

The future of Multics lies in its legacy, namely, the generation of people who directly learned from developing and using it. In addition the experience of designing and building Multics documented by its papers, manuals and books, serve as a significant case study for the future, for many of the lessons learned, apply to building any ambitious system.

The recent publication of the book "Principles of Computer System Design" by Frans Kaashoek and Jerry Saltzer (Morgan Kaufman, 2009) is an excellent example.

Saltzer began MIT's course 6.033, on the engineering of computer systems, in 1968. Kaashoek, who joined Saltzer when he came to MIT, continues to develop this fundamental course. 6.033 is also part of the OpenCourseWare content that MIT offers online which, includes chapters of the new book. Pretty exciting stuff!

I do not think anyone imagined 40 years ago the variety and multitude of changes that have occurred in the computing field today. I won’t try to guess the future, but am grateful that Multics seems to have a legacy of great descendants.

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