Helios: Another Microsoft operating system project to watch

Helios: Another Microsoft operating system project to watch

Summary: Microsoft's researchers are working on yet another operating-system research project which can trace its roots to the company's Singularity project. This new operating system, known as Helios, is a heterogeneous multiprocessing platform built around satellite kernels.


Microsoft's researchers are working on yet another operating-system research project which can trace its roots to the company's Singularity project. This new operating system, known as Helios, is a heterogeneous multiprocessing platform built around satellite kernels.

(The folks over at the Ma-Config.com blog sent me a pointer to Helios after I wrote last week about another Microsoft Research operating system project, codenamed "Barrelfish." Without the link they provided, I wouldn't have found information about Helios, as it isn't listed on the active projects page for Microsoft Research. Microsoft researchers have written a 14-page paper on Helios, however, which is slated for publication in October.)

Singularity, in case you need a quick refresher, is a microkernel operating system and set of related tools and libraries that is developed completely in managed code. Singularity is not based on Windows; it was written from scratch as a proof-of-concept. Microsoft's Midori incubation project is another effort which can trace its lineage to Singularity.

What, exactly, is Helios? From the soon-to-be-published ACM paper about it:

"Helios is an operating system designed to simplify the task of writing, deploying, and tuning applications for heterogeneous platforms. Helios introduces satellite kernels, which export a single, uniform set of OS abstractions across CPUs of disparate architectures and performance characteristics. Access to I/O services such as file systems are made transparent via remote message passing, which extends a standard microkernel message-passing abstraction to a satellite kernel infrastructure. Helios retargets applications to available ISAs by compiling from an intermediate language."

According to the paper, the team built Helios by modifying the Singularity research development kit (RDK) to support satellite kernels, remote message passing and affinity. They implemented satellite-kernel support on two different hardware platforms: an Intel XScale programmable PCI Express I/O card and cache-coherent NUMA architectures. Helios "treats programmable devices as part of a 'distributed system in the small,'" according to Microsoft's description, and "is inspired by distributed operating systems such as LOCUS, Emerald and Quicksilver."

The Helios researchers describe Helios and Barrelfish, another Microsoft Research OS project, as complementary. From the paper:

"Barrelfish focuses on gaining a fine-grained understanding of application requirements when running applications, while the focus of Helios is to export a single-kernel image across heterogenous coprocessors to make it easy for applications to take advantage of new hardware platforms."

While there has been lots of talk about what Microsoft is planning to deliver as the successor to Windows, it's worth remembering that Singularity, Barrelfish, Helios and Midori are all in early stages -- and might not ever be commercialized. While Microsoft officials don't mind talking about the office of 2019, they don't want to share anything at all on the version of Windows expected in 2011/2012, let alone anything beyond that. So it's tough to say how/if any of these future OS projects will influence the next big OS thing at Microsoft. Still, they're all definitely worth watching....

Topics: Software, Microsoft, Operating Systems


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • helios == hot air for PR

    Just move on people, M$ does not even expect to sell it.
    As the name suggests a gassy substance, I expect that M$ tried the 15 minutes worth of fame with it.
    Linux Geek
    • Your post doesn't make sense...

      Mary Jo had to dig to find this information, which may not have been for public consumption (it is after all a research project). So, Your post saying that this is PR by Microsoft makes no sense...
      Roque Mocan
      • controlled leak?

        have you heard of them?
        Linux Geek
        • Its a research OS

          Its a research OS it will NEVER see the light of say, these guys are acedemics they just want to publish papers. So hardly a leak , the real OS is Midori which is underdevelopment for 2 years and still no where near finished and yes no controlled leaks /Vapor where as it has not been announced.
  • RE: Helios: Another Microsoft operating system project to watch


    Microsoft didn't TRY to get any PR on it. If they did, you would see it more places than just here. Microsoft Research always has some stuff going around and M.J. as usual will report on it if it is interesting (that's what she does). So you can stop your lameness now. Why don't you go sudo something? ;)
  • Future successors to Windows

    I'm happy to see they are working on serious potential
    replacements. We're long overdue for a 21st century replacement
    for all the crappy operating systems we're currently using.
    • I'm not using a crappy OS

      Mine is pretty good. Not perfect but very good. Not Windows.
  • Helios was an OS designed by Atari. [nt]

    • Really? Because I thought that...

      HeliOS was a Unix-like operating system for parallel computers developed and sold by Perihelion Software.
    • Correction - Helios was a transputer OS!

      For those lucky enough to have worked on Transputers, this may ring some bells ;)


      For those too young to remember, transputers took the notion of combining small, cheap processors into networks/grids of processors cooperating on completing a given set of computations. They were phenominally powerful and liberating but were swines to debug! ;)

      Interestingly, C.A.R. ("Tony") Hoare (inventor of Quicksort) went on to define CSP - a language for coordinating communications between simultanously executing processes. This then begat the language Occam which transputers used as their core language.

      Tony continued his research and, now at Microsoft Research, has contributed his ideas to Singularity and beyond.

      It's amazing how far ahead of his time he was!
  • Please use the correct terminology Mary Jo

    Since we are talking kernel, you should be saying "Singularity is not based on NT" instead of "Singularity is not based on Windows".

    Windows, (Win32 subsystem), runs ON the NT kernel but isn't the kernel. Posix and OS2 are other possible subsystems.

    • Yes, it is not built on the NT kernel

      Singularity is based on neither the NT kernel nor on Windows itself. It is not a Windows derivative; it is a new OS built from scratch. MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
  • Managed code!

    nice :) I like how that sounds, more power for developers (in the sense of productivity)