Commentary: New OS options galore

Just when you think PowerPC is marginalized, all these operating systems appear--it will even help the Mac OS X, says ZDNet columnist Stephan Somogyi.

I've probably installed more new OSes from scratch over the past two months than during the entire preceding year. Not because of an extraordinary influx of new hardware--alas--but rather because of the vast number of new operating system options available for both x86 boxes as well as PowerPC-based machines.

To no one's surprise, the best-represented OS category is of the genus Unix, and includes its many and varied subspecies. While those on the x86 side of the fence are accustomed to--if not outright blasé about--the opulent choice of operating systems available to them, the PowerPC hasn't traditionally offered nearly as much choice. That has not only changed, but even continued to improve.

A/UX 4.0
Unix on Mac hardware has a long history. I still have vivid recollections of Apple's original Unix offering, A/UX, running on 64K hardware. A/UX 3.0 in particular was cool, since it offered a "classic" Mac environment that ran as a Unix process, while the Unix universe ran standard, protected, pre-emptively scheduled software. A/UX 3.0 users could run all the standard software they needed, as well as all the Unix software they wanted. Sound familiar?

But Apple never brought A/UX to the PowerPC. Fortunately, that didn't deter either the MkLinux or LinuxPPC projects from bringing the then fledgling GNU-licensed OS to Power Macs, but it was a struggle. Externally available hardware specs for Apple hardware are notoriously nonexistent, so the sheer tenacity of these early pioneers provided the underpinnings for all the Unix-y goodness to come.

PPC Linux goes mainstream-ish
Built upon the early work of the PowerPC Linux pioneers in getting the kernel running and keeping it that way, the next generation of Linux distribution providers is here.

Yellow Dog Linux (YDL) recently released version 2.0. A long time in the making, YDL is a PowerPC-hardware-only distribution, with no x86 counterpart.

Not to be outdone, SuSE has shipped several PowerPC versions, the most recent being version 7.1, which was released in March. Unlike YDL 2.0, which ships with Linux kernel 2.2.19 by default, SuSE 7.1 comes with the 2.4.2 kernel, with further updates on the way.

Finally, just under a month ago, Mandrake announced the availability of a beta of its 8.0 distro for PowerPC. I remember hearing about a Mandrake-for-PowerPC well over a year ago, and given the current state of affairs in the open source world, Mandrake is unlikely to have released its PowerPC distro on a whim. There has to be real demand, for without it, there is no business case to justify the time and effort spent on it.

Is it just me, or has the release of Mac OS X suddenly invigorated the Linux community to deliver distros that run well on Power Mac hardware?

But wait, there's more...

You see, Linux isn't the only Unix that's receiving developer attention on PowerPC-based hardware. OpenBSD 2.8 and 2.9 both run on Power Mac hardware, as does NetBSD 1.5 and later.

While I simply haven't had the time to install all these different OSes, I have had a chance to get SuSE Linux 7.1, OpenBSD 2.9 and NetBSD 1.5 onto my 266MHz thrasher iMac. Of course, given the strength of my personal Murphy field, this machine is the one with a version of Open Firmware that makes booting these OSes somewhat less than straightforward at times. On the glass-half-full side of the equation, I learned rather a lot about how to drive Open Firmware in the process.

None of these OSes is nearly as easy to install as OS X--or even Darwin--is on this same iMac. That said, these Unixes have significantly more mature code-bases and appear to behave in a more sprightly manner on the same hardware than Apple's new flagship OS.

I've run lmbench on all the Unix-like OSes installed on this test machine lately, but I haven't yet discovered the underlying cause of some of the performance differences I've seen when comparing these OSes. Until I do, I refuse to publish any benchmarks, since I'm all too familiar with the Clemens/Disraeli Law Of Statistical Analysis: "There are lies, damn lies and statistics."

Expect an update on these results once I have a better understanding of why the different OSes benchmark differently on the very same machine.

PowerPC lives
Much has been proclaimed about the flagging momentum of the PowerPC family, due to Motorola's apparently waning enthusiasm for desktop PowerPC processors. However, both Motorola and IBM continue to generate considerable revenue with embedded PowerPC processors (in the heart every TiVo, for example, oscillates a PowerPC).

IBM continues to aggressively develop workstation-class PowerPC processors, which may well find themselves in Apple-branded boxes before too long. At any rate, I don't expect to see the demise of the desktop PowerPC anytime soon, though I wouldn't be at all surprised if its stewardship changes a bit.

Apple has everything riding on the success of Mac OS X. However, the company is uninterested in supporting a great deal of hardware that remains eminently viable. If there's one lesson to be learned from the success of Linux on x86, is that Linux is a veritable elixir of youth for hardware too underpowered to run the "current" commercial OSes.

Even if Apple continues to support Mac OS X only on Apple hardware, the options for viable Unix-like OSes running on PowerPC-based hardware continue to grow. This is a very good thing for Mac OS X as well, since if Apple continues to tout OS X's Unix roots as a feature, OS X will have to compare favorably to other Unix-like OSes running on the same hardware.

ZDNet columnist Stephan Somogyi installed Windows XP for the first time this week. This column was, however, written under Mac OS X 10.0.4. Go figure.