May 4th, 2015

Announcing the Birth of Hurd

After a 25 year gestation, Hurd has finally been born. It was a difficult birth and it’s now being kept in an incubator under the care of Debian.

For many years GNU’s always almost ready to be born operating system microkernel, Hurd, has been the butt of many jokes and Facebook memes, so it came as something of a surprise to read in Larry Cafiero’s Friday column that it’s now ready enough for Debian, which is offering a somewhat experimental and unstable release of Debian/GNU Hurd. An earlier attempt at a Hurd based distro, by Arch, seems to have died on the vine back in 2011, although a 2013 posting promises that development is still underway, with no news since.

Hurd logo

The Hurd logo illustrates the microkernel’s modular design.

For those new to FOSS, or who have been too tightly focused on the various flavors of Linux to notice, Hurd is an operating system kernel (more precisely, a microkernel) that was begun in 1990 by the folks at GNU shortly before Linus Torvalds began his grand experiment in ’91 that morphed into Linux. Intended to complete the GNU stack, Hurd is like Linux insofar that its a Unix like kernel, but different in that it has a totally modular construction.

As might be expected, Debian GNU/Hurd is not yet ready for prime time, and probably won’t be for some time to come. The developers at Debian warn that the project “does not provide the performance and stability you would expect from a production system.” According to a FAQ published on the Debian website, at present 79 percent of Debian packages are available to the Hurd project, which is up from just 50 percent in September. This doesn’t mean, however, that all of the packages are ready to run, “as we have obviously not tested all of them.”

There is something of a consensus from many developers that the modular nature of Hurd will will eventually result in added performance and stability over Linux after the bugs are worked out. However, that opinion is far from universal, with some developers expressing the belief that Hurd’s basic design might create more problems than it solves. I’ll leave that to the techno-geeks to work out, as this is entirely above my pay grade (and another reason why we’d like to take on a writer with some technical chops here at FOSS Force if our current fundraising campaign surpasses its goal).

For the time being, it’s obvious that Hurd will remain in the realm of the hobbiest and experimenter, basically the same crowd that adopted Linux in the early ’90s and helped the project get off the ground. Currently there are too few developers working on the project to expect rapid development. However, if Debian and the folks at GNU can get a few bugs ironed out, we just might see the likes of IBM and Red Hat take an interest and contribute development dollars and manpower to the mix. If that happens, the project might advance rapidly. Time will tell.

In the meantime, this is an exciting development for FOSS and one that should be watched closely.

The time has come for FOSS Force to grow and offer expanded coverage of free and open source software and free tech. For this reason, we have declared the month of May to be “Pledge Month” on FOSS Force and have launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo. You can get all of the details on our campaign page.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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18 comments to Announcing the Birth of Hurd

  • Mike

    Christine,

    This isn’t really new for Debian. I’ve not used it, so I can’t say for sure when the earliest release was, but the Debian mailing lists for the Debian/hurd port go back to 1998.

    https://lists.debian.org/debian-hurd/

  • Mike

    Just thought I’d add that for some time now, Debian has offered three kernels, although many people don’t realize it:

    Debian GNU/Linux
    Debian GNU/Hurd
    Debian GNU/kFreeBSD

  • Hunkah

    I’m reposting something I saw once… but totally agree with…

    I think the use of GNU when referring to Linux needs to be stopped.

    GNU is a project that is owned by Richard M. Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. Stallman himself says that Linux is not a part of his operating system he calls GNU. Linux is built by Linus Torvalds with its own goals and direction and doesn’t have the same goals or direction that GNU has.

    If you were a part of Free Software Foundation or standing in RMS’s shoes, then making the distinction that GNU is using the Linux Kernel is important, because you aren’t using the full GNU operating system promoted by the Free Software Foundation, and their understanding of the word “free” has a specific meaning to them which is not necessarily shared by the rest of the Open Source world.

    So Linux (as in the OS) should be called Linux and GNU/Linux is something that RMS is required to say when his GNU OS isn’t using the GNU kernel he calls “Hurd”. Since Hurd isn’t as popular or even as mature as the Linux kernel, GNU is better using the Linux kernel in most cases.

    RMS should be embarrassed to suggest that we all say GNU/Linux when referring to Linux. Calling Linux, GNU/Linux, means he is compromising his passion and position on what free software means to him.

    I fully respect RMS for his passion and focus and goals, and what he has accomplished, but I think he has lost sight of what’s important to him because of the popularity of Linux. Envy is ugly and for this he has lost respect points.

    If RMS ever gets to see this, I hope he understands that the license he has created is a beautiful thing, but to demand that everyone stick GNU in front of anything that someone else forks isn’t freedom. It’s control. It means you’ve compromised who you are because of envy.

  • Mike

    @Hunkah

    From someone who both agrees and disagrees with the FSF on about an equal basis. I use both the term GNU/Linux and just Linux depending on context. Sometimes it may seem pedantic, but there are times when it makes technical sense. Technically speaking, there really is no Linux operating system. The term “Linux” is sometimes used to refer to any operating system using the Linux kernel (I use it that way myself, sometimes), but it’s just an umbrella term. Used that way it is a convenient shorthand indicating a member of a huge family of operating systems using a mostly-common kernel. Many distros make changes to the kernel itself, so almost none of them could be held up as the “one true Linux”. Look at Debian for instance: Debian uses the GNU userspace, but it doesn’t have to be a Linux kernel (see my comment above). Another type of example is Android, which can use a vanilla Linux kernel (although it is often modified), but is most definitely not GNU. That’s why we get silly arguments over things like whether or not Android is “Linux”. It’s an imprecise term when used to refer to an OS (OS is itself an imprecise term, just to compound the problem). Examples: 1) Is Android Linux? 2) Is Ubuntu the same operating system as Open-WRT? 3) Is Debian Linux? The correct answers to those would be: 1) Yes it is a Linux kernel based operating system, but it is not GNU/Linux. 2) Not even close, even though they are both “Linux” in the sense they both use the Linux kernel. 3) It depends on the kernel you use.

    Having just built a Linux From Scratch box – http://www.linuxfromscratch.org
    it is pretty clear that the kernel is only one part of the overall OS. Yes, it is the engine that makes it go, but even on a fairly minimal install the kernel is one file among some 30,000. Equally crucial to the OS are the compiler (GCC), basic binary utilities (binutils), and the base libraries (Glibc) all of which are GNU. Without these, you can’t compile the kernel, much less build an operating system.

    So GNU/Linux definitely means something other than an attempt at control. You mention forks, but Linux isn’t a fork of GNU, it means something completely different.

  • trevor

    Debian/HURD has been available for years. Please do more research in future.

    Here’s a mail archive from 2003.

    https://lists.debian.org/debian-hurd/2003/06/maillist.html

  • Hunkah

    Mike,

    I just pisses me off that the man that preaches freedom as though he invented the whole concept 300,000 years ago, refuses to abide by his own beliefs. Either software is free and we can use it in any way we want, or we are puppets and he should just join Microsoft. Where’s the line? If I fork someone work and choose to make it better or complete it or use it for my own work… then that is a fork. I am not “joining” the old system, I am building a new system.

    Linus is not working under Richard. He is doing his own thing. Linus wanted to build an operating system. He just got stuck in a permanent position of building a kernel while everyone else ended up doing what he had planned.

    The point is, everyone is using the OS that Linus started. Without Linus, whould GNU even be a real thing?

    I give every respect to RMS for his vision, his GCC, his whatever else… but thousands of people have contributed to all this work, not just RMS. Where is the recognition to all these other people? Is it called GNU/Mike/Peter/Sam/Frank… no… it’s just called GNU after the project that RMS started. Just like Linux is named after the project that Linus started. It’s a total fork of desire, concept, dreams, vision, attitude and everything else. FREEDOM TO CHANGE…

    This whole thing is stupid. Either people are free to do, or they’re locked into a rules-based system that only RMS gets to decide how it’s all played out.

    Call it GNU/bullshit, I don’t care… but I choose to see the original goal of freedom.

  • Mike

    @Hunkah

    GNU is a set of userland tools.

    Hurd and Linux are kernels.

    You need both to make an operating system. Calling the resulting combination Linux, GNU/Linux, or whatever doesn’t change the fact the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    Just because Stallman thinks it should be called GNU/Linux doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like he’s trying to withhold usage of it until people do what he wants. Mountain…meet molehill.

    …and Linux is not some kind of fork of GNU stuff. They are completely separate things. Things like Gnome, bash, grub, and GCC are part of the GNU project.

  • […] Anunciando el nacimiento de Hurd (EN) […]

  • Sum Yung Gai

    For the purposes of this article, I don’t give a whit about the GNU/Linux vs. Linux nomenclature, even though I generally do call the general-purpose distributions, “GNU/Linux”. Rather, I’m pleased to hear about the HURD’s progress. It’s been a long time coming, and yes, Debian’s had a distro with the HURD for quite some time now. That said, it’s great to see it continue with the new Jessie version. Let’s see where things go with it.

    –SYG.

  • bjr

    The idea that anyone is still wasting their time on a project that should have died 20 years ago is incredibly sad. Microkernels were a 1980s idea that like the RISC vs CISC debate in CPU architectures turned out to be largely irrelevant. If HURD was ever going to succeed they needed to be where they are now back in 1991 and they should have had a fully functional system by 1993 but their team was obviously incompetent. It only took a small team to build an OS back then. I designed a number of CPUs at various companies in the late 70s to the early 90s. Both the OS teams and the CPU teams were very small, generally a couple of key designers and a total team size of less than 10. It would take two to three years to get a product out the door, if it went longer than that the product was doomed to failure. Linux got the first version of Linux out in a very short time, and it was a usable OS within a couple of years, that’s example of doing it right. By 1995 it should have been clear that HURD was never going to succeed and it should have been killed.

  • Hunkah

    Mike again and for the last time,

    Hurd is part of the overall GNU OS. Do you seriously think that RMS was going to call his OS GNU/Hurd? The whole thing was just supposed to be called GNU. It was a project name… an OS. Just like Linus said in the overly abused saying, “Hello everyone out there… ” He was going to build an OS, not just a kernel. He just got stuck making the Kernel better and better.

    Again, credit goes to RMS for building the GPL and all that, but if other people weren’t helping him, he wouldn’t have had half what he does.

    …And as if Microsoft or anyone for that matter has ever separated parts of a program and called it Windows/NTFS or OSX/BSD, or Microsoft Office/word/spreadsheets/database/visio/spell checker. No, you call the project by it’s name. Microsoft Office.

    None of what you’re selling is going to be bought by me.

  • niteslacker

    @hunkah
    gnu by rms was the principles laid down before he got out to developing hurd (just another kernel)

    to each his own and thats where linus had made linux kernel for a personal unix because of high costs of unix licences then…

    basically just different kernels to tackle corporate licences

    RMS forcing you to say GNU/Linux surely, he doesnt mean monopoly or control in it but rather just the principles of free software which was later recognized by torvalds ….hence linux came to be called the gnu/linux by some which basically means gnu licence is followed….you can view edit and share source code with no profit intend….and yes ofcourse including the gnu licence in any distro you make out of it (thats feeding an os to it with apps for users) or anything you do with the code that is….

  • Mike

    @Hunkah,

    Let me say something, because you sound irritated. I’m not trying to convince you to call anything by any name. Call it “FredOS” if you like. What I’m trying to do is explain that on a technical level, people calling it GNU/Linux are no less correct than people calling it just Linux.

    > “He was going to build an OS, not just a kernel. He just got stuck making the Kernel better and better.”

    …and Stallman’s GNU project was going to build an OS. They built a chunk of it and got stuck when it came to the kernel because of an overly ambitious design. How’s that any different? 20 years later, Stallman’s group never finished their kernel, and Linus never made any parts other than the kernel. They’re both incomplete by that measure.

    > “Again, credit goes to RMS for building the GPL and all that, but if other people weren’t helping him, he wouldn’t have had half what he does.”

    And Linus didn’t build Linux by himself. What about the thousands (yes there are thousands) of other Linux kernel developers? I don’t see Stallman doing anything Linus isn’t. The two pieces are complementary…even THEY know it.

    > “…And as if Microsoft or anyone for that matter has ever separated parts of a program and called it Windows/NTFS or OSX/BSD, or Microsoft Office/word/spreadsheets/database/visio/spell checker. No, you call the project by it’s name. Microsoft Office.”

    Sure, if you’re selling a product. Reality is more complicated than marketing however, and the truth is that Debian GNU/Linux is very different from Debian GNU/kFreeBSD, which is very different from Android, which is nothing like Chromium. When Wayland comes into the mix, then X-Windows based distros will be different from Wayland ones. Busybox distros are different than others. There’s a point of diminishing returns with accurate naming, and everyone likes simplicity, but it doesn’t change the underlying reality.

    > “None of what you’re selling is going to be bought by me.”

    You’re free to call it anything you like. Whatever anyone calls “it” (and there really is no “it”, as almost every distro is really a separate operating system), there is one truth:

    Neither Stallman’s GNU project, nor Linus’ Linux project made a complete functional operating system.

    Together, with a bunch of additional parts thrown in, they become one.

  • CW

    Hobbiest?! Methinks you refer to a hobbyist, as a person with a hobby, not someone most hobbie.

    OK, grammar nerd hat falling off now.

  • Hunkah

    My whole argument is that this software is free. If anyone is forcing anything, whether it be a set of tools, a price tag, a name change, that is NOT freedom. …and not the dream that RMS had.

    People creating Linux (as in the name of a project that is separate from the project that RMS is doing) should not be called anything other than the project name that it desires.

    The sides of our debate are getting a little blurred now because we’re at times arguing the same point.

    I’m totally bored with it now. I’m going to go eat breakfast.

  • I think it’s great news for computer programmers everywhere. They have a new challenge, and boy is it something. However, the Linux kernel with all open software is too mature and will not be threatened by this news.

    Linux still owns the server market and is the programmer’s first choice. Hurd is another FreeBSD.

  • […] Announcing the Birth of Hurd by Christine Hall. Published May 4, 2015. The GNU/Hurd operating system is finally becoming a […]