Archive for May 16, 2015

Aros, a Linux alternative

May 16, 2015 2 comments

Lately I have written quite a lot about the old Amiga platform. The reason I am so excited about this is not because I’m reminiscing about my childhood, or because I’m trying to sell anything. Quite the opposite.

What I would like to present is a modern, working and extremely effective alternative to Linux. Because that’s what Aros and Morphos represents. I know this view may come as a surprise on people, even those active in the Amiga retro computing community. But it’s non-the-less true.

What is an operative system?

An operative system is a methodology. Windows represents one such method, and by using their method and doing what Microsoft wants you to – you achieve and can enjoy the features Microsoft delivers through Windows.

OS X is likewise a methodology, it is wildly different from Windows and offers an equally different user experience. Where Microsoft Windows focus more on being a workhorse for all things technical (which I personally think is better than OS X), Apple focus more on creativity, special effects and visual beauty over technical achievements.

One of many, many ports

One of many, many ports

Linux represents the third methodology. It’s both different from and equal to the two aforementioned systems. It is open, free and can be customized and tailored to the needs and wants of it’s users. The downside of this freedom is that compared to Windows and OS X, Linux is extremely hard to work with on a lower level. You really need to know your stuff once you move away from the desktop, and if you want to make distinct changes to the operative system – you must be prepared to master and excel at C/C++ programming.

What about Aros and Morphos

Now that we have put words on what an operative system represents and which alternatives are out there (there are more operative systems of course, but these 3 methodologies represents the most widely accepted) – it’s time to look at a completely different and very exciting alternative. Namely Aros.

Linux has an interesting story which in many ways resemble Aros’s own history. If we go back in time to before Linux existed, universities and science programs primarily used Unix. Unix is after all designed to deal with hundreds and thousands of users, to keep data separate and to provide safety and security for everyone with an account. So it’s perfect for college campuses, scientific organizations and businesses.

Emulation is excellent :)

Emulation is excellent 🙂

But one day a small group of people started to rebel against the proprietary nature of Unix. Back then Unix was overly expensive, so expensive that no ordinary person would afford to own it. So this small group of people got together and decided to write a complete operative system simply called GNU. This system was free, open for all and could be downloaded for no fee what so ever.

There was only one problem with GNU and that was that they didn’t have a kernel which was written from scratch, so people were using the Unix kernel quite illegally. But one day a guy from Finland called Linus Torvaldson came along and wrote exactly that missing piece. Voila, Gnu/Linux was born!

The Aros story is of course different, but there are some commonalities between the two. Aros dates back to the days when Commodore went bankrupt. It was unsure what would happen to the Amiga, would it end up at gateway computing? Would Escom buy it? Maybe Haage & Partner?

In the midst of all this a group of coders joined forces and decided enough was enough. Commodore went bankrupt after years of abhorrent business decisions, wasting and throwing away the potential of the Amiga platform, losing the lead they had over PC and Mac due to negligence and greed — so these guys just had it with Commodore all together. They decided to reverse engineer the operative system from scratch to ensure that no matter what these financial cowboys end up doing — at least Aros would be there as a safe-haven for serious users.

Years of development

Aros has been in development ever since commodore went bankrupt in 1996. It represents a monumental piece of engineering, writing a complete operative system from scratch using nothing but technical documentation and API user-manuals as their source. The group has solved all the tasks which Commodore and it’s troll representatives gave as excuses to why AmigaOS would not be ported to x86. They have solved the 64k memory problems deemed so hard to work with by Microsoft and and others, and last but not least – they have solved the missing kernel which haunted GNU before it became GNU/Linux.

And even if Aros made full use of the Linux kernel and driver database, it would still represent a profound achievement in computing. Raise your hand everyone who knows a programmer which refuses to give up – and continues working 19 years later (nineteen years, that’s just mind boggling).

The question is, what does Aros give you, the user?

The Amiga methodology

As clarified at the beginning of this article an operative system is essentially a methodology. It’s a way of thinking, a way of working and ultimately a way to approach technology and gain access to it’s benefits.

Aros has come a long way since 1996!

Aros has come a long way since 1996!

The reason Windows users find Linux so utterly difficult is because absolutely everything is different. Linux is based on a completely different mindset, and it forces it’s users to develop a specific mode of thought which in turn educates them about the system. The same can be said about Aros, except here everyone will find something familiar to them, because Microsoft, Apple and GNU have all copied and stolen parts of the Amiga when Commodore died (!). So what you are faced with here is the original, the real deal, the big kahuna and true whopper!

Aros and the Amiga is quite simply a fourth methodology; Different from Windows, different from Linux and different from OS X. The key architectural feature of Amiga OS is be user friendly, hardware friendly and resource friendly (Amiga OS will happily boot up in 4 or 8 megabytes of ram. The other systems require 1000 times more memory to run properly).

We have to remember that Amiga OS delivered a silky smooth multi-tasking, fully windowed desktop UI roughly a decade before Windows 1.0 was invented. And it delivered this on computers with between 512 kb to 4 megabytes of ram! Since the old 68k processors did not support MMU (memory mapping unit) the Amiga could not support swap-files or true multi-tasking. But technique for multitasking Amiga OS uses turned out to be damn effective! Even today it outperforms Windows, Linux and OS X.

But the real power of Amiga OS, which ultimately is the power of Aros — is hidden in the actual architecture itself. It’s buried in the software API, the way drivers attach and work, how music is dealt with and how graphics is allocated and dealt with. The power of the Amiga can be found in it’s REXX scripting, it’s global automation support and signal management.

Can you imagine what an operative system designed to work in 4 megabytes of ram can do on a PC with 8-16 gigabytes, ultra-fast graphics cards and 16-24 bit sound chips? Well it’s exciting stuff that’s for sure.

Aros and Linux

Aros is right now where Linux was 15 years ago. Back then “Linux” meant (more often than not) a debian based distro, or perhaps a slackware version. Those were the most popular and debian was the undisputed king of the hill. Most of our modern distros today are fork’s which at one point derived from these older implementations.

Aros and Morphos can in many ways be seen as debian and slackware. Aros is not a “game operative system”. It has nothing to do with the old games machine of the 80’s and 90’s. Amiga OS is a unique creation, written by four people at Amiga Inc, especially Carl Sassenrath which is the author of Intuition and Exec. These guys just wanted to write an OS from scratch — and with Amiga they got the chance. They didn’t set out to make a game operative system. Quite the opposite — Carl and his team put together a unique operative system which for a whole decade was ahead of the competition. This is unheard of in the IT industry as a whole even to this day. And the OS they wrote delivers a high-performing, graphically excellent operative system which turns on a dime.

Not exactly graphically impaired

Not exactly graphically impaired

We should be thankful that the Aros team made it their lives mission to re-engineer Amiga OS for the future — because without it, the methodology and mode of thought which Amiga OS represents would never have survived. It would be a blast from the past, a true gem buried in the sand and forgotten.

Thanks to the Aros team, modern programmers and computer users can see for themselves just how cpu, memory and space efficient the Amiga methodology and formula is. And with a bit of work, turning this operative system into a killer business provider should not be a problem.

What about drivers

I had a chat with a individual on the Amiga User forum over at Facebook about this very topic, and unsurprising he was against the idea. Actually I dont think he really thought it through. He just went into “automatic” mind mode and said “It will never work, it’s a waste of time”. At which point I have to ask “what is a waste of time?”.

NVida has an excellent API

NVida has an excellent API, and you get a mighty bang for your pennies!

Aros can be downloaded on a live CD and tested on any x86 PC. Naturally you can expect it to work on every configuration on the planet, but the majority of modern PC’s will work just fine. So what exactly is it that makes this so much worse than, say, Linux?

In order to ensure driver efficiency I would propose that Aros picks out a fixed and easily available hardware platform, I can suggest the following (and it’s thought through, so please think about it before you just criticize it).

  • NVida Graphics hardware
  • Easily available motherboard with:
    • On board sound hardware
    • On board TCP/IP socket
    • On board Wi-Fi hardware
  • Intel i5 – i9 processor

The list of drivers required for such a setup:

  • NVida graphics API driver
    • VESA fallback driver [8 .. 32 BPP]
    • OpenGL integration unit
  • USB hub driver
    • USB mouse driver
    • USB keyboard driver
  • Standard Sound API driver (ASIO compliant)
  • Standard IDE device driver
    • CD-ROM recognition
    • Harddisk recognition
  • Standard Sata harddisk driver

This is essentially the number of drivers you would need. And just like Apple you must ensure that all new Aros PC’s have this spec. The CPU type and speed may vary, the nVida graphics card may vary and disk sizes may vary between models. But as long as you stick to the motherboard type and graphics adapter — you essentially have a device driver collection which needs no major work for at least 8 years. It all depends on the hardware vendors and how long a motherboard remains on the market (typically 4-5 revisions with an equal number of models).

Where you will find most work for future support, or like Ubuntu – a full online driver database and hardware recognition service, is under the USB topic above. Keyboard and mouse represents the bare basics. Once you have the USB hub and ports operating, the fun work begins 🙂 And there is almost no limit to the amount of stuff you want to recognize. Personally I would opt for USB stick brands before anything else, but that’s not my department to decide on.

As you can see, it’s not that hard to work with this. The hard part is finding people who are willing to write a driver, spend some time debugging and testing and ultimately donate to the Aros desktop and operative system. But like I told my friend while we were debating, it’s not black magic. Amiga OS itself was written by four (4) guys. What’s important is that the key programmers know their stuff and are willing to donate some free time.

I for one cant wait to get started. I really hope the Aros team picks up on this — because there are tons of programmers out there who really want an alternative to Linux!

Just imagine what an Amiga based web-server would run for? It’s a system which delivers top-notch multi tasking in 512kb.. now give it 512 gigabytes of ram, a kick ass CPU and watch the sparks fly! It would outperform even Linux, that’s for damn sure.