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GNU/HURD System "Hurdle" - a review

Date/Time Permalink: 03/26/06 05:40:39 am
Category: Reviews

In the 1980's Richard Stallman, irked at the state of computing, set out to write his own free operating system. Amongst many fine programs to come out of this decade, he completed the marvelous Emacs which has been my favorite editor all my life. Even in my Windows days, I used the Windows port of Emacs and laughed at anything called an editor on a Microsoft system. Stallman's efforts also produced the gcc-C compiler, which became my favorite compiler. Even on Windows, again, I used the DJGPP port of the gcc-system, because the last thing a Microsoft system got right programming-wise was the QBasic QB4.5 Basic Compiler, and that thing was a toy. Since that time, I haven't seen a Microsoft programming tool that even qualified as a *toy*.

But I could not run these Free Software products on their own native system. Every time I asked, there was this legend of something called the "HURD" which was still in development. I ended up using Linux, as did many in the 90's. A revolution was born. Out of a system running a Linux kernel and GNU software, many, many wonders were to spin out. From time to time, complaints were heard from the GNU sector that they were not getting enough credit for their work, that people were hyping the kernel and lumping GNU in with it. Of course, having their own system would go a long way towards evidence that GNU was a stand-alone system in it's own right. But where was the HURD?

Today, in the 2000's (or the aughts, as I call 'em) Free and Open Source software has expanded to encompass Linux, BSD, OpenSolaris, and others. The systems have expanded wildly beyond any of our hopes and dreams. But load any one of the systems, and you'll be seeing GNU software in them wall to wall. GNU programs are that solid in the FOSS world. Surely, with all these powerful programs in it's repertoire, GNU could not be far behind in producing a kernel to complete the set.

So we come to this week, where I'm taking a tour of Free and Open Software systems that *aren't* Linux. In between pecking on Open Solaris and FreeBSD, I suddenly stopped typing in my Emacs. I looked up. And I reared my head back and screamed "WHERE IN THE HELL IS THE HURD!?!?!"

Right here. I tracked it down. This positively naked site is hosting, to my knowledge, the world's only bootable pure GNU system. On a live CD. Incredulous, I downloaded it. I ran it. It booted. It ran.

This activity was immediately followed by my running around the house, arms flailing, for 20 minutes, yelling "I'm running the HURD! I'm running the GNU operating system! Not Linux! Not BSD! Pure GNU! It's running! On! My! Computer!!!" The day I'd waited most of my life for had arrived.

But it's still not ready for release. It is, in fact, just a text-based console. It does, however, host Emacs, Bash, Info, Lynx, gcc, and most of the basic GNU console-based user-land. But nothing else. I was unable to (a) mount writable media, (b) go online with it, or (c) get even a TWM desktop going on it, despite the apparent presence of the equipment necessary to do so. Partly because I didn't spend enough time learning it, but mostly because it's still not ready. The biggest problem seems to be lack of faith in their own product. Hurdle booted well on both of my machines, and quite quickly; boot times were comparable to my Slackware 10.1 system. I'm dumb with disbelief: every released FOSS system is just a kernel running GNU from the ground up, and GNU has it's own kernel which boots, so why isn't the computing world overflowing with GNU distros? GNU has OpenStep WindowMaker, so why not put their own desktop in their own distro? It's just one enigma after another with GNU.

Even this pipsqueak effort doesn't stand entirely alone; Debian has a credit. Relations between Debian and GNU show some strain. Debian package tools are present in the Hurdle's directories, so it's hypothetically possible to install it and build it up to a full system.

Being mostly a console man, anyway, I was fairly comfortable with it. The keyboard repeat-rate is set to some retarded slow value, and they replaced the simple "mount" program with some hideously spastic utility with a whole new syntax and program, but I think I could have made it work if I'd stuck to it; I did find my hard drives mounted-read-and-exectute, so I had access to my own stuff. Outside of that, my Bash scripts ran, Emacs played tetris for me, my Lisp programs ran, my C code worked (a hello-world, of course, extended libraries ain't there), Lynx read HTML files, and I browsed the Info system, which worked. Everything seems ready to go, with only minor tweaks needed. I guess it's just waiting for somebody to put all the pieces together. Those pieces, most of which have aged with time sufficient for an entire generation to grow up anticipating their assembly into a complete system, will hopefully achieve sentience (one never knows with GNU software) enough to put *themselves* together and hop out the door and into the arms of an expectant world, because it looks like sure as hell nobody's gonna do it for them.

Always the brides-maid, never the bride!

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