30 Days of Geek #13: How did you become such a geek? Career? Personal interest?

I’ve decided to partake in Jethro Carr’s 30 Days of Geek challenge, so I’ll be writing a post a day on my geekiness for an entire month! You can find all the posts in one spot here. Apologies for the lateness of today’s post, I was busy yesterday.

It was such a long time ago that I became a geek that I’ve sort of forgotten how it came to be.

Back when I was around 14 or so my stepfather bought me and my brother a computer, to stop us using his office computer to play games. As well as playing countless hours of Age of Empires and Grand Theft Auto, I spent quite a lot of time ‘making my computer better’, which really involved breaking it and having to reinstall Windows every few months.

Even before that though, I was messing around with a BASIC interpreter (QBASIC on MS-DOS) on the office computer… it must have been back in 1998-1999. I thought “Hello, world!” was a masterpiece. For a 9 or 10-year old, I guess it was. At that stage, anyway. I’ve met 13-year olds writing operating systems now. Kids these days.

It’s definitely personal interest, but I hope to make it into a career.

30 Days of Geek #4: Greatest application written to date.

I’ve decided to partake in Jethro Carr’s 30 Days of Geek challenge, so I’ll be writing a post a day on my geekiness for an entire month! You can find all the posts in one spot here.

Unfortunately, since I don’t really consider myself a programmer, and I don’t really do any programming, it’s a bit hard for me to say what my greatest application is. I can however tell you of some of the programming achievements I’ve made in my past.

Way back in high school I started out programming using a programming language called BlitzBasic. Over the couple of years I used this language I wrote a number of games, most of them pretty awful. But two games did go somewhere. The first was a side-scrolling platform game I called RollingBall (the main character was a yellow ball). It’s where I first learned about game physics (albeit very primitively) and about how not to write a program (i.e. GOTO = bad). The second was a top-down RPG game in a similar style to the Pokemon games. Although both of these games suffered from a bad case of programmer artwork, they were pretty fun to play (or my deluded variety of fun, anyway).

The greatest achievement I’ve made though was the moment I finally got an operating system kernel that I had written entirely from scratch working on my home computer. It did nothing more than print ‘H’ in the top-left hand corner of the screen… but that’s all it needed to do. Knowing that the code you’ve written is the only code running on a computer system is a pretty awesome feeling.

My Operating System Design.

I’ve been getting back into developing my operating system lately, spurred on by the tutorials I’ve been failing to write (if anybody does want them, email or leave a comment, and I’ll try and get around to them faster). I’ve got to the stage (or at least, I think I have) where I need to make a few of the important design decisions. So in this post, I’m going to discuss them.

The operating system release I made back in January doesn’t really represent the current state of what I’ve done. Firstly, I’ve set up Bochs on my PC (and Qemu on my iBook at school), so that I can test my system without having to have extra hardware on hand. I’m currently in the middle of writing drivers for video and keyboard, so that you’ll be able to use the system without a serial cable and an extra PC. But that isn’t really the design of my operating system, more just what I’ve previously done.

Over the time I’ve been writing this OS, I’ve been led in two different major directions to take my operating system in. The first, and more standard, direction is to create a modular microkernel, stick a whole heap of drivers on top of it, add a GUI, and call it Windows (or not). The second direction, and the one I think I am finally leaning towards, is to create a distributed operating system. There have been a few of these in the past, the most famous being Plan9 (and yet 99.9% of computer nerds have still never heard of it).

A distributed operating system is basically one in which each computer acts as part of a larger system and shares resources with the other computers. Resources could be processing time (one computer’s threads might run on another computer), hard disk space, network time servers, or anything, really.

What’s great about this is, assuming the user’s home computer is connected to the network, a user can sit down at any computer on the network, log in, and have exactly the same interface and files as if they were at home. They could even start a process running, log off, let the other computers on the network process it, and log back in again to get the results. Of course, there becomes an issue if nobody leaves their computer idling to run other people’s tasks.

Not all computers are created equal. Some might be 32bit, some might be 64bit. Some might be a Celeron 366 running in my bedroom, some might be multiprocessor servers in a data centre. And assuming they can all run the same software is probably not a great idea. For that reason, I’m going to implement a scripting language, and all the processes are going to be interpreted by all the peers in the system. No native code, except for the kernel, will be running.

This scripting language is going to be something along the lines of Lisp. This is one of the reasons I’ve been trying (and failing) to write a Lisp interpreter. I’m choosing Lisp because if I can implement both code and data using the same object model, it will make it simpler to transfer code and data between peers, I’ll only have to code one transfer mechanism. I also happen to like the idea of Lisp a lot, despite not having created anything major in it.

I’m not going to be implementing support for a lot of old hardware. I’m not going to bother writing floppy drivers, serial port drivers, or other things like this. The console, the hard drive, and the network are the most important peripheral devices, and the ones I will be concentrating on most.

There are quite a few problems that will need to be ironed out. What happens to secure data? Where does the data go when a node goes offline? How can we check the security of a node? I think by implementing a few checks into the client software, it’s possible to solve most of these problems.

While I realise my dream is a long way off, I hope I can make a move towards such a system being a reality. While I’m away at Kakadu I hope to have a bit of time to think more closely about some of the protocols involved. Now, back to work for me!