Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce LCA 2011: McKusick tells of the BSD days as only he can

LCA 2011: McKusick tells of the BSD days as only he can

The drought of those who speak without depending on slides has ended at the 12th Australian national Linux conference.

Last evening, Marshall Kirk McKusick, a well-known BSD hacker, took those assembled down a slightly different track - after all, this is a Linux conference - with his narrative history of BSD. And what a rollicking ride it was!

McKusick was, rather unfortunately, put down for the last slot of the day, 4.45pm, when many tired and footloose souls had vended their way homewards to charge their batteries for the next day. And the venue for his talk could hold only 100 people.

He based his talk on notes he had made while travelling through Australia on a train in 1986 - he was a keynote speaker at the now-defunct Australian UNIX and Open Systems User Group conference in 1986.
Marshall Kirk McKusick
And these were notes he had written down, not typed (as would have been the norm at the time), which made it even more retro.

McKusick (left) is a talented speaker, who can use words, actions and a bit of hyperbole to capture and hold an audience. While he could not deliver every bit of the material from those notes - he noted that it would take about three hours and he had been allotted a quarter of that - what he did deal with was enough to keep the crowd captivated.

What he achieved was even more praiseworthy because the topic and most of the details were known to most in the room - the UNIX story, right from the Multics days, to the 1970s when Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie created UNIX, through the 1980s development of BSD, and finally the UNIX wars of the 1990s.

But McKusick brought a personal and, often, joyful element to the tale - he shared an office with Bill Joy who was the man leading the creation of BSD and can thus relate many anecdotes first-hand.

For some time, they were the only two who were working on the system. (McKusick continues to work on FreeBSD even today and is the copyright holder for the the little devil with a pitchfork, the logo that is used by BSD derivatives.)

One of the anecdotes concerned Keith Bostick who became the third member of the BSD team. One of the conditions that Bostick set down for joining was that he would be allowed to port BSD to the PDP-11, a machine with very low hardware specs, even for the time.

When Bostick had finally painfully completed the job, a party was held to celebrate his doing so. During the celebrations, Bostick picked up the PDP-11 and threw it out of the windows, gnashing his teeth and saying that he never wanted to even see the damn thing again, McKusick said.

McKusick detailed the ups and downs of the project and the various releases it made when it was very much flavour of the day in the 1980s.

He concluded with some details about the lawsuit which was ultimately settled in favour of Berkeley. This allowed the final release of 4.4BSD-Lite, in 1992, an open-source version of BSD, a year after Linux had hit the FTP servers. He had a memorable quote about being deposed at the trial: "A deposition is like sitting a prostrate exam by Captain Hook."

Coincidentally, seated in the front row for this talk was Dirk Hohndel of Intel, the man I can last recall giving a talk without a single slide and depending on his natural abilities to hold the audience.

And, interestingly, sitting next to Hohndel was Linux creator Linus Benedict Torvalds; there are many who feel that if the UNIX wars had not taken place, then BSD would now be occupying the place that Linux is. But one cannot state that with any degree of certainty, and Linux, in the last 19 years, has gone places that no-one ever dreamed of.

McKusick has now created a DVD about the whole BSD saga. What he had on his person were snapped up like hot potatoes after his talk.



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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.