Developer Q&A: Syllable OS

Syllable developer Kaj de Vos

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Techworld Australia caught up with lead Syllable developer Kaj de Vos to talk about the operating system and its philosophy.

For background on Syllable read the accompanying article: Syllable OS: Building a better operating system

Could you explain a little about what Syllable is?

Syllable is a project to create the best computer operating system that we can. It's not perfect — as perfect is the enemy of the good — so we still make releases despite it being unfinished, working to our development plan.

And no man is an island, so we build this system as much as we can according to generally accepted operating system standards, using many open source parts that are available from third-party projects.

By using standards, we can interface with many other systems and software components, and by reusing software from other projects, we can create Syllable with far fewer people than would traditionally be needed for such a venture.

Because we can only do this based on open source, the project itself is also open source. It is also a guarantee that the project cannot disappear due to a parent company going under or abandoning it, which happened to several commercial systems that we consider our spiritual predecessors.

We do not rule out future commercial ventures based on the Syllable systems, but at the moment we are a volunteer project.

Besides open source, we consider it necessary for a modern operating system to be based on a networking design. Therefore, Syllable is actually a family of operating systems:

* Syllable Desktop is the original system that the project started with. It is a continuation of best practices in desktop system design. It is meant to improve on mainstream user oriented systems, that we feel are failing to meet these goals.

* Syllable Server is the system we built on the Linux kernel to be a network server companion for Syllable Desktop. Part of the reason for the creation of the desktop system is our criticisms of user-oriented Linux systems, but Linux server systems are often superior to others.

We are happy to use it in that role, leaving Syllable Desktop to specialise in the user-oriented role. Still, most of the third-party software that we use in Syllable Desktop is also used in Linux systems, so our server and desktop systems are for a large part identical. Again, this is essential for us to make the project viable with few volunteers. At the same time, Syllable Server has inherited many of the qualities of Syllable Desktop, making it unique among Linux systems.

Over time, we are increasing the integration between our desktop and server systems. Part of the project infrastructure runs on Syllable Server systems.

Developing an operating system is a huge task, and we can use the fact that most of the software integrated in both systems is the same to cut the challenge into smaller steps.

We routinely develop a component first on Syllable Server, because third-party projects already make sure it works on Linux. When that integration work is done, we can continue by making it work on Syllable Desktop, which is often a greater challenge due to its unique characteristics.

How did the project get started?

Nine years ago, Syllable started as a fork of the AtheOS project. [You can find an archive of the AtheOS website online] It was decided that the project needed to be saved, because the sole Norwegian creator of AtheOS had disappeared for nine months by then.

Although he later briefly resurfaced, he never continued the project. So it turned out that Syllable was a successor instead of a fork. Syllable owes a lot of its qualities to the fact that its main design stems from a single designer.

In many ways, we have been filling in the missing pieces, which is a suitable task for a community but too much work for a single person.

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David Gagin


I've been looking all over for an OS that could be used on legacy Pentium systems, and when I read that OS Syllable would give new life to these now obsolete computers, I gave it a try. The system is a Tekram ATX with a Pentium II @ 400MHz, 512MB PC100 ram. Syllable Installation completed, but failed to reboot; I had to manually reset. After POST, I got GRUB, with a flashing cursor. The system did not respond to any keyboard input. I next tried with a Dimension XPS T750r, Pentium III @ 750MHz, 512MB PC100 RAM. It would boot to desktop, but not much more. Any attempt to run one of the applications resulted in an out of memory condition, and the system crashed. Meanwhile, this system runs quite nicely on Win2K, sp4. So, I would ask the good doctor, if this is our experience in the field with Syllable, touted to run on older computers, how are we supposed to take it seriously? Is it not really intended to run on legacy Pentiums or does he have a differing definition of 'legacy' and 'Pentium'? It would seem that this testing is contradictory to what he says, and disappointingly, is not the break through I've been looking for.



Syllable can run on even smaller PC's than that, but it doesn't run on all of them, due to hardware incompatibilities. It's a system under development, so we can't give any guarantees. There may be some trial and error involved, and a bit of luck. My experience is that more than half of PC's in the wild work. Did you try with the live CD in advance of installation, and did you try the troubleshooting options in the start menu?

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