MIT's Cesium 'OS'


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A Real Alternative?

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MIT's once-secret "Cesium" operating system is now all grown up and getting ready to leave home. Could it provide a real alternative to computer users tired of the Windows vs. Linux debate?

by Harvey M. Dunkirk

The Advanced Operating Systems Group, a branch of the Lab for Computer Science at MIT, has begun planning for a public release of their formerly unknown operating system known as Cesium.

Currently at version 4.2 (version 1.0 was finished in 1993), Cesium's architecture and abilities are enough to make even the most jaded computer enthusiast start frothing at the mouth. As an assistant to one of the lab's directors, I was invited to a private presentation given last week to some MIT staff members as part of the planning process for its eventual public release. I was given permission to write this sneak preview.

The primary goal of Cesium's creators was to fully abandon the "historic principles" that have shaped most contemporary operating systems. Concepts like "desktop", "folders", "files", etc., have all been thrown out the window. The results, while unusual when compared against the de facto standard of Microsoft Windows, are nevertheless fascinating and potentially very useful.

Cesium comprises five main parts, or "Overmodules". These overmodules are made up of semi-independent modules, which can be replaced or updated at will in order to add, remove or modify system functionality.

The Platform overmodule is the only platform-specific part of Cesium. It serves as a virtual machine, allowing the OS to run almost identically on a variety of platforms. The AOSG Lab has a distributed Cesium system made up of a seemingly random batch of Mac and PC machines, and Cesium has also been successfully tested on some handheld devices.

The Storage overmodule is one of the more unique ideas behind Cesium. Instead of using a traditional filesystem, all data is stored in an object-oriented database (OODBMS) that is written through the Platform overmodule directly to a hard drive. This allows for queries and operations that would not normally be possible within a traditional filesystem. In addition, it eliminates the concepts of files and folders, opting instead for child-parent relationships between any data stores.

The Program overmodule serves as interpreter, compiler, and API for Cesium software. After translating code into an intermediate language called "Cilantro" (which is cached for future use), it passes the code to the Platform overmodule, which then executes it. Cesium currently supports C, C++, Java, Perl, Fortran, Lisp, COBOL, and numerous smaller languages.

The Presentation overmodule works with the Platform overmodule to give programs access to a powerful and platform-independent visual interface that can present the output of programs as anything from terminal text to a 3-dimensional Hollywood-style GUI called "Tripwire" (which does shadows, transparencies, textures and light rendering better than most video game engines) depending on what the user chooses to see and what the hardware can handle.

Finally, the Security overmodule handles access issues, providing administrators with user maintenance and permissions functionality that rivals anything offered by mainstream operating systems.

The most interesting parts of Cesium, however, are often the little things. For example, all human-readable text is assumed to be HTML or XML, instead of Notepad-style plain text, and formatting can be customized with cascading style sheets. The default text editor that comes with Cesium, therefore, handles such things as bold, italics, tables, graphics, colors, etc., without trouble.

Another interesting little tidbit is that Cesium was intended to be well documented from the very start. Error messages are dynamically generated and context sensitive, meaning that almost any error comes with a plain English description of exactly what happened, how it probably happened, and how to fix it.

Cesium is due to be released by the end of the year for free, bundled with approximately 200 software applications including HTTP, FTP, NNTP and SMTP servers; a fully functional office application suite; graphics and audio software; and four video games including CesiumQuake.
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