Distributed operating systems

Tanenbaum Andrew S.

Computer systems are undergoing a revolution. From 1945, when the modern computer era began, until about 1985, computers were large and expensive. Even minicomputers normally cost tens of thousands of dollars each. As a result, most organizations had only a handful of computers, and for lack of a way to connect them, these operated independently from one another.

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Starting in the mid-1980s, however, two advances in technology began to change that situation. The first was the development of powerful microprocessors. Initially, these were 8-bit machines, but soon 16-, 32-, and even 64-bit CPUs became common. Many of these had the computing power of a decent-sized mainframe (i.e., large) computer, but for a fraction of the price.

The amount of improvement that has occurred in computer technology in the past half century is truly staggering and totally unprecedented in other industries. From a machine that cost 10 million dollars and executed 1 instruction per second, we have come to machines that cost 1000 dollars and execute 10 million instructions per second, a price/performance gain of 10¹¹. If cars had improved at this rate in the same time period, a Rolls Royce would now cost 10 dollars and get a billion miles per gallon. (Unfortunately, it would probably also have a 200-page manual telling how to open the door.)

The second development was the invention of high-speed computer networks. The local area networks or LANs allow dozens, or even hundreds, of machines within a building to be connected in such a way that small amounts of information can be transferred between machines in a millisecond or so. Larger amounts of data can be moved between machines at rates of 10 to 100 million bits/sec and sometimes more. The wide area networks or WANs allow millions of machines all over the earth to be connected at speeds varying from 64 Kbps (kilobits per second) to gigabits per second for some advanced experimental networks.

The result of these technologies is that it is now not only feasible, but easy, to put together computing systems composed of large numbers of CPUs connected by a high-speed network. They are usually called distributed systems, in contrast to the previous centralized systems (or single-processor systems) consisting of a single CPU, its memory, peripherals, and some terminals.

There is only one fly in the ointment: software. Distributed systems need radically different software than centralized systems do. In particular, the necessary operating systems are only beginning to emerge. The first few steps have been taken, but there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, enough is already known about these distributed operating systems that we can present the basic ideas. The rest of this book is devoted to studying concepts, implementation, and examples of distributed operating systems.

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