In praise of Plan 9 November 12, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

Plan 9 is an operating system designed by Bell Labs. It’s the OS they wrote after Unix, with the benefit of hindsight. It is the most interesting operating system that you’ve never heard of, and, in my opinion, the best operating system design to date. Even if you haven’t heard of Plan 9, the designers of whatever OS you do use have heard of it, and have incorporated some of its ideas into your OS.

Plan 9 is a research operating system, and exists to answer questions about ideas in OS design. As such, the Plan 9 experience is in essence an exploration of the interesting ideas it puts forth. Most of the ideas are small. Many of them found a foothold in the broader ecosystem — UTF-8, goroutines, /proc, containers, union filesystems, these all have their roots in Plan 9 — but many of its ideas, even the good ones, remain unexplored outside of Plan 9. As a consequence, Plan 9 exists at the center of a fervor of research achievements which forms a unique and profoundly interesting operating system.

One example I often raise to illustrate the design ideals of Plan 9 is to compare its approach to network programming with that of the Unix standard, Berkeley sockets. BSD sockets fly in the face of Unix sensibilities and are quite alien on the system, though by now everyone has developed stockholm syndrome with respect to them so they don’t notice. When everything is supposed to be a file on Unix, why is it that the networking API is entirely implemented with special-purpose syscalls and ioctls? On Unix, creating a TCP connection involves calling the “socket” syscall to create a magic file descriptor, then the “connect” syscall to establish a connection. Plan 9 is much more Unix in its approach: you open /net/tcp/clone to reserve a connection, and read the connection ID from it. Then you open /net/tcp/n/ctl and write “connect 127.0.0.1!80” to it, where “n” is that connection ID. Now you can open /net/tcp/n/data and that file is a full-duplex stream. No magic syscalls, and you can trivially implement it in a shell script.

This composes elegantly with another idea from Plan 9: the 9P protocol. All file I/O on the entire system uses the 9P protocol, which defines operations like read and write. This protocol is network transparent, and you can mount remote servers into your filesystem namespace and access their files over 9P. You can do something similar on Unix, but on Plan 9 you get much more mileage from the idea because everything is actually a file, and there are no magic syscalls or ioctls. For instance, your Ethernet interface is at /net/ether0, and everything in there is just a file. Say you want to establish a VPN: you simply mount a remote server’s /net/ether0 at /net/ether1, and now you have a VPN. That’s it.

The mountpoints are interesting as well, because they exist within a per-process filesystem namespace. Mounting filesystems does not require special permissions like on Unix, because these mounts only exist within the process tree that creates them, rather than modifying global state. The filesystems can also be implemented in userspace rather trivially via the 9P protocol, similar to FUSE but much more straightforward. Many programs provide a programmable/scriptable interface via a special filesystem such as this.

Userspace programs can also provide filesystems compatible with those normally implemented by kernel drivers, like /net/ether0, and provide these to processes in their namespace. For example, /dev/draw is analogous to a framebuffer device: you open it to write pixels to the screen. The window manager, Rio, implements a /dev/draw-like interface in userspace, then mounts it in the filesystem namespace of its children. All GUI programs can thus be run both on a framebuffer or in a window, without any awareness of which it’s using. The same is also true over the network: to implement VNC-like functionality, just mount your local /dev/draw and /dev/kbd on a remote server. Add /dev/audio if you like.

These ideas can also be built upon to form something resembling a container runtime, pre-dating even early concepts like BSD jails by several years, and implementing them much more effectively. Recall that everything really is just a file on Plan 9, unlike Unix. Access to the hardware is provided through normal files, and per-process namespaces do not require special permissions to modify mountpoints. Making a container is thus trivial: just unmount all of the hardware you don’t want the sandboxed program to have access to. Done. You don’t even have to be root. Want to forward a TCP port? Write an implementation of /net/tcp which is limited to whatever ports you need — perhaps with just a hundred lines of shell scripting — and mount it into the namespace.

The shell, rc, is also wonderful. The debugger is terribly interesting, and its ideas didn’t seem to catch on with the likes of gdb. The editors, acme and sam, are also interesting and present a unique user interface that you can’t find anywhere else. The plumber is cool, it’s like “what if xdg-open was good actually”. The kernel is concise and a pleasure to read. The entire operating system, kernel and userspace, can be built from source code on my 12 year old laptop in about 5 minutes. The network database, ndb, is brilliant. The entire OS is stuffed to the brim with interesting ideas, all of them implemented with elegance, conciseness, and simplicity.

Plan 9 failed, in a sense, because Unix was simply too big and too entrenched by the time Plan 9 came around. It was doomed by its predecessor. Nevertheless, its design ideas and implementation resonate deeply with me, and have provided an endless supply of inspiration for my own work. I think that everyone owes it to themselves to spend a few weeks messing around with and learning about Plan 9. The dream is kept alive by 9front, which is the most actively maintained fork of Plan 9 available today. Install it on your ThinkPad and mess around.

I will offer a caveat, however: leave your expectations at the door. Plan 9 is not Unix, it is not Unix-compatible, and it is certainly not yet another Linux distribution. Everything you’re comfortable and familiar with in your normal Unix setup will not translate to Plan 9. Come to Plan 9 empty handed, and let it fill those hands with its ideas. You will come away from the experience as a better programmer.

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