What if the operating system was a database?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

This idea has been kicked around for decades. I wonder why so little progress is made?

The configuration of a UNIX system is specified and controlled by a huge tangle of plain text files: /etc/hosts, sendmail.cf, syslog.conf, inetd.conf, /etc/uucp/Systems to name just very few. .INI files on some other systems are also plain ASCII. Even MacOS caved in a little with a System Folder:Hosts, although it is a very isolated example on a Mac. Note that just because symbols displayed on screen must be in ASCII, the information stored on disk does not have to be in the same form. Still, ASCII configuration files abound, for a very simple reason: they can be modified with any text editor from ex and edlin upwards, and can be viewed and created even without an editor, with a cat command. Not that accessing a block of a plain /etc/hosts file is much easier for an OS than reading a /machines tree of Next’s structured netinfo database. The ASCII format wins simply because tools for handling text files are present even on a naked system. As long as a file system is treated differently than a database, netinfo, NIS, CVS, etc. packages have to provide tools for converting their internal database table or a set of records into a plain text file, and back.

But it does not have to be this way. If a database engine is implemented as a core system service, along with simple tools to browse and modify database records, the gordian knot of system configuration files disappears. MacOS comes very close to this ideal, with ResEdit as this universal database editor. Much (if not all) of the system configuration can be set up by opening a resource and toggling a few buttons, retyping strings or adjusting colors. There is no need to learn the syntax of a specific configuration file, and no wasting of the CPU time on parsing that text file and reporting errors if any. Unfortunately, ResEdit and a set of templates for system resources do not come bundled with MacOS. But SimpleText always does. That is why System Folder:Hosts is a plain text file…

The very idea of an application as a mere collection of code and configuration resources with a common name is beautiful. It is even possible in some applications a (LaserWriter Utility, for example) to add or delete menu items and corresponding functionality just by adding/removing appropriate resources, without any need to recompile or relink the code. It was with pain that I read a recommendation to refrain from creating code resources with PowerPC native code (which should be moved to the data fork instead). Now an application has a database managed by the resource manager, and a database managed by a fragment manager.

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