Microsoft Working Toward Less Complexity With New Kernel

For years, Microsoft has made bigger versions of its core products, in the belief that customers want more and more features. That thinking may have undergone a reversal, with the recent revelation that Redmond is working on a stripped-down version of the Windows kernel that would dramatically reduce its footprint.

Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Eric Traut, who works on virtualization projects, said during a presentation at the University of Illinois last week that Microsoft is developing "MinWin," a very small kernel that will eventually be part of all Windows operating systems.

"A lot of people think of Windows as this really large, bloated operating system; and that may be a fair characterization," Traut said. For instance, Windows Vista is about 4 GB on disk. MinWin, by contrast, is about 25 MB right now, and Traut would like to see that even smaller. "At its core it's pretty streamlined. It's still larger than I'd like it to be." In addition, the version of MinWin he demonstrated ran on 40 MB of RAM. Compare that to Vista, which normally needs at least 1 GB to run efficiently.

Microsoft isn't planning to release MinWin as a standalone product, Traut said. Instead, it will be part of a new, pared-down kernel that will make for less bloated end products. One of the first products to utilize the new kernel, Traut said, will be the successor to Vista, code-named Windows 7. That will be welcome news to many Vista users, as a common complaint is that it takes an exceedingly long time to boot up. Redmond's initial timeframe for Windows 7 has it being available in 2010.

The kernel is the central component of an operating system, responsible for managing a system's resources by controlling how software and hardware talk to each other.

The version of MinWin Traut demonstrated didn't include a graphical user interface (GUI), and included "about 100 files total," Traut said. "Compare that with about 5,000 files that make up all of Windows," he added.

That doesn't mean that MinWin could do much in the real world. "You'd need a lot more than MinWin to run a full-featured Web server," Traut said. It does, however, show Microsoft's growing realization that more is not necessarily better.

The upcoming release of Windows Server 2008, sometime early next year, will showcase a similar technology, known as Server Core. Server Core allows a minimal installation of a server for a specific purpose, such as DNS management or printing, and loads minimal drivers and other dependencies that slow down an OS. The reaction from the IT community to Server Core has been very enthusiastic thus far.

Traut emphasized that MinWin is still in the developmental stage.

"We're going down that approach, but it will be awhile before you can build something directly on top of this really tiny core," he said.

Microsoft does seem committed to that approach, though, because Traut commented that Redmond is using MinWin "internally to build all products based on Windows." For many admins and users, it's a step in the right direction.

About the Author

Keith Ward is editor of Virtualization Review magazine. You can contact Keith at [email protected].