Tuesday, August 15, 2006


VMWare (or Parallels) as an educational tool

I recently installed Solaris x86 under Parallels on a MacBook. As I was rebooting the Solaris VM, I noticed the Parallels BIOS message briefly flash up before starting to boot the OS. This got me thinking about the operating systems course at Princeton. As it existed during my brief stay there, the course involved writing an OS from the ground up on Intel hardware, with no simulator to hide the details away. I wish I'd taken the course while I was there, but I'd taken an OS course while getting my Master's, and I didn't see the need in doing it over again. Unfortunately, the OS course I took involved writing an OS on top of a simulator, so I didn't get the experience of doing the low-level stuff for myself.

Reminiscences aside, it occurred to me that Parallels (or VMWare) would be a great tool for an operating systems course. You could do all the low-level programming without needing to constantly reboot the machine you're working on. The fix-compile-test cycle would be much shorter since your working environment would be persistent.

I'm not the first person to think of it, though. This operating systems course at Columbia used VMWare, although the programming assignments aren't exactly what I had in mind. My ideal OS course involves writing at least the basics of an OS from the ground up. The course I link to involves various modifications to the Linux kernel. I won't try to argue that doing so isn't useful, it's just not what I would want out of an OS course.

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