Solving Sleipnir's Problem

Vinnie leans back in his chair, hands behind his head. “Lessee if I got this straight. The computer’s muscles are its processors. It can have a bunch of them, different kinds for different jobs like a horse has different muscles for different moves. Computers got internal networks to connect the processors like a horse has tendons and ligaments. Me and Sy got a beef going about the bones, whether it’s data or memory ’cause nothing happens without both of ’em. That a good summary?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“So what was that crack about some eight-legged horse being the most interesting case?”

Sleipnir image adapted from the Tjängvide runestone
from Wikimedia Commons under CC 4.0 license

Robert grabs a paper napkin. Coffee shop proprietor Al winces. “Consider the kangaroo. It has two legs and it uses both at the same time when it hops around. I’ll diagram its feet with 1 and 2 and color them both red, OK?”

“Kangaroo hopped through some red paint, gotcha.”

“A human has two feet and we alternate between them when we walk. Like this second pattern — red foot, blue foot, over and over. Then there’s your standard horse with four legs — many more possibilities, right? For one, the front pair and the back pair each can act like a simple walk but independently, like the third row here.”

Meanwhile, I’m fiddling with Old Reliable and find this video. “That’s a good description of the basic gait that the horsemen call the walk, no surprise.”

Vinnie’s looking at the video over my shoulder. “Huh! Look here at the trot. The front and rear legs on opposite sides work together but in-between the beat of the other pair. I suppose you’d draw it like this fourth sketch, right?”

“That’s the idea. I’m only keeping track of which feet get used at the same time or opposite times. I’m sure there are other combinations that don’t fit the two-color model.”

Vinnie’s still watching the video. “Say this one. The gallop is like it’s walking with its front feet and kangarooing off that beat with its back ones.”

“Well, there you go. On to my point. Sy, what’s a horse’s most important decision if it’s not going to trip up?”

“Which foot it’s going to move next, I suppose. Oh, I see where you’re going. Odin’s eight-legged horse would have a serious coordination problem — which legs to pair together and what order they’d work in.”

“Exactly. No surprise, a computer has the same coordination problem unless it’s extremely specialized. As soon as you have multiple tasks demanding service, yet another task has to direct traffic. That’s basically where operating systems come into play. An OS has low-level code that stands between the application programs and the hardware resources.”

“What’s it doing there besides getting in the way?”

“Simplifying things, Vinnie. You don’t want to recode your program or buy a new version of your spreadsheet software when you plug in a new hard drive. When your application issues a call to transfer some data to or from your hard drive, the OS translates that into bit-level instructions the hard drive understands. A different device from a different manufacturer probably uses different command bits. No problem, your OS satisfies your next I/O call with whatever instructions that device understands. But an OS does more than that.”

“Like what else?”

“Lots of things. Security, for one — it makes sure you’re authorized to logon and touch certain data. Network interfacing for another. But for system performance the critical OS functions involve choosing who gets how much resource to work with.”

“Like disk space? I keep hitting my limit in the Cloud.”

“The Cloud’s a whole ‘nother level of complicated, but yeah, like that. The OS addresses performance by managing CPU time, throttling back low-priority tasks to give more time to high-priority work.”

“How’s it know the difference?”

“Depends on the OS. Generally it boils down to a list of privileged program names and user-ids versus everyone else.”

“How’s it do the throttling?”

“That also depends on the OS. Some of them meter out time slices, others fiddle with dispatch priority. Tricky business.”

“Tricky as running an eight-legged horse.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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