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Exotech: The End of Operating Systems?

In a cramped apartment less than a mile from MIT, some of the latest crop of LCS-bred entrepreneurs are burning with the same mix of business ambition and technical acumen that has fueled so many previous spinoffs. They have formed a company, called Exotech, whose mission it is to commercialize a high-performance server for the World Wide Web based on the “exokernel” developed by LCS professor M. Frans Kaashoek.

Exokernels are a fundamentally new direction for operating systems-the first break with the original timesharing paradigm perfected by Project MAC 35 years ago. An exokernel, explains Kaashoek, does away with the conventional notion of an operating system altogether. Instead, the idea is for application programs to interact directly and securely with the computer’s hardware, without the intermediary of something like Unix or Windows.

Exotech was started by four of Kaashoek’s students. They’re using the MIT exokernel to build servers for Internet service providers. To launch the business, the group borrowed $90,000, mostly from the parents of company president Tom Pinckney. Then, to cut cost, they all moved to Pinckney’s four-bedroom flat in Cambridge.

Today, the need to grow is putting a financial pinch on the company. Says Pinckney: “We have people from MIT, undergraduates, who have summer jobs, part-time jobs, who are interested in full-time jobs. We have one really experienced guy. But we don’t have the money to pay them, and we don’t have the office space for them to work in. So we have to beg.”

The begging may soon be over. In January, Exotech started shaping up to be a real business. It delivered beta software to a customer that Pinckney identifies only as a major Internet service provider serving the Northeast United States. A final version of the product should be on the market in July, he says. With the wind filling their sails, Pinckney and his partners will have an easier time raising money. And the Lab for Computer Science will be able to put another pin on the grand map of computer technology.

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