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Google Chrome, Microsoft Gazelle and the cloud-oriented OS

by Ray Valdes  |  July 8, 2009  |  13 Comments

Perhaps prodded by a news story in today’s New York Times, Google announced, via a blog post a few hours ago, an operating system called Chrome OS.

Key points in the announcement:

  • the OS is designed for Web apps and cloud computing
  • it combines the Chrome browser plus a lightweight windowing environment on top of a Linux kernel
  • goals are lightweight, fast to boot, fast to allow users to access the Web
  • targeted to netbook category of devices initially (via hardware partners), but eventually for desktop machines
  • will be released as open source
  • relies on a security architecture designed for the Internet era
  • it’s not Android
  • discussions underway with hardware partners for shipment after mid-2010

If two dots allow one to draw a trend-line, the cloud-centric OS built on a browser can be considered a trend. The two large dots that define this trend-line are Chrome OS plus a Microsoft Research project called Gazelle, a browser-based operating system with an approach similar to Chrome OS. More about Gazelle in a moment.

Based on the limited information that Google has provided thus far, it appears that Chrome OS leverages Google’s core competencies, which include ability to design user experiences that are simple, effective and fast, backed by “rocket-science” software technology under hood. Google’s approach is to first narrow the scope of the problem in order to put more substance and depth into the remainder.

There is some substantive information upon which to make inferences if one looks at the open-source version of the Chrome browser, available at

The current Chrome browser consists of 1.7 million lines of C++ code, and already incorporates many OS-like aspects (multi-processing, robust isolation). About 60% of the Chrome browser source code is related to rendering HTML, and much of the rest (about 700,000 lines of code) implements OS-like aspects such as multiple process models, interprocess communication (IPC) secure sandbox isolation mechanism, and so on. This system could rest on a foundation of a Linux kernel. The major new piece is the unspecified windowing environment, which presumably would mostly be a pass-through mechanism. Speculating wildly here, I would say the combination of all of the above would result in a system of about 5 to 7 million lines of code, including a stripped-down Linux kernel. This is about the same size as Windows NT 3.1, and about one-tenth the code size of Windows Vista. This is smaller than Google Android, which is variously estimated at between 8M to 11M lines of code. The size estimates perhaps answer the question “Why not use Android?”. That is, Google is betting on a lean and fast browser-based OS rather than one that is built for comfort across a wide range of scenarios.

One might also ask: “Why a browser-based OS? Why is this worthwhile in a time when users can simply procure the combination of Linux, Firefox and OpenOffice on a modest laptop?”. A paper on Chrome’s Multi-Process Architecture provides an answer:

“The current state of web browsers is like that of the single-user, co-operatively multi-tasked operating systems of past. As a misbehaving application in such an operating system could take down the entire system, so can a misbehaving web page in a modern web browser….Modern operating systems are more robust because they put applications into separate processes that are walled off from one another…. We use separate processes for browser tabs to protect the overall application from bugs and glitches in the rendering engine. We also restrict access from each rendering engine process to others and to the rest of the system. In some ways, this brings to web browsing the benefits that memory protection and access control brought to operating systems.”

This text is accompanied by the following diagram:

The multi-process approach is not unique to the Chrome browser. Recent versions of Internet Explorer have something similar. What is different is that this multi-process approach is extended to include the entire machine environment. A crisp explanation comes from Helen Wang, a member of Microsoft Research Labs working on Gazelle, a lightweight, browser-centric OS prototype:

“Everyone accepts that applications need to run on operating systems. However, this has not been the case for Web applications; they depend on browsers to render pages and handle computing resources. Yet browsers have never been constructed to be operating systems. Principals are allowed to coexist within the same process or protection domain, and resource management is largely non-existent.”

Microsoft writer Janie Chang elaborates:

“In the Gazelle model, the browser-based OS, typically called the browser kernel, protects principals from one another and from the host machine by exclusively managing access to computer resources, enforcing policies, handling inter-principal communications, and providing consistent, systematic access to computing devices.”

When Google Wave was introduced in May, I noted how Microsoft Research had seen prototypes of Office that supported real-time collaborative editing in 2003 but never moved forward on this. Now perhaps, this ironic pattern is repeating, assuming that Chrome OS actually sees the light of day.

If Google delivers on its plan, it seems that Chrome OS will be the first cloud-oriented OS to ship. This will be a consumer-oriented offering initially, similar to Google’s past practice in other categories (Web maps, Web email, and the Chrome browser). It will be years (three to five) before it has any impact on the enterprise sector.

For Google to succeed with this initiative, Chrome OS must deliver a user experience that is perceptibly better from the outset. Google was able to achieve this with Google Maps, which reinvented online mapping in a way that users immediately noticed a better user experience. Google has arguably also achieved this objective with Gmail and with the Chrome browser. The question is whether they can achieve a similar goal with an OS — a clearly envisioned target that they will reach for, but one that may prove difficult for them to grasp and hold.

What do you think?


Ray Valdes
Research VP
9 years at Gartner
30 years IT industry

Ray Valdes is research director in Gartner Research, where he is part of the Internet Platforms and Web Services team. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Google Chrome, Microsoft Gazelle and the cloud-oriented OS

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  3. […] vendor. My colleague Ray Valdes is the sort of person one desperately looks to at a time like this. He has posted his opinion of Chrome OS on his blog. It’s my hope we’ll see more from him, and Gartner currently intends a First Take on […]

  4. Ray,

    Good analysis. While I do agree that the user interface is going to have to go to the next level for this to succeed, I am also a firm believer in simpler, less bloated, more dynamic operating systems.

    I have been saying for some time that when the customizable browser interface becomes the operating system, then we can safely say we are in the next iteration in this crazy world of technology. I worked in a similar model back in the days before Gartner in my own startup, but the browser proved to entrenched a competitor for us to take it out.

    Most browser-based or browser-supported applications are suffering from the lack of integration with the OS (and potentially the cloud), so their OS – if delivered as hinted – will be a tremendous step in that direction.

    I dare to dream of them doing it, I think they have the talent, resources, and clout for it.

    As geeky as it may sound, I cannot wait…

  5. Greg says:

    As noted elsewhere on the internet, an initial hurdle will be the interoperability between the computers (even a Netbook) and certain consumer peripherals (digital cameras, etc.).

    If this is solved, I don’t see any reason that the proposed Chrome OS couldn’t succeed. People point to desktop applications, but aren’t Google themselves (and others) already providing traditional applications from the web?

    The browser can certainly handle more than just AJAX applications, which is something some of the detractors are overlooking. Assuming support for Java, Flash, or other technologies continues to be supported….

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  10. Ray,

    I think you hit the nail right on the head, in particular when referring to the current state of web browsers which I agree are not designed for modern web application requirements.

    The Browser can be considered as a window to the internet. But as more and more users expect to use net-native applications and devices, the Browser is clearly outdated and underperforming. After all, it was designed to display information – not to contain and execute business logic.

    What users want now is a door to the internet – designed for bi-directional exchange and more, not just for browsing. Some vendors with extensive web application experience already understood that, and have come up with alternatives to the Browser that support Rich Internet Applications – such as Adobe Air, Microsoft Silverlight or Magic Software uniPaaS RIA. These are very compact engines (the uniPaaS RIA Client is only 2MB) that are designed to execute net-native applications, where the application code resides “in the cloud” (like portals) yet the user gets a rich interactive desktop experience (unlike portals). However, developing applications for most of these “new doors” is pretty complex. A handful of vendors started addressing this hurdle, led by Magic Software with uniPaaS and maybe followed by Microsoft with ‘Alexandria’

    Google Chrome OS seems to be right in the same evolutionary line.

    From the scant information I was able to get, it is trying to move all those hurdles down into the OS level and abstract them from users, so that users and application developers would be able to once again focus most of their effort on business logic and user experience rather than on underlying technologies. But we have to be patient and wait for it to become available. And then wait a few years for it to mature.

    In the meantime, why not go ahead and use what’s available?

  11. […] for Chrome OS, Valdes wrote in a blog posting “if Google delivers on its plan, it seems that Chrome OS will be the first cloud-oriented OS […]

  12. […] for Chrome OS, Valdes wrote in a blog posting “if Google delivers on its plan, it seems that Chrome OS will be the first cloud-oriented OS […]

  13. GartLoG says:

    I got the more information about the Google Chrome OS from the

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