Last week the computing world celebrated an important anniversary: the UNIX operating system turned 50 years old. What was originally developed in 1969 as a lighter weight timesharing system for a DEC minicomputer at Bell Labs has exerted a huge influence over every place that we encounter computing, from our personal and embedded devices to the unseen servers in the cloud. But in a story that has seen countless twists and turns over those five decades just what is UNIX these days?
The official answer to that question is simple. UNIX® is any operating system descended from that original Bell Labs software developed by Thompson, Ritchie et al in 1969 and bearing a licence from Bell Labs or its successor organisations in ownership of the UNIX® name. Thus, for example, HP-UX as shipped on Hewlett Packard’s enterprise machinery is one of several commercially available UNIXes, while the Ubuntu Linux distribution on which this is being written is not.
When You Could Write Off In The Mail For UNIX On A Tape
The real answer is considerably less clear, and depends upon how much you view UNIX as an ecosystem and how much instead depends upon heritage or specification compliance, and even the user experience. Names such as GNU, Linux, BSD, and MINIX enter the fray, and you could be forgiven for asking: would the real UNIX please stand up?
In the beginning, it was a relatively contiguous story. The Bell Labs team produced UNIX, and it was used internally by them and eventually released as source to interested organisations such as universities who ran it for themselves. A legal ruling from the 1950s precluded AT&T and its subsidiaries such as Bell Labs from selling software, so this was without charge. Those universities would take their UNIX version 4 or 5 tapes and install it on their DEC minicomputer, and in the manner of programmers everywhere would write their own extensions and improvements to fit their needs. The University of California did this to such an extent that by the late 1970s they had released it as their own distribution, the so-called Berkeley Software Distribution, or BSD. It still contained some of the original UNIX code so was still technically a UNIX, but was a significant departure from that codebase.
UNIX had by then become a significant business proposition for AT&T, owners of Bell Labs, and by extension a piece of commercial software that attracted hefty licence fees once Bell Labs was freed from its court-imposed obligations. This in turn led to developers seeking to break away from their monopoly, among them Richard Stallman whose GNU project started in 1983 had the aim of producing an entirely open-source UNIX-compatible operating system. Its name is a recursive acronym, “Gnu’s Not UNIX“, which states categorically its position with respect to the Bell Labs original, but provides many software components which, while they might not be UNIX as such, are certainly a lot like it. By the end of the 1980s it had been joined in the open-source camp by BSD Net/1 and its descendants newly freed from legacy UNIX code.
“It Won’t Be Big And Professional Like GNU”
In the closing years of the 1980s Andrew S. Tanenbaum, an academic at a Dutch university, wrote a book: “Operating Systems: Design and Implementation“. It contained as its teaching example a UNIX-like operating system called MINIX, which was widely adopted in universities and by enthusiasts as an accessible alternative to UNIX that would run on inexpensive desktop microcomputers such as i386 PCs or 68000-based Commodore Amigas and Atari STs. Among those enthusiasts in 1991 was a University of Helsinki student, Linus Torvalds, who having become dissatisfied with MINIX’s kernel set about writing his own. The result which was eventually released as Linux soon outgrew its MINIX roots and was combined with components of the GNU project instead of GNU’s own HURD kernel to produce the GNU/Linux operating system that many of us use today.
So, here we are in 2019, and despite a few lesser known operating systems and some bumps in the road such as Caldera Systems’ attempted legal attack on Linux in 2003, we have three broad groupings in the mainstream UNIX-like arena. There is “real” closed-source UNIX® such as IBM AIX, Solaris, or HP-UX, there is “Has roots in UNIX” such as the BSD family including MacOS, and there is “Definitely not UNIX but really similar to it” such as the GNU/Linux family of distributions. In terms of what they are capable of, there is less distinction between them than vendors would have you believe unless you are fond of splitting operating-system hairs. Indeed even users of the closed-source variants will frequently find themselves running open-source code from GNU and other origins.
At 50 years old then, the broader UNIX-like ecosystem which we’ll take to include the likes of GNU/Linux and BSD is in great shape. At our level it’s not worth worrying too much about which is the “real” UNIX, because all of these projects have benefitted greatly from the five decades of collective development. But it does raise an interesting question: what about the next five decades? Can a solution for timesharing on a 1960s minicomputer continue to adapt for the hardware and demands of mid-21st-century computing? Our guess is that it will, not in that your UNIX clone in twenty years will be identical to the one you have now, but the things that have kept it relevant for 50 years will continue to do so for the forseeable future. We are using UNIX and its clones at 50 because they have proved versatile enough to evolve to fit the needs of each successive generation, and it’s not unreasonable to expect this to continue. We look forward to seeing the directions it takes.
As always, the comments are open.