2.2 Unix

GNU/Linux is fashioned on Unix. Unix dates from 1969 when Ken Thompson at Bell Telephone Laboratories initiated work on this new operating system. Others involved in the project included Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan. The name Unix is a pun on an alternative operating system of the time called MULTICS (MULTiplexed Information and Computing Service). MULTICS was developed by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, General Electric and Bell Labs. Unix was originally spelt UNICS, an acronym for UNiplexed Information and Computing Service!

Some of the basic ideas introduced by Multics and then Unix were the tree structured file system, a program for command interpretation (called the shell), the structure and nature of text files and the semantics of I/O operations. Some of the philosophy that rose with the development of Unix included the desire to write programs that performed one task and to do it well, to write programs that worked together to perform larger tasks, and to write programs that communicated with each other using text from one program to the other.

The advantages of Unix were quickly identified by many and quite a few varieties of Unix emerged over time. Sun Microsystems have pioneered many of the developments in Unix, followed by such greats as the old Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC, which was swallowed by Compaq, which was swallowed by Hewlett-Packard), Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI), International Business Machines (IBM), and Hewlett-Packard (HP). A variety of flavours have existed, including SunOS, Solaris, Ultrix, Irix, BSD, System V, HPUX, and so on. Although computer programs written for one version of Unix could sometimes be ported to other versions, it was not always an easy task. The diversity of Unix implementations (more so than the proprietary nature of most of them) made it difficult for Unix to become a commodity operating system. The GNU project worked hard to free software development from nuances of each of the different Unix versions through providing a common programming language environment (GNU C) and a sophisticated packaging tool (autoconf and automake) to carefully hide the differences. GNU/Linux has now become the most popular Unix variant and all the major Unix players support GNU/Linux in some way.

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