Unix Turns 40

After four decades, the future of the operating system is clouded, but its legacy will endure.

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Hackers' Heaven

Thompson and Ritchie were consummate "hackers," when that word referred to someone who combined creativity, brute-force intelligence and midnight oil to solve software problems that others barely knew existed.

Their approach, and the code they wrote, greatly appealed to programmers at universities, and later at start-up companies without the megabudgets of an IBM, a Hewlett-Packard or a Microsoft. Unix was all that other hackers, such as Bill Joy at the University of California, Berkeley, Rick Rashid at Carnegie Mellon University and David Korn later at Bell Labs, could wish for.

"Nearly from the start, the system was able to, and did, maintain itself," wrote Thompson and Ritchie in the CACM article. "Since all source programs were always available and easily modified online, we were willing to revise and rewrite the system and its software when new ideas were invented, discovered, or suggested by others."

Korn, an AT&T Fellow today, worked as a programmer at Bell Labs in the 1970s. "One of the hallmarks of Unix was that tools could be written, and better tools could replace them," he recalls. "It wasn't some monolith where you had to buy into everything; you could actually develop better versions." He developed the influential Korn shell, essentially a programming language to direct Unix operations that's now available as open-source software.

Author and technology historian Salus recalls his work with the programming language APL on an IBM System/360 mainframe as a professor at the University of Toronto in the 1970s. It was not going well. But on the day after Christmas in 1978, a friend at Columbia University gave him a demonstration of Unix running on a minicomputer. "I said, 'Oh my God,' and I was an absolute convert," says Salus.

He says the key advantage of Unix for him was its "pipe" feature, introduced in 1973, which made it easy to pass the output of one program to another. The pipeline concept, invented by Bell Labs' McIlroy, was subsequently copied by many operating systems, including all the Unix variants, Linux, DOS and Windows.

Another advantage of Unix -- the second "wow," as Salus puts it -- was that it didn't have to be run on a million-dollar mainframe. It was written for the tiny and primitive DEC PDP-7 minicomputer because that's all Thompson and Ritchie could get their hands on in 1969. "The PDP-7 was almost incapable of anything," Salus recalls. "I was hooked." Unix Offspring

A lot of others got hooked as well. University researchers adopted Unix in droves because it was relatively simple and easily modified, it was undemanding in its resource requirements, and the source code was essentially free. Start-ups like Sun Microsystems Inc. and a host of now-defunct companies that specialized in scientific computing, such as Multiflow Computer, made it their operating system of choice for the same reasons.

Unix grew up as a nonproprietary system because in 1956, AT&T had been enjoined by a federal consent decree from straying from its mission to provide telephone service. It was OK to develop software, and even to license it for a "reasonable" fee, but the company was barred from getting into the computer business.

Unix, which was developed with no encouragement from management, was first viewed at AT&T as something between a curiosity and a legal headache.

Then, in the late 1970s, AT&T realized it had something of commercial importance on its hands. Its lawyers began adopting a more favorable interpretation of the 1956 consent decree as they looked for ways to protect Unix as a trade secret. Beginning in 1979, with the release of Version 7, Unix licenses prohibited universities from using the Unix source code for study in their courses.

No problem, said computer science professor Andrew Tanenbaum, who had been using Unix v6 at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. In 1987, he wrote a Unix clone for use in his classrooms, creating the open-source Minix operating system to run on the Intel 80286 microprocessor.

"Minix incorporated all the ideas of Unix, and it was a brilliant job," Salus says. "Only a major programmer, someone who deeply understood the internals of an operating system, could do that." Minix would become the starting point for Linus Torvalds' 1991 creation of Linux -- if not exactly a Unix clone, certainly a Unix look-alike.

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