Book excerpt: The Art of UNIX Programming

This book excerpt is from chapter 1 of The Art of UNIX Programming by Eric S. Raymond, ISBN 0131429019, copyright 2004. All rights reserved. This part of chapter 1, titled "Philosophy: Philosophy Matters," is posted with permission from Addison-Wesley Professional.

Philosophy: Philosophy Matters

Those who do not understand Unix are condemned to reinvent it, poorly. Usenet signature, November 1987

-- Henry Spencer

Culture? What Culture? 1.1

This is a book about Unix programming, but in it we're going to toss around the words "culture," "art," and "philosophy" a lot. If you are not a programmer, or you are a programmer who has had little contact with the Unix world, this may seem strange. But Unix has a culture; it has a distinctive art of programming; and it carries with it a powerful design philosophy. Understanding these traditions will help you build better software, even if you're developing for a non-Unix platform.

Every branch of engineering and design has technical cultures. In most kinds of engineering, the unwritten traditions of the field are parts of a working practitioner's education as important as (and, as experience grows, often more important than) the official handbooks and textbooks. Senior engineers develop huge bodies of implicit knowledge, which they pass to their juniors by (as Zen Buddhists put it) "a special transmission, outside the scriptures."

Software engineering is generally an exception to this rule; technology has changed so rapidly, software environments have come and gone so quickly, that technical cultures have been weak and ephemeral. There are, however, exceptions to this exception. A very few software technologies have proved durable enough to evolve strong technical cultures, distinctive arts, and an associated design philosophy transmitted across generations of engineers.

The Unix culture is one of these. The Internet culture is another -- or, in the twenty-first century, arguably the same one. The two have grown increasingly difficult to separate since the early 1980s, and in this book we won't try particularly hard.

The Durability of Unix 1.2

Unix was born in 1969 and has been in continuous production use ever since. That's several geologic eras by computer-industry standards -- older than the PC or workstations or microprocessors or even video display terminals, and contemporaneous with the first semiconductor memories. Of all production timesharing systems today, only IBM's VM/CMS can claim to have existed longer, and Unix machines have provided hundreds of thousands of times more service hours; indeed, Unix has probably supported more computing than all other timesharing systems put together.

Unix has found use on a wider variety of machines than any other operating system can claim. From supercomputers to handhelds and embedded networking hardware, through workstations and servers and PCs and minicomputers, Unix has probably seen more architectures and more odd hardware than any three other operating systems combined.

Unix has supported a mind-bogglingly wide spectrum of uses. No other operating system has shone simultaneously as a research vehicle, a friendly host for technical custom applications, a platform for commercial-off-the-shelf business software, and a vital component technology of the Internet.

Confident predictions that Unix would wither away, or be crowded out by other operating systems, have been made yearly since its infancy. And yet Unix, in its present-day avatars as Linux and BSD and Solaris and MacOS X and half a dozen other variants, seems stronger than ever today.

Robert Metcalf [the inventor of Ethernet] says that if something comes along to replace Ethernet, it will be called "Ethernet," so therefore Ethernet will never die. [1] Unix has already undergone several such transformations.

-- Ken Thompson

At least one of Unix's central technologies -- the C language -- has been widely naturalized elsewhere. Indeed it is now hard to imagine doing software engineering without C as a ubiquitous common language of systems programming. Unix also introduced both the now-ubiquitous tree-shaped file namespace with directory nodes and the pipeline for connecting programs.

Unix's durability and adaptability have been nothing short of astonishing. Other technologies have come and gone like mayflies. Machines have increased a thousandfold in power, languages have mutated, industry practice has gone through multiple revolutions -- and Unix hangs in there, still producing, still paying the bills, and still commanding loyalty from many of the best and brightest software technologists on the planet.

One of the many consequences of the exponential power-versus-time curve in computing, and the corresponding pace of software development, is that 50% of what one knows becomes obsolete over every 18 months. Unix does not abolish this phenomenon, but does do a good job of containing it. There's a bedrock of unchanging basics -- languages, system calls, and tool invocations -- that one can actually keep using for years, even decades. Elsewhere it is impossible to predict what will be stable; even entire operating systems cycle out of use. Under Unix, there is a fairly sharp distinction between transient knowledge and lasting knowledge, and one can know ahead of time (with about 90% certainty) which category something is likely to fall in when one learns it. Thus the loyalty Unix commands.

Much of Unix's stability and success has to be attributed to its inherent strengths, to design decisions Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Brian Kernighan, Doug McIlroy, Rob Pike and other early Unix developers made back at the beginning; decisions that have been proven sound over and over. But just as much is due to the design philosophy, art of programming, and technical culture that grew up around Unix in the early days. This tradition has continuously and successfully propagated itself in symbiosis with Unix ever since.

The Case against Learning Unix Culture 1.3

Unix's durability and its technical culture are certainly of interest to people who already like Unix, and perhaps to historians of technology. But Unix's original application as a general-purpose timesharing system for mid-sized and larger computers is rapidly receding into the mists of history, killed off by personal workstations. And there is certainly room for doubt that it will ever achieve success in the mainstream businessdesktop market now dominated by Microsoft.

Outsiders have frequently dismissed Unix as an academic toy or a hacker's sandbox. One well-known polemic, the Unix Hater's Handbook [Garfinkel], follows an antagonistic line nearly as old as Unix itself in writing its devotees off as a cult religion of freaks and losers. Certainly the colossal and repeated blunders of AT&T, Sun, Novell, and other commercial vendors and standards consortia in mispositioning and mismarketing Unix have become legendary.

Even from within the Unix world, Unix has seemed to be teetering on the brink of universality for so long as to raise the suspicion that it will never actually get there. A skeptical outside observer's conclusion might be that Unix is too useful to die but too awkward to break out of the back room; a perpetual niche operating system.

What confounds the skeptics' case is, more than anything else, the rise of Linux and other open-source Unixes (such as the modern BSD variants). Unix's culture proved too vital to be smothered even by a decade of vendor mismanagement. Today the Unix community itself has taken control of the technology and marketing, and is rapidly and visibly solving Unix's problems (in ways we'll examine in more detail in Chapter 20).

What Unix Gets Wrong 1.4

For a design that dates from 1969, it is remarkably difficult to identify design choices in Unix that are unequivocally wrong. There are several popular candidates, but each is still a subject of spirited debate not merely among Unix fans but across the wider community of people who think about and design operating systems.

Unix files have no structure above byte level. File deletion is irrevocable. The Unix security model is arguably too primitive. Job control is botched. There are too many different kinds of names for things. Having a file system at all may have been the wrong choice. We will discuss these technical issues in Chapter 20.

But perhaps the most enduring objections to Unix are consequences of a feature of its philosophy first made explicit by the designers of the X windowing system. X strives to provide "mechanism, not policy," supporting an extremely general set of graphics operations and deferring decisions about toolkits and interface look-and-feel (the policy) up to application level. Unix's other system-level services display similar tendencies; final choices about behavior are pushed as far toward the user as possible. Unix users can choose among multiple shells. Unix programs normally provide many behavior options and sport elaborate preference facilities.

This tendency reflects Unix's heritage as an operating system designed primarily for technical users, and a consequent belief that users know better than operatingsystem designers what their own needs are.

This tenet was firmly established at Bell Labs by Dick Hamming [2] who insisted in the 1950s when computers were rare and expensive, that open-shop computing, where customers wrote their own programs, was imperative, because "it is better to solve the right problem the wrong way than the wrong problem the right way".

-- Doug McIlroy

But the cost of the mechanism-not-policy approach is that when the user can set policy, the user must set policy. Nontechnical end-users frequently find Unix's profusion of options and interface styles overwhelming and retreat to systems that at least pretend to offer them simplicity.

In the short term, Unix's laissez-faire approach may lose it a good many nontechnical users. In the long term, however, it may turn out that this "mistake" confers a critical advantage -- because policy tends to have a short lifetime, mechanism a long one. Today's fashion in interface look-and-feel too often becomes tomorrow's evolutionary dead end (as people using obsolete X toolkits will tell you with some feeling!). So the flip side of the flip side is that the "mechanism, not policy" philosophy may enable Unix to renew its relevance long after competitors more tied to one set of policy or interface choices have faded from view. [3]

What Unix Gets Right 1.5

The explosive recent growth of Linux, and the increasing importance of the Internet, give us good reasons to suppose that the skeptics' case is wrong. But even supposing the skeptical assessment is true, Unix culture is worth learning because there are some things that Unix and its surrounding culture clearly do better than any competitors.

Open-Source Software 1.5.1

Though the term "open source" and the Open Source Definition were not invented until 1998, peer-review-intensive development of freely shared source code was a key feature of the Unix culture from its beginnings.

For its first ten years AT&T's original Unix, and its primary variant Berkeley Unix, were normally distributed with source code. This enabled most of the other good things that follow here.

Cross-Platform Portability and Open Standards 1.5.2

Unix is still the only operating system that can present a consistent, documented application programming interface (API) across a heterogeneous mix of computers, vendors, and special-purpose hardware. It is the only operating system that can scale from embedded chips and handhelds, up through desktop machines, through servers, and all the way to special-purpose number-crunching behemoths and database back ends.

The Unix API is the closest thing to a hardware-independent standard for writing truly portable software that exists. It is no accident that what the IEEE originally called the Portable Operating System Standard quickly got a suffix added to its acronym and became POSIX. A Unix-equivalent API was the only credible model for such a standard.

Binary-only applications for other operating systems die with their birth environments, but Unix sources are forever. Forever, at least, given a Unix technical culture that polishes and maintains them across decades.

The Internet and the World Wide Web 1.5.3

The Defense Department's contract for the first production TCP/IP stack went to a Unix development group because the Unix in question was largely open source. Besides TCP/IP, Unix has become the one indispensable core technology of the Internet Service Provider industry. Ever since the demise of the TOPS family of operating systems in the mid-1980s, most Internet server machines (and effectively all above the PC level) have relied on Unix.

Not even Microsoft's awesome marketing clout has been able to dent Unix's lock on the Internet. While the TCP/IP standards (on which the Internet is based) evolved under TOPS-10 and are theoretically separable from Unix, attempts to make them work on other operating systems have been bedeviled by incompatibilities, instabilities, and bugs. The theory and specifications are available to anyone, but the engineering tradition to make them into a solid and working reality exists only in the Unix world.[4]

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