UNIX - the operating system that refused to die

Posted on 2021-01-11

The UNIX operating system traces its roots to 1970. On UNIX, time is calculated as the number of seconds since midnight UTC on January 1, 1970. At that time, it was an internal system within Bell Labs. Within a few years, UNIX was available to the public at large. And thus began a journey that, remarkably, continues unabated to the current day.

Almost no one runs the original UNIX any more. Along the way, various hardware manufacturers created their own versions. Sun had SunOS (later Solaris), SGI had IRIX, HP had HP/UX, IBM had AIX, and so on and so forth. Academics tended to prefer the Berkeley Software Distributions (BSD) from the University of California. And by the 1990s, Linux, a free version of the kernel of UNIX, combined with various other free software from BSD, the GNU project, and others, meant everyone could run a UNIX-style system on commodity PC hardware. Linux, plus free BSD variants like FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD, opened up UNIX to a whole new audience.

The continued rise and expansion of UNIX and descendants paralleled the explosion of the Internet. Although non-UNIX systems have always been present on the net, UNIX, and especially Linux, have made up a significant percentage of systems that serve email, the web, and so on. There's a very good chance that any web site you go to is powered at some point by some version of UNIX. The same can be said for your email.

Along the way, public UNIX systems (or "pubnix" systems) have popped up. These allow the public at large to connect to a UNIX server and receive mail, interact with other users, and so on. Before the era of telecom companies providing email, and later services like Hotmail and Gmail, this was how a lot of people got their first experience with the Internet.

SDF is a longtime pubnix host that is still going strong after more than 30 years. Recently, a number of "tilde" pubnix servers have popped up and a new generation of people are discovering UNIX. I've been exploring these servers this new year, and it's been a lot of fun. Each of them runs versions of UNIX that are similar enough to be familiar, yet quirky enough to be interesting and differentiate themselves. For an "old school" UNIX guy like me, that's interesting.

More than 50 years on, UNIX has thrived where other operating systems have fallen to the wayside. And it's not just thriving on web servers that no one ever really logs into, but on multi-user systems that bring back a sense of what the net used to be. That makes me smile.

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