Introduction to Unix

Unix is a family of multitasking, multiuser computer operating systems that derive from the original AT&T Unix, development starting in the 1970s at the Bell Labs research center by Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and others.

Initially intended for use inside the Bell System, AT&T licensed Unix to outside parties in the late 1970s, leading to a variety of both academic and commercial Unix variants from vendors including University of California, Berkeley (BSD), Microsoft (Xenix), Sun Microsystems (SunOS/Solaris), HP/HPE (HP-UX), and IBM (AIX). In the early 1990s, AT&T sold its rights in Unix to Novell, which then sold its Unix business to the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) in 1995. The UNIX trademark passed to The Open Group, a neutral industry consortium founded in 1996, which allows the use of the mark for certified operating systems that comply with the Single UNIX Specification (SUS). However, Novell continues to own the Unix copyrights, which the SCO Group, Inc. v. Novell, Inc. court case (2010) confirmed.

Unix systems are characterized by a modular design that is sometimes called the “Unix philosophy”. According to this philosophy, the operating system should provide a set of simple tools, each of which performs a limited, well-defined function. A unified filesystem (the Unix filesystem) and an inter-process communication mechanism known as “pipes” serve as the main means of communication, and a shell scripting and command language (the Unix shell) is used to combine the tools to perform complex workflows.

Unix distinguishes itself from its predecessors as the first portable operating system: almost the entire operating system is written in the C programming language, which allows Unix to operate on numerous platforms.

Unix was originally meant to be a convenient platform for programmers developing software to be run on it and on other systems, rather than for non-programmers. The system grew larger as the operating system started spreading in academic circles, and as users added their own tools to the system and shared them with colleagues.

At first, Unix was not designed to be portable or for multi-tasking. Later, Unix gradually gained portability, multi-tasking and multi-user capabilities in a time-sharing configuration. Unix systems are characterized by various concepts: the use of plain text for storing data; a hierarchical file system; treating devices and certain types of inter-process communication (IPC) as files; and the use of a large number of software tools, small programs that can be strung together through a command-line interpreter using pipes, as opposed to using a single monolithic program that includes all of the same functionality. These concepts are collectively known as the “Unix philosophy”. Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike summarize this in The Unix Programming Environment as “the idea that the power of a system comes more from the relationships among programs than from the programs themselves”.

By the early 1980s, users began seeing Unix as a potential universal operating system, suitable for computers of all sizes. The Unix environment and the client–server program model were essential elements in the development of the Internet and the reshaping of computing as centered in networks rather than in individual computers.

Both Unix and the C programming language were developed by AT&T and distributed to government and academic institutions, which led to both being ported to a wider variety of machine families than any other operating system.

The Unix operating system consists of many libraries and utilities along with the master control program, the kernel. The kernel provides services to start and stop programs, handles the file system and other common “low-level” tasks that most programs share, and schedules access to avoid conflicts when programs try to access the same resource or device simultaneously. To mediate such access, the kernel has special rights, reflected in the distinction of kernel space from user space, the latter being a priority realm where most application programs operate.

In the late 1980s, an open operating system standardization effort now known as POSIX provided a common baseline for all operating systems; IEEE based POSIX around the common structure of the major competing variants of the Unix system, publishing the first POSIX standard in 1988. In the early 1990s, a separate but very similar effort was started by an industry consortium, the Common Open Software Environment (COSE) initiative, which eventually became the Single UNIX Specification (SUS) administered by The Open Group. Starting in 1998, the Open Group and IEEE started the Austin Group, to provide a common definition of POSIX and the Single UNIX Specification, which, by 2008, had become the Open Group Base Specification.

In 1999, in an effort towards compatibility, several Unix system vendors agreed on SVR4’s Executable and Linkable Format (ELF) as the standard for binary and object code files. The common format allows substantial binary compatibility among different Unix systems operating on the same CPU architecture.

The names and filesystem locations of the Unix components have changed substantially across the history of the system. Nonetheless, the V7 implementation is considered by many to have the canonical early structure:

  • Kernel – source code in /usr/sys, composed of several sub-components:
    • conf – configuration and machine-dependent parts, including boot code
    • dev – device drivers for control of hardware (and some pseudo-hardware)
    • sys – operating system “kernel”, handling memory management, process scheduling, system calls, etc.
    • h – header files, defining key structures within the system and important system-specific invariables
  • Development environment – early versions of Unix contained a development environment sufficient to recreate the entire system from source code:
    • cc – C language compiler (first appeared in V3 Unix)
    • as – machine-language assembler for the machine
    • ld – linker, for combining object files
    • lib – object-code libraries (installed in /lib or /usr/lib). libc, the system library with C run-time support, was the primary library, but there have always been additional libraries for things such as mathematical functions (libm) or database access. V7 Unix introduced the first version of the modern “Standard I/O” library stdio as part of the system library. Later implementations increased the number of libraries significantly.
    • make – build manager (introduced in PWB/UNIX), for effectively automating the build process
    • include – header files for software development, defining standard interfaces and system invariants
    • Other languages – V7 Unix contained a Fortran-77 compiler, a programmable arbitrary-precision calculator (bcdc), and the awk scripting language; later versions and implementations contain many other language compilers and toolsets. Early BSD releases included Pascal tools, and many modern Unix systems also include the GNU Compiler Collection as well as or instead of a proprietary compiler system.
    • Other tools – including an object-code archive manager (ar), symbol-table lister (nm), compiler-development tools (e.g. lex & yacc), and debugging tools.

The above is a brief about Unix. Watch this space for more updates on the latest trends in Technology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *