Unix turns 40: The past, present and future of the OS

In August 1969, Ken Thompson, a programmer at AT&T Bell Laboratories, saw the monthlong absence of his wife and young son as an opportunity to put his ideas for a new operating system into practice

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.

Users: Unix Has a Healthy Future

If you're among those predicting the imminent demise of Unix, you might want to reconsider. Computerworld's 2009 Unix survey of IT executives and managers, conducted online in March and April, tells a different story: While demand appears to be down from our 2003 survey on Unix use, the operating system is clearly still going strong.

Of the 211 respondents, 130 (62%) reported using Unix in their organizations. Of the 130 respondents whose companies use Unix, 69% indicated that their organizations are "extremely reliant" or "very reliant" on Unix, with another 21% portraying their organizations as "somewhat reliant" on Unix.

Why are IT shops still so reliant on Unix? Applications and reliability/scalability (64% and 51%, respectively) were the main reasons cited by respondents. Other reasons included cost considerations, hardware vendors, ease of application integration/development, interoperability, uptime and security.

AIX was the most commonly reported flavor of Unix used by the survey base (42%), followed by Solaris/Sparc (39%), HP-UX (25%) and Solaris/x86 (22%), "other Unix flavors/versions" (19%), Mac OS X Server (12%) and OpenSolaris (10%). Of the 19% who selected other Unix flavors, most said they used some kind of Linux.

Almost half of the respondents (47%) predicted that in five years, Unix will still be "an essential operating system with continued widespread deployment." Just 5% envisioned it fading away. Of those who said they were planning on migrating away from Unix, cost was the No. 1 reason, followed by server consolidation and a skills shortage.

Which of the following best describes your Unix strategy?

* Unix is an essential platform for us and will remain so indefinitely: 42%

* Unix's role in our enterprise will shrink, but it won't disappear: 18%

* We are increasing our use of Unix: 15%

* We expect to migrate away from Unix in the future: 12%

* None of the above: 8%

* We have already implemented a plan to migrate away from Unix: 5%

* Other: 2%

Which of the following best describes your vision of where Unix will be in five years?

* It will be an essential operating system with continued widespread deployment: 47%

* It will be important in some vertical market sectors, but it will not be considered an essential operating environment for most companies: 35%

* It will generally be seen as a legacy system warranting a non-Unix migration path: 11%

* Unix, as well as other operating systems, will fade in importance as we go to hosted (cloud, software-as-service, etc.) systems: 5%

* None of the above: 2%

* Other: 1%

Base: 130 IT managers who said their companies use Unix. Percentages do not add up to 100 because of rounding.

Source: Computerworld 2009 Unix Survey

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Gary Anthes

Computerworld (US)
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