FreeBSD Articles for new LINUX ANSWERS magazine
mike at Chook.Demon.Co.UK
Fri Sep 3 10:04:46 BST 1999
On 02 September 1999 23:35, Andrew Boothman [SMTP:andrew at cream.org] wrote:
> On 01-Sep-99 Roger Hardiman wrote:
> > I stuck my neck out and volunteered our User Group to write
> > a few things.
> OK. I've had a go at this. I wasn't really sure about what we wanted, so
> wrote what came intro my head.
> Comments and flames very welcome!
> Have a look at http://ukug.uk.freebsd.org/~andrew/intro/
Fine, but it would be nice to see a few dates in there to make it a bit
more factual rather than perhaps just seeming to be an opinion. A date for
the Linus quote if anyone can track it down would also be fantastic.
See http://www.freebsd.org/handbook/history.html for dates and background
for FreeBSD 1.0 (1993) to FreeBSD 4.0 (1999) and stuff on 386BSD, Net/2
Or for the history of UNIX from 1957, well 1969 really, see
What follows is an article that was once on the O'Rielly & Associates web
site, but I don't thinks it's there anymore. If I'm wrong and someone
finds it please let me know what the URL is. I believe this is quite close
to the view that many in the UNIX world had before Linux got the
attention of the public, many more people now feel UNIX has a future - but
it could also have to do with how folks feel about Microsoft and NT.
A Brief History of UNIX
by Mike Loukides
The rise of UNIX in the early 80s has almost entirely to do with economics
and hardware -- and the two are inextricably linked. It has almost nothing
to do with "open systems" or any of the ex-post-facto justifications or
explanations that have circulated.
Quite simply, beginning with Sun Microsystems' first workstations, UNIX was
the software that ran on the best low-cost available hardware. For a given
price, you could get much more performance than was possible before. The
proprietary vendors (DEC, etc.) got behind the performance curve, and
stayed behind it. Pretty soon (by 1985, if not 1986), there was absolutely
no reason to buy DEC hardware, except to run VAX/VMS -- and, if VAX/VMS was
making you suffer sub-par performance, that reason wore pretty thin. UNIX,
in whatever flavor, became the leader because you could buy faster
hardware, cheaper. You could put a workstation on everyone's desk, and
still have spent less than a mainframe would have cost.
But why did all those aggressive little start-up vendors go after UNIX?
Well, in fact, they didn't: Apollo is a notable exception. But most
start-ups relied on UNIX ports. Why? This doesn't have anything to do with
any intrinsic virtue in UNIX -- rather, it's purely economic. For a
relatively small piece of change ($20K or so) you could buy a complete
working operating system, with source. That's nothing compared to the
expense and time of developing an operating system from scratch. To make it
concrete: Multiflow Computer (an ill-fated supercomputer startup for which
I worked) had their first complete (hardware) board-set sometime around
August 1986. By October, we had a machine you could rlogin to. By November,
UNIX was running stably. By January, we had a product on the market. (And
serial numbers 2 and 3 are, I believe, still in service). Of course, before
any hardware existed, the software people were working busily with
instruction set simulators, etc. But that kind of quick development just
would not have been possible if Multiflow had to develop a proprietary OS.
Nor could Multiflow conceivably have had the money to develop a proprietary
OS. We burnt over $50M in our tragic corporate history, as it was;
developing our own system would probably have doubled that.
The story was repeated again and again: Sun, Convex, Multiflow, Masscomp,
SGI, Pyramid, Stardent, etc., etc. NeXT is at the end of this list. In
short, by 1985 if you were going to have "modern" computers, you were going
to have a computer that ran UNIX. Small startups built better hardware than
the mainstream vendors, like DEC and IBM; and the small startups couldn't
afford the time or the money to develop a proprietary operating system.
Soon, the companies with proprietary operating systems even started moving
to UNIX, with DEC and IBM being the big exceptions.
Education was another factor in UNIX's growth. Ultimately, this is also an
economic factor. Schools were turning out loads of very competent computer
users (and systems programmers) who already knew UNIX. You could therefore
"buy" a ready-made programming staff. You didn't have to train them on the
intricacies of some unknown operating system. It takes a long time to
become a guru; with UNIX, you could buy them ready-made. A friend of mine
at IBM research said "You may not believe it, but IBM really is committed
to UNIX. They've realized that they can't hire people out of school who
know anything about their mainframe system. They can't even hire system
administrators." For IBM, this was the writing on the wall.
A third factor was evolution. UNIX provided an evolutionary path -- the
UNIX of 1994 is significantly different from the UNIX of 1978 <78.html>;
sophisticated networking, many utilities and tools, a windowing system, new
shells. However, that evolutionary path worked because Berkeley (primarily)
and AT&T put a lot of effort into integrating new developments into the
basic system. Most other operating systems have remained more-or-less the
same from their invention until their obsolescence; they've added
incremental improvements, but haven't been able to transcend their origins.
And again, this is an economic factor. Users want new features; vendors
want to sell new features; developing new features in-house is expensive.
Again, Multiflow provides an interesting example: their machine was
probably the first standalone computer to have a network interface before
it had working serial ports! That couldn't have happened without the BSD
I haven't mentioned "open systems" or anything like that because, frankly,
"open systems" as a concept was invented sometime around 1988 -- as I said
before, after the fact. Fact is, running UNIX was a decided disadvantage
until sometime around 1988 <88.html>. You could guarantee that any
interesting third-party application software wasn't ported to UNIX; you
could guarantee that the vendors of these software packages weren't happy
about having to port to dozens of slightly different UNIX platforms. Given
that people really buy computers to run applications, the world wasn't all
that rosy. Eventually, the hardware advantage forced the software vendors
to play ball -- particularly in the scientific arena, where customers could
exert a lot of pressure on vendors to port software to faster platforms. To
some extent, though, UNIX still labors under the "application software"
disadvantage (though now, the comparison is to Windows, rather than VMS or
VM/CMS). I'd say that the "advantages of open systems" (whatever open
systems might be, and that's another essay -- open systems is itself a
largely meaningless term) are real, but they were only appreciated
afterwards. Corporate users realized "Gee, we have all these UNIX systems,
and they're more or less alike, and more or less compatible with each
other, and we can hire people straight out of school and put them to work
without training them on PrimeOS -- there are some real advantages here."
Where does that lead us, then? My big point is that hardware and
applications drive the market; users are going to buy the best hardware at
the lowest price on which they can run their important applications. I
don't think there's any inherent loyalty to UNIX, much less to "openness,"
or to anything aside from getting more done for less cost.
What I've been aiming at is to figure out what the historical factors are
that allowed UNIX to succeed, and see if we can use them to figure where
the market is now, and what's happening next. Some observations:
For startup companies, UNIX has really priced itself out of the market.
Licensing fees for SVR4 and OSF/1 are prohibitive for a company that
doesn't have very, very deep pockets. It was obvious this was going to
happen a long time go. BTW: Multiflow payed much more to license NFS from
Sun (by a factor of 10, I believe) than to license all of BSD 4.3.
That may not be as important as it seems. Steve Jobs somewhere made the
point that he expected NeXT to be the last successful computer startup --
basically, the stakes had gotten too high. It costs just too much to
develop and market a new machine that's "distinct" in some way. I think
that's a fair assumption. Now that virtually all interesting hardware
development is on the chip level, and that developing chip technology takes
hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars, there's almost no way
for a startup to play that game. And, in fact, except for SGI and Sun,
virtually all the high-performance startups of the 1980s are now dead; if
you want a fast machine now, you buy it from DEC, HP, or IBM.
Now that Berkeley and AT&T are both out of the UNIX business, it's not
clear what the evolutionary path is. Who is going to integrate the new
developments into a "base release' that can become a de-facto standard and,
as such, prevent various UNIX versions from diverging? The various UNIX
industry consortia haven't accomplished much, and probably won't accomplish
much in the future; commercial vendors just aren't very good at
Licensing fees may have killed the goose that layed the golden egg, but the
goose was probably dying anyway. Or at least sick. And yes: there are still
some very low-cost UNIX (or UNIX-like) systems that a new startup could use
(BSDI, 386BSD, AT&T-free BSD 4.4, Linux). Whether or not these will mean
anything commercially remains to be seen.
That's where the market is now. Where's it going? Well, the most important
new development is the introduction of Microsoft NT into the picture. To
me, that's important because, for the first time since 1983 or so, users
will have an alternative to UNIX on the sexiest hardware platform around.
As I said, I don't think there's deep loyalty to UNIX in itself; users will
buy the best hardware they can, for the best price, and it looks like that
will be Alpha. And it isn't a single-platform OS: NT runs on the Intel
series, of course, but is also slated for DEC's Alpha, the MIPS series, and
other high-performance architectures. Whatever you may like or dislike
about it, NT is a fully functional operating system (unlike DOS) that can
cover the entire spectrum from low-end to high-end (like UNIX), providing a
uniform environment from the desktop to mainframes.
I am assuming that Microsoft understands the importance of high-end
applications (numerical analysis, structural engineering, quantum
chemistry, the whole works, not just fancy word-processors). It's possible
that they don't, but they're a smart company; I don't think that will
happen. I would assume that they're out there wooing the developers now.
So, where are we headed? NT is a viable operating system for high-end
platforms, which was one of the key factors in UNIX's favor. Even if NT is
incredibly expensive to license, the startup hardware vendors that were
sensitive to price have largely been killed off; DEC and HP can afford
large licensing fees. If anyone releases a cheap, source-licensable version
of UNIX, or NT, or anything, you could see a new generation of startups.
That would throw the whole ball-game into question. However, there's a good
chance that Jobs is right, and that it costs just too much to develop a
significantly different hardware platform now.
The educational factor was another important (and ultimately, economic)
element in the ascendency of UNIX. That's a little hard to think about. On
one hand, NT has an advantage because it's new and interesting; hackers who
like new and interesting things will want to hack on it. On the other hand,
source code will be hard (or impossible) to come by. Microsoft has made
some noises about low-cost source licenses to universities. This would be
critical to their success -- in fact, if they do it well, Microsoft would
be well positioned to win across the board: high-end, low-end, and middle.
Which means that in four years, there will be armies of pre-trained NT
hackers. Vendors tied to UNIX will be swimming upstream. The big question,
though, is "Will Microsoft do it?" I can't answer that. I don't know if
they have the slightest idea about how to make this kind of deal, through
there are all sorts of rumors floating around. My guess would be that
they'll make a deal, but it will be too restrictive. They won't want to
give up sales to university students, so they'll price it weirdly, or have
strange strings attached.
Finally, there's the evolutionary factor -- in which, of course, education
played a very important role. If UNIX is going to continue to compete, it's
critical for it to retain the ability to evolve. NT may evolve, but frankly
DOS really hasn't changed much since it was released, and I'd expect NT to
follow the same pattern. However, if the UNIX industry degenerates into a
bunch of squabbling vendors who talk about cooperation but never cooperate,
UNIX won't change much over the next decade, either.
UNIX grew because it ran on great hardware, it had a central role in
universities, and it had an evolutionary path. With the demise of small
computer vendors, the hardware factor has disappeared; if Microsoft plays
its educational cards right, the University factor will disappear. So the
big issue for the future is evolution: will a new evolutionary path emerge
that allows UNIX to integrate new developments in a more-or-less uniform
way? That's what I'm waiting to see.
Mike Loukides is an editor at O'Reilly & Associates.
Sorry for the rather long mesage,
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