FreeBSD Articles for new LINUX ANSWERS magazine

mike at Chook.Demon.Co.UK mike
Fri Sep 3 10:04:46 BST 1999

On 02 September 1999 23:35, Andrew Boothman [SMTP:andrew at] 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 
I just
> wrote what came intro my head.
> Comments and flames very welcome!
> Have a look at

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 for dates and background 
for FreeBSD 1.0 (1993) to FreeBSD 4.0 (1999) and stuff on 386BSD, Net/2 
 and 4.4BSD-Lite.

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 
networking code.
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,

Michael Saunby


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