Unix (; trademarked as UNIX) is a family of multitasking
computer operating system
s that derive from the original AT&T
Unix, whose development started 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 license
d 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
), Sun Microsystems
), and IBM
). 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
, an 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
, 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.
The origins of Unix date back to the mid-1960s when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
, Bell Labs
, and General Electric
were developing Multics
, a time-sharing
operating system for the GE-645
Multics featured several innovations
, but also presented severe problems. Frustrated by the size and complexity of Multics, but not by its goals, individual researchers at Bell Labs started withdrawing from the project. The last to leave were Ken Thompson
, Dennis Ritchie
, Douglas McIlroy
, and Joe Ossanna
who decided to reimplement their experiences in a new project of smaller scale. This new operating system was initially without organizational backing, and also without a name.
The new operating system was a single-tasking system.
In 1970, the group coined the name ''Unics'' for ''Uniplexed Information and Computing Service'' as a pun
on ''Multics'', which stood for ''Multiplexed Information and Computer Services''. Brian Kernighan
takes credit for the idea, but adds that "no one can remember" the origin of the final spelling ''Unix''. Dennis Ritchie,
Doug McIlroy, and Peter G. Neumann
also credit Kernighan.
The operating system was originally written in assembly language
but in 1973, Version 4 Unix was rewritten in C
Version 4 Unix, however, still had many PDP-11
dependent codes, and was not suitable for porting. The first port to another platform was made five years later (1978) for the Interdata 8/32
In 1974, Ken Robinson
of the Department of Computer Science at University of New South Wales
(UNSW) in Australia
wrote to Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs requesting a copy of Unix for their PDP-11/40 minicomputer. This arrived and was installed in 1975, making UNSW the first university outside the United States to run Unix regularly.
Bell Labs produced several versions of Unix that are collectively referred to as "Research Unix
". In 1975, the first source license for ''UNIX'' was sold to Donald B. Gillies
at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Department of Computer Science. UIUC graduate student Greg Chesson, who had worked on the UNIX kernel at Bell Labs, was instrumental in negotiating the terms of the license.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the influence of Unix in academic circles led to large-scale adoption of Unix (BSD
and System V
) by commercial startups, which in turn led to Unix fragmenting into multiple, similar but often slightly mutually-incompatible systems including DYNIX
, and Xenix
. In the late 1980s, AT&T Unix System Laboratories
and Sun Microsystems
developed System V Release 4 (SVR4
), which was subsequently adopted by many commercial Unix vendors.
In the 1990s, Unix and Unix-like
systems grew in popularity and became the operating system of choice for over 90% of the world's top 500 fastest supercomputers
as BSD and Linux
distributions were developed through collaboration by a worldwide network of programmers. In 2000, Apple released Darwin
, also a Unix system, which became the core of the Mac OS X operating system, later renamed macOS
Unix operating systems are widely used in modern servers
s, and mobile device
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 Filesystem Hierarchy Standard
was created to provide a reference directory layout for Unix-like operating systems; it has mainly been used in Linux.
The Unix system is composed of several components that were originally packaged together. By including the development environment, libraries, documents and the portable, modifiable source code for all of these components, in addition to the kernel
of an operating system, Unix was a self-contained software system. This was one of the key reasons it emerged as an important teaching and learning tool and has had such a broad influence.
The inclusion of these components did not make the system large the original V7 UNIX distribution, consisting of copies of all of the compiled binaries plus all of the source code and documentation occupied less than 10 MB and arrived on a single nine-track magnetic tape
. The printed documentation, typeset from the online sources, was contained in two volumes.
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.
'' 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 (''bc'', ''dc''), 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.
* ''Commands'' Unix makes little distinction between commands (user-level programs) for system operation and maintenance (e.g. ''cron
''), commands of general utility (e.g. ''grep
''), and more general-purpose applications such as the text formatting and typesetting package. Nonetheless, some major categories are:
'' the "shell" programmable command-line interpreter
, the primary user interface on Unix before window systems appeared, and even afterward (within a "command window").
** ''Utilities'' the core toolkit of the Unix command set, including ''cp
'' and many others. Subcategories include:
*** ''System utilities'' administrative tools such as ''mkfs
'', and many others.
*** ''User utilities'' environment management tools such as ''passwd'', ''kill'', and others.
** ''Document formatting'' Unix systems were used from the outset for document preparation and typesetting systems, and included many related programs such as ''nroff
'', and ''pic
''. Some modern Unix systems also include packages such as TeX
** ''Graphics'' the ''plot'' subsystem provided facilities for producing simple vector plots in a device-independent format, with device-specific interpreters to display such files. Modern Unix systems also generally include X11
as a standard windowing system and GUI
, and many support OpenGL
** ''Communications'' early Unix systems contained no inter-system communication, but did include the inter-user communication programs ''mail'' and ''write''. V7 introduced the early inter-system communication system UUCP
, and systems beginning with BSD release 4.1c included TCP/IP
* ''Documentation'' Unix was the first operating system to include all of its documentation online in machine-readable form. The documentation included:
'' manual pages for each command, library component, system call
, header file, etc.
** ''doc'' longer documents detailing major subsystems, such as the C language and troff
1984, including Dennis Ritchie
File:Plan_9_from_Bell_Labs_(with_acme).png.html" style="text-decoration: none;"class="mw-redirect" title="Plan 9 from Bell Labs">File:Plan 9 from Bell Labs (with acme).png">thumb|[[Plan 9 from Bell Labs
extends Unix design principles and was developed as a successor to Unix.
The Unix system had a significant impact on other operating systems. It achieved its reputation by its interactivity, by providing the software at a nominal fee for educational use, by running on inexpensive hardware, and by being easy to adapt and move to different machines. Unix was originally written in [[assembly language]], but was soon rewritten in [[C (programming language)|C]], a [[high-level programming language]]. Although this followed the lead of [[Multics]] and [[Burroughs large systems|Burroughs]], it was Unix that popularized the idea.
Unix had a drastically simplified file model compared to many contemporary operating systems: treating all kinds of files as simple byte arrays. The file system hierarchy contained machine services and devices (such as printers
, or disk drive
s), providing a uniform interface, but at the expense of occasionally requiring additional mechanisms such as ioctl
and mode flags to access features of the hardware that did not fit the simple "stream of bytes" model. The Plan 9
operating system pushed this model even further and eliminated the need for additional mechanisms.
Unix also popularized the hierarchical file system with arbitrarily nested subdirectories, originally introduced by Multics. Other common operating systems of the era had ways to divide a storage device into multiple directories or sections, but they had a fixed number of levels, often only one level. Several major proprietary operating systems eventually added recursive subdirectory capabilities also patterned after Multics. DEC's RSX-11
M's "group, user" hierarchy evolved into VMS
's volumes evolved into MS-DOS
2.0+ subdirectories, and HP's MPE
group.account hierarchy and IBM's SSP
library systems were folded into broader POSIX file systems.
Making the command interpreter an ordinary user-level program, with additional commands provided as separate programs, was another Multics innovation popularized by Unix. The Unix shell
used the same language for interactive commands as for scripting (shell script
s – there was no separate job control language like IBM's JCL
). Since the shell and OS commands were "just another program", the user could choose (or even write) their own shell. New commands could be added without changing the shell itself. Unix's innovative command-line syntax for creating modular chains of producer-consumer processes (pipelines
) made a powerful programming paradigm (coroutine
s) widely available. Many later command-line interpreters have been inspired by the Unix shell.
A fundamental simplifying assumption of Unix was its focus on newline
text for nearly all file formats. There were no "binary" editors in the original version of Unix – the entire system was configured using textual shell command scripts. The common denominator in the I/O system was the byte – unlike "record-based" file systems
. The focus on text for representing nearly everything made Unix pipes especially useful and encouraged the development of simple, general tools that could be easily combined to perform more complicated ''ad hoc'' tasks. The focus on text and bytes made the system far more scalable and portable than other systems. Over time, text-based applications have also proven popular in application areas, such as printing languages (PostScript
), and at the application layer of the Internet protocols
, e.g., FTP
, and SIP
Unix popularized a syntax for regular expression
s that found widespread use. The Unix programming interface became the basis for a widely implemented operating system interface standard (POSIX, see above). The C programming language
soon spread beyond Unix, and is now ubiquitous in systems and applications programming.
Early Unix developers were important in bringing the concepts of modularity
into software engineering
practice, spawning a "software tools" movement. Over time, the leading developers of Unix (and programs that ran on it) established a set of cultural norms for developing software, norms which became as important and influential as the technology of Unix itself; this has been termed the Unix philosophy
The TCP/IP networking protocols
were quickly implemented on the Unix versions widely used on relatively inexpensive computers, which contributed to the Internet
explosion of worldwide real-time connectivity, and which formed the basis for implementations on many other platforms.
The Unix policy of extensive on-line documentation and (for many years) ready access to all system source code raised programmer expectations, and contributed to the launch of the free software movement
Free Unix and Unix-like variants
In 1983, Richard Stallman
announced the GNU
(short for "GNU's Not Unix") project, an ambitious effort to create a free software Unix-like
system; "free" in the sense that everyone who received a copy would be free to use, study, modify, and redistribute it. The GNU project's own kernel development project, GNU Hurd
, had not yet produced a working kernel, but in 1991 Linus Torvalds
released the kernel Linux
as free software under the GNU General Public License
. In addition to their use in the GNU
operating system, many GNU packages – such as the GNU Compiler Collection
(and the rest of the GNU toolchain
), the GNU C library
and the GNU core utilities
– have gone on to play central roles in other free Unix systems as well.
s, consisting of the Linux kernel and large collections of compatible software have become popular both with individual users and in business. Popular distributions include Red Hat Enterprise Linux
, SUSE Linux Enterprise
, Debian GNU/Linux
, Linux Mint
, Mandriva Linux
, Slackware Linux
, Arch Linux
A free derivative of BSD
, was released in 1992 and led to the NetBSD
projects. With the 1994 settlement of a lawsuit brought against the University of California and Berkeley Software Design Inc. (''USL v. BSDi
'') by Unix System Laboratories
, it was clarified that Berkeley had the right to distribute BSD Unix for free if it so desired. Since then, BSD Unix has been developed in several different product branches, including OpenBSD
and DragonFly BSD
Linux and BSD are increasingly filling the market needs traditionally served by proprietary Unix operating systems, as well as expanding into new markets such as the consumer desktop and mobile and embedded devices. Because of the modular design of the Unix model, sharing components is relatively common; consequently, most or all Unix and Unix-like systems include at least some BSD code, and some systems also include GNU utilities in their distributions.
In a 1999 interview, Dennis Ritchie voiced his opinion that Linux and BSD operating systems are a continuation of the basis of the Unix design, and are derivatives of Unix:
In the same interview, he states that he views both Unix and Linux as "the continuation of ideas that were started by Ken and me and many others, many years ago".
was the free software
counterpart to Solaris
developed by Sun Microsystems
, which included a CDDL
-licensed kernel and a primarily GNU
userland. However, Oracle
discontinued the project upon their acquisition of Sun, which prompted a group of former Sun employees and members of the OpenSolaris community to fork OpenSolaris into the illumos
kernel. As of 2014, illumos remains the only active open-source System V derivative.
In May 1975, RFC 681 described the development of ''Network Unix'' by the Center for Advanced Computation at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
. The system was said to "present several interesting capabilities as an ARPANET
mini-host". At the time Unix required a license from Bell Laboratories
that, at $20,000(US), was very expensive for non-university
users, while an educational license cost just $150. It was noted that Bell was "open to suggestions" for an ARPANET-wide license.
Specific features found beneficial were the local processing facilities, compiler
, a document preparation system
, efficient file system and access control, mountable
and unmountable volumes, unified treatment of peripherals as special files
, integration of the network control program
(NCP) within the Unix file system, treatment of network connections
as special files that can be accessed through standard Unix I/O calls
, closing of all files on program exit, and the decision to be "desirable to minimize the amount of code added to the basic Unix kernel".
In October 1993, Novell
, the company that owned the rights to the Unix System V source at the time, transferred the trademark
s of Unix to the X/Open Company (now The Open Group
and in 1995 sold the related business operations to Santa Cruz Operation
Whether Novell also sold the copyright
s to the actual software was the subject of a federal lawsuit in 2006, ''SCO v. Novell
'', which Novell won. The case was appealed, but on August 30, 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the trial decisions, closing the case. Unix vendor SCO Group Inc.
accused Novell of slander of title
The present owner of the trademark ''UNIX'' is The Open Group, an industry standards consortium. Only systems fully compliant with and certified to the Single UNIX Specification
qualify as "UNIX" (others are called "Unix-like
By decree of The Open Group, the term "UNIX" refers more to a class of operating systems than to a specific implementation of an operating system; those operating systems which meet The Open Group's Single UNIX Specification should be able to bear the UNIX 98
or UNIX 03
trademarks today, after the operating system's vendor pays a substantial certification fee and annual trademark royalties to The Open Group. Systems that have been licensed to use the UNIX trademark include AIX
, Inspur K-UX
, Tru64 UNIX
(formerly "Digital UNIX", or OSF/1
), and z/OS
. Notably, EulerOS and Inspur K-UX are Linux distributions certified as UNIX 03 compliant.
Sometimes a representation like ''Un*x'', ''*NIX'', or ''*N?X'' is used to indicate all operating systems similar to Unix. This comes from the use of the asterisk (''*'') and the question mark characters as wildcard indicators in many utilities. This notation is also used to describe other Unix-like systems that have not met the requirements for UNIX branding from the Open Group.
The Open Group requests that ''UNIX'' is always used as an adjective followed by a generic term such as ''system'' to help avoid the creation of a genericized trademark
''Unix'' was the original formatting, but the usage of ''UNIX'' remains widespread because it was once typeset in small caps
''). According to Dennis Ritchie
, when presenting the original Unix paper to the third Operating Systems Symposium of the American Association for Computing Machinery
(ACM), "we had a new typesetter and ''troff
'' had just been invented and we were intoxicated by being able to produce small caps". Many of the operating system's predecessors and contemporaries used all-uppercase lettering, so many people wrote the name in upper case due to force of habit. It is not an acronym.
Trademark names can be registered by different entities in different countries and trademark laws in some countries allow the same trademark name to be controlled by two different entities if each entity uses the trademark in easily distinguishable categories. The result is that Unix has been used as a brand name for various products including bookshelves, ink pens, bottled glue, diapers, hair driers and food containers.
Several plural forms of Unix are used casually to refer to multiple brands of Unix and Unix-like systems. Most common is the conventional ''Unixes'', but ''Unices'', treating Unix as a Latin
noun of the third declension
, is also popular. The pseudo-Anglo-Saxon
plural form ''Unixen'' is not common, although occasionally seen. Sun Microsystems
, developer of the Solaris variant, has asserted that the term ''Unix'' is itself plural, referencing its many implementations.
* Comparison of operating systems
and free and proprietary software
* List of operating systems
, Unix systems
, and Unix commands
* Market share of operating systems
* Timeline of operating systems
* Plan 9 from Bell Labs
* Unix time
* Year 2038 problem
* Lions, John
: ''Lions' with Source Code'', Peer-to-Peer Communications, 1996;
* Salus, Peter H.
: ''A Quarter Century of UNIX'', Addison Wesley, June 1, 1994;
* Computer Chronicles
* Computer Chronicles
The UNIX Standard
at The Open Group
The Unix Tree: files from historic releases
*1st Edition manual rendered to HTML1982 film about Unix featuring Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, Brian Kernighan, Alfred Aho, and more
audio bsdtalk170 - Marshall Kirk McKusick at DCBSDCon -- on history of tcp/ip (in BSD) -- abridgement of the three lectures on the history of BSD.
BYTE Magazine, September 1986: UNIX and the MC68000
a software perspective on the MC68000 CPU architecture and UNIX compatibility
Request a login
to try some Unix systems on vintage hardware at Living Computers: Museum + Labs
Category:Operating system families
Category:Time-sharing operating systems