Evolution of Unix and Unix-like systems
Developer Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Brian Kernighan, Douglas McIlroy, and Joe Ossanna at Bell Labs
Written in C and assembly language
OS family Unix
Working state Current
Source model Historically closed-source, while some Unix projects (including BSD family and Illumos) are open-source
Initial release Development started in 1969 (1969)
First manual published internally in November 1971 (1971-11)[1]
Announced outside Bell Labs in October 1973 (1973-10)[2]
Available in English
Kernel type Monolithic
Default user interface Command-line interface and Graphical (X Window System)
License Varies; some versions are proprietary, others are free/open-source software
Official website unix.org

Unix (/ˈj.nɪks/; trademarked as UNIX) is a family of multitasking, multiuser computer operating systems that derive from the original AT&T Unix, developed in the 1970s at the Bell Labs research center by Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and others.[3]

Initially intended for use inside the Bell System, AT&T licensed Unix to outside parties from the late 1970s, leading to a variety of both academic and commercial variants of Unix from vendors such as the University of California, Berkeley (BSD), Microsoft (Xenix), IBM (AIX) and Sun Microsystems (Solaris). AT&T finally sold its rights in Unix to Novell in the early 1990s, which then sold its Unix business to the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) in 1995,[4] but the UNIX trademark passed to the industry standards consortium The Open Group, which allows the use of the mark for certified operating systems compliant with the Single UNIX Specification (SUS). Among these is Apple's macOS,[5] which is the Unix version with the largest installed base as of 2014.

From the power user's or programmer's perspective, Unix systems are characterized by a modular design that is sometimes called the "Unix philosophy", meaning that the operating system provides a set of simple tools that each perform a limited, well-defined function,[6] with a unified filesystem as the main means of communication[3] and a shell scripting and command language to combine the tools to perform complex workflows. Aside from the modular design, Unix also distinguishes itself from its predecessors as the first portable operating system: almost the entire operating system is written in the C programming language[7] that allowed Unix to reach numerous platforms.

Many clones of Unix have arisen over the years, of which Linux is the most popular, having displaced SUS-certified Unix on many server platforms since its inception in the early 1990s.


Version 7 Unix, the Research Unix ancestor of all modern Unix systems

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-programmer users.[8][9] The system grew larger as the operating system started spreading in academic circles, as users added their own tools to the system and shared them with colleagues.[10]

Unix was designed to be portable, multi-tasking and multi-user 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".[11]

By the early 1980s users began seeing Unix as a potential universal operating system, suitable for computers of all sizes.[12][13] 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.

Under Unix, the operating system consists of many 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 division between user space and kernel space.

The microkernel concept was introduced in an effort to reverse the trend towards larger kernels and return to a system in which most tasks were completed by smaller utilities. In an era when a standard computer consisted of a hard disk for storage and a data terminal for input and output (I/O), the Unix file model worked quite well, as most I/O was linear. However, modern systems include networking and other new devices. As graphical user interfaces developed, the file model proved inadequate to the task of handling asynchronous events such as those generated by a mouse. In the 1980s, non-blocking I/O and the set of inter-process communication mechanisms were augmented with Unix domain sockets, shared memory, message queues, and semaphores. In microkernel implementations, functions such as network protocols could be moved out of the kernel, while conventional (monolithic) Unix implementations have network protocol stacks as part of the kernel.


Main article: History of Unix
Ken Thompson (sitting) and Dennis Ritchie working together at a PDP-11

The pre-history of Unix dates back to the mid-1960s when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bell Labs, and General Electric were developing an innovative time-sharing operating system called Multics for the GE-645 mainframe.[14] Multics introduced many innovations, but had many problems. Frustrated by the size and complexity of Multics but not by the aims, Bell Labs slowly pulled out of the project. Their last researchers to leave Multics, Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, M. D. McIlroy, and J. F. Ossanna,[15] decided to redo the work on a much smaller scale.

The name Unics (Uniplexed Information and Computing Service, pronounced as "eunuchs"), a pun on Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computer Services), was initially suggested for the project in 1970: the new operating system was an emasculated Multics. Peter H. Salus credits Peter Neumann with the pun,[16] while Brian Kernighan claims the coining for himself, and adds that "no one can remember" who came up with the final spelling Unix.[17] Dennis Ritchie also credits Kernighan.[15]

In 1972, Unix was rewritten in the C programming language.[18] The migration from assembly to the higher-level language C resulted in much more portable software,[19] requiring only a relatively small amount of machine-dependent code to be replaced when porting Unix to other computing platforms. 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 faculty at the University of Illinois Department of Computer Science.[20] UIUC graduate student Greg Chesson (who had worked on the UNIX kernel at Bell Labs) was instrumental in negotiating the terms of this license.[21]

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, including Sequent, HP-UX, Solaris, AIX, 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-like systems grew in popularity as Linux and BSD distributions were developed through collaboration by a worldwide network of programmers. In 2000, Apple released Darwin that became the core of the macOS operating system.[22]

Unix operating systems are widely used in modern servers, workstations, and mobile devices.[23]


Beginning 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 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, and 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 on-line 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:


See also: Unix-like
Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, principal developers of Research Unix
Photo from USENIX 1984, including Dennis Ritchie (center)
Plan 9 from Bell Labs extends Unix design principles, and was developed as a successor to Unix

The Unix system had 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 (which had been thought necessary for system implementations on early computers), but was soon rewritten in C, a high-level programming language.[24] Although this followed the lead of Multics and 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, terminals, or disk drives), 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-11M's "group, user" hierarchy evolved into VMS directories, CP/M's volumes evolved into MS-DOS 2.0+ subdirectories, and HP's MPE group.account hierarchy and IBM's SSP and OS/400 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 scripts – 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) his 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 (coroutines) 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-delimited 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, ODF), and at the application layer of the Internet protocols, e.g., FTP, SMTP, HTTP, SOAP, and SIP.

Unix popularized a syntax for regular expressions 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 and reusability 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 1983 launch of the free software movement.

Free Unix and Unix-like variants

Console screenshots of Debian (top, a popular Linux distribution) and FreeBSD (bottom, a popular Unix-like operating system)

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 produced a working kernel, but in 1991 Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel as free software under the GNU General Public License. In addition to their use in the Linux 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.

Linux distributions, 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, Fedora, SUSE Linux Enterprise, openSUSE, Debian GNU/Linux, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Mandriva Linux, Slackware Linux, and Gentoo.

A free derivative of BSD Unix, 386BSD, was released in 1992 and led to the NetBSD and FreeBSD projects. With the 1994 settlement of a lawsuit brought against the University of California and Berkeley Software Design Inc. (USL v. BSDi) by UNIX Systems 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:[25]

I think the Linux phenomenon is quite delightful, because it draws so strongly on the basis that Unix provided. Linux seems to be the among the healthiest of the direct Unix derivatives, though there are also the various BSD systems as well as the more official offerings from the workstation and mainframe manufacturers.

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."[25]

OpenSolaris was the open-source 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. 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, compilers, editors, 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".


HP9000 workstation running HP-UX, a certified Unix operating system

In October 1993, Novell, the company that owned the rights to the Unix System V source at the time, transferred the trademarks of Unix to the X/Open Company (now The Open Group),[26] and in 1995 sold the related business operations to Santa Cruz Operation (SCO).[27] Whether Novell also sold the copyrights to the actual software was the subject of a 2006 federal lawsuit, 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.[28] 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 system-like" or "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.[29] Systems licensed to use the UNIX trademark include AIX,[30] HP-UX,[31] Inspur K-UX,[32] IRIX,[33] Solaris,[34] Tru64 UNIX (formerly "Digital UNIX", or OSF/1),[35] macOS,[36] and a part of z/OS.[37] Notably, Inspur K-UX is a Linux distribution certified as UNIX 03 compliant.[38][39]

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 (Unix). 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."[40] 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.[41]

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. 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 book shelves, ink pens, bottled glue, diapers, hair driers and food containers.[42]

See also


  1. McIlroy, M. D. (1987). A Research Unix reader: annotated excerpts from the Programmer's Manual, 1971–1986 (PDF) (Technical report). CSTR. Bell Labs. 139.
  2. Ritchie, D. M.; Thompson, K. (1974). "The UNIX Time-Sharing System" (PDF). CACM. 17 (7): 365–375.
  3. 1 2 Ritchie, D.M.; Thompson, K. (July 1978). "The UNIX Time-Sharing System". Bell System Tech. J. USA: American Tel. & Tel. 57 (6): 1905–1929. doi:10.1002/j.1538-7305.1978.tb02136.x. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  4. "Novell Completes Sale of UnixWare Business to The Santa Cruz Operation | Micro Focus". www.novell.com. Retrieved 2015-12-20.
  5. Apple Inc. - UNIX 03 Register of Certified Products, The Open Group
  6. Raymond, Eric (2003-09-19). The Art of Unix Programming. Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-13-142901-9. Retrieved 2009-02-09.
  7. Ritchie, Dennis M. (January 1993). "The Development of the C Language" (PDF). Retrieved 20 December 2015.
  8. "The Elements of Operating-System Style".
  9. "Tandy/Radio Shack Book: Whole Earth Software Catalog". 1984. UNIX was created by software developers for software developers, to give themselves an environment they could completely manipulate.
  10. Powers, Shelley; Peek, Jerry; O'Reilly, Tim; Loukides, Mike (2002). Unix Power Tools. ISBN 0-596-00330-7.
  11. Kernighan, Brian W. Pike, Rob. The UNIX Programming Environment. 1984. viii
  12. Fiedler, Ryan (October 1983). "The Unix Tutorial / Part 3: Unix in the Microcomputer Marketplace". BYTE. p. 132. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
  13. "Tandy/Radio Shack Book: Whole Earth Software Catalog". 1984. The best thing about UNIX is its portability. UNIX ports across a full range of hardware—from the single-user $5000 IBM PC to the $5 million Cray. For the first time, the point of stability becomes the software environment, not the hardware architecture; UNIX transcends changes in hardware technology, so programs written for the UNIX environment can move into the next generation of hardware.
  14. Stuart, Brian L. (2009). Principles of operating systems: design & applications. Boston, Massachusetts: Thompson Learning. p. 23. ISBN 1-4188-3769-5.
  15. 1 2 Ritchie, Dennis M. "The Evolution of the Unix Time-sharing System". Retrieved 2009-11-29.
  16. Salus, Peter H. (1994). A Quarter Century of UNIX. Addison Wesley. p. 9. ISBN 0-201-54777-5.
  17. Dolya, Aleksey (29 July 2003). "Interview with Brian Kernighan". Linux Journal.
  18. Stallings, William. "Operating Systems: Internals and Design Principles" 5th ed, page 91. Pearson Education, Inc. 2005.
  19. "The History of Unix". BYTE. August 1983. p. 188. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  20. Thompson, Ken (16 Sep 2014). "personal communication, Ken Thompson to Donald W. Gillies". UBC ECE Website.
  21. Chesson, Greg (12 Nov 2014). "Personal Communication, Greg Chesson to Donald W. Gillies". UBC ECE Website.
  22. "Loading". Developer.apple.com. Retrieved 2012-08-22.
  23. "Unix's Revenge". asymco. 29 September 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
  24. Ritchie, Dennis (1979). "The Evolution of the Unix Time-sharing System". Bell Labs. Retrieved 2016-04-30. Perhaps the most important watershed occurred during 1973, when the operating system kernel was rewritten in C.
  25. 1 2 Benet, Manuel (1999). "Interview With Dennis M. Ritchie". LinuxFocus.org.
  26. Chuck Karish   View profile    More options. "The name UNIX is now the property of X/Open – comp.std.unix | Google Groups". Groups.google.com. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
  27. "HP, Novell and SCO To Deliver High-Volume UNIX OS With Advanced Network And Enterprise Services". Novell.com. 20 September 1995. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
  28. Jones, Pamela. "SCO Files Docketing Statement and We Find Out What Its Appeal Will Be About". Groklaw. Groklaw.net. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
  29. The Open Group. "The Open Brand Fee Schedule". Retrieved 26 December 2011. The right to use the UNIX Trademark requires the Licensee to pay to The Open Group an additional annual fee, calculated in accordance with the fee table set out below.
  30. The Open Group. "AIX 6 Operating System V6.1.2 with SP1 or later certification".
  31. The Open Group. "HP-UX 11i V3 Release B.11.31 or later certification".
  32. The Open Group. "Inspur K-UX 2.0 certification".
  33. The Open Group. "IRIX 6.5.28 with patches (4605 and 7029) certification".
  34. The Open Group. "Oracle Solaris 11 FCS and later certification".
  35. Bonnie Talerico. "Hewlett-Packard Company Conformance Statement". The Open Group. Retrieved 2015-12-08.
  36. "macOS version 10.12 Sierra on Intel-based Mac computers". The Open Group.
  37. Vivian W. Morabito. "IBM Corporation Conformance Statement". The Open Group. Retrieved 2015-12-08.
  38. Xie Ruohong. "Inspur Conformance Statement". The Open Group. Retrieved 2015-12-08.
  39. Xie Ruohong. "Inspur Conformance Statement: Commands and Utilities V4". The Open Group. Retrieved 2015-12-08.
  40. "Unix". Catb.org. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
  41. Troy, Douglas (1990). UNIX Systems. Computing Fundamentals. Benjamin/Cumming Publishing Company. p. 4. ISBN 0-201-19827-4.
  42. "Autres Unix, autres moeurs (OtherUnix)". Cm.bell-labs.com. 1 April 2000. Retrieved 2010-11-09.

Further reading

Look up Unix in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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The Wikibook Guide to Unix has a page on the topic of: Commands
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