Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Unix Biography

We are now embarking on a very special journey that of unveiling and exploring the unlimited expanse that is Unix. By the end of this journey, we plan to have you make tentative, if not confident overtures to the Unix Operating System. But first, let us do away with a few civilities. What was the origin of Unix? How did it reach the status it enjoys today? Read on.

Unix, as the world knows today, is the happy outcome of the proverbial rage-to-riches story. What is now heralded as the most powerful and popular multiuser Operating System (OS) had a very humble beginning in the austere premises of AT&T's Bell Laboratories, the fertile spawning ground of many a landmarks in the computer history.

The origin of Unix can be traced back to 1965, when a joint venture was undertaken by Bell Telephone Laboratories, the General Electric Company and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The aim was to develop an operating system that could serve a large community of users and allow them to share data if need be. This never-to-be enterprise was called Multics, for Multiplex information and Computing Service. Even after much time, resources and efforts had been devoted to the project, the convenient, interactive computing service as quoted by Ritchie, failed to materialise. This led Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, both of AT&T, to start afresh on what their mind's eye had so illustriously envisioned. This, in 1969, the two along with a few others evolved what was to be the first version of the multiuser system Unix. Armed with a museum piece of a computer called PDP-7, a rudimentary file system was developed. Though this was not tapped to the fullest, it had all the trappings of a truly potent multiuser operating system. This system was christened 'Unix' by Brian Kernighan, as a very reminder of the ill-fated Multics. Later, in 1971 Unix was ported to a PDP-11 computer with a 512 KB disk. Unix then was a 16 KB system with 8 KB for user programs and an upper limit of 64 KB per file. All its assembly code being machine dependent, the version was not portable, a key requirement for a successful OS.

To remedy this, Ken Thompson created a new language 'B' and set about the Herculean task of rewriting the whole Unix code in this high level language. 'B' lacked in several aspects necessary for real life programming. Ritchie sifted the inadequacies of B and modified it to a new language which he named as 'C' - the language which finally enabled Unix to stand tall on any machine.

Thus, by 1973, Unix had come a long way from its PDP-7 days, and was soon licensed to quite a number of Universities, Companies and other commercial institutions. With is uncomplicated elegance it was charming a following perhaps more effortlessly than the pied piper of the fables. The essentially accommodating nature of the system encouraged many a developer to polish and enhance its capabilities, which kept it alive and with the times.

By the mid eighties there were more than a hundred thousand Unix installations running on anything from a micro to a mainframe computer and over numerous varying architectures - a remarkable achievement for an OS by any standard. Almost a decade later Unix still holds the record for being the soul of more computer networks than any other OS is.

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