Itís amazing to think that UNIX
has survived over the years, even after it was tipped to takeover
the operating system market from DOS in the mid-1980s.
So what happened? Why has it survived? Why donít more people use it?
Well itís survived because itís totally robust and reliable. Itís
well trusted and relatively secure. It has always supported networking.
AndÖ So, whatís the problem? Well its big problem has always been
that it requires a skilled computer administrator to set it up and
keep it running. There is no way that most home users, or small businesses
could support this level of support. Another problem is that it is
very difficult to recruit, and keep, good UNIX administrators. I have
seen this first hand, as I used to be responsible for an Electronic
Computer Aided Design (ECAD) network. It ran extremely well and was
based on Apollo and HP workstations. Unfortunately we started
to lose our system administrators as they were offered much higher
salaries than my university could not afford. Soon we were left with
no properly trained UNIX administrators. For a while the system ran
reasonably well and was patched when something went wrong, but it
was not properly maintained, and there were no backups. Soon the on-line
CD manuals became unavailable, next printer queue kept failing,
next some of the computers failed to log users in, and so on, until
eventually there was a lightning strike which sent an electrical spike
through the computers. Unfortunately it blew up one of the disk drives.
The network never really recovered from this, as the damaged drive
was the one that contained most of the ECAD software, which was so
complicated to setup it was almost impossible to recover its original
state. From that day forward my department vowed to move its ECAD
software towards PCs, as they were so much easier to setup and administrate.
The students could even install software on their computers at home
(which in those days were lumbering 80386 -computerís,
with 1MB of memory
, and a VGA monitor).
anyone who has used UNIX
and they will tell you that it tends to be much more reliable
than a PC system using Microsoft Windows .
So why is this? Well itís probably because UNIX machines tend not
to be based on legacy type systems, and use peripherals which have
robust interfaces, and cost is normally not a major factor.
CALL ME TECHIE!
So why do more
users not adopt UNIX
? Well, until recently, it was still very much
text command based, where users must enter text commands at a user
prompt (just as DOS did). Most technically trained
users actually prefer this type of mechanism to run commands, but
home users can never remember the required command, or the options
to use with it. Thus UNIX has always been seen as a Ďtechieí
operating system , as it allows users to carefully
control and monitor the operation of the system. By the way, the
word Ďtechieí is my least favorite word, and I think
it is totally disrespectful to people who have a deep understanding
of technology. Iíve seen messages such as:
e-mail system is very easy to use and you can press the mouse key
to read your messages if you want. For you techies, it is
based on a POP-3 server
have changed the cables in the campus (for the techies, they use
Cat-5 cable ).í
as if people with a technical knowledge are some alien force who
would take over the planet if they had half a chance. Maybe we should,
just for the fun of it. Where would the Company Directors be if
the Ďtechiesí brought down their entire IT infrastructure,
or where would Stock Market Dealers be if the Ďtechiesí crashed
the stock market computer (or even failed to back up the data
at regular intervals), or where would the Government be
if they did not have computer systems which kept track of taxes,
and made payments. So, need it go on? I donít think so. With the
Internet , electronic mail ,
data communications, and so on, it is really the Ďtechiesí
who have the power. So the next time you see an e-mail with the
word Ďtechieí in it, immediately put it in your recycle bin,
and then trample on it a few times. In fact, just setup your electronic
mail system to automatically delete any messages with the word in
it. Please don't call us 'techies'.
Iím sorry. Back to UNIX
. So, in the face of the all-powerful Microsoft
Windows , what has saved UNIX from an early
grave? Well apart from Sun Microsystems ,
it must be Linux , which guides the user
through the steps of setting up the operating system .
With a basic PC , you can end up with
a WWW server , an FTP server,
a TELNET server, an electronic mail server, a domain
name server, and so on. But, its big problem is that it doesnít
have the same support for peripheral devices as Microsoft Windows
has. Iíve had to field lots of questions from students who could
not setup their networking card or their video adaptor to
properly install (me too!). My advice was always: Ďuse an older
version of the device, as itís more likely to be supportedí.
But some people love all these problems. Microsoft Windows is really
like buying a video with a big button that says PLAY, TUNE
STATIONS, FORWARD, REWIND and another that says RECORD. For most
people this is all the functionality they require. Others would
like to be able to change the way that the video recorder operates,
such as having the following buttons: PAUSE, FAST PLAY, MANUAL STATION
TUNING, MONITOR SIGNAL STRENGTH, and so on.
So where would we be without UNIX
? Well I donít think that the Internet
would have even existed without it. UNIX carefully allowed TCP
and IP to grow, adding all the other services that they
required. And where did WWW browsers come from? And distributed
processing and distributed file system s
? Oh, and electronic mail ?
And TELNET ? And FTP
? Well, Microsoft Windows depends on the support
of the dollars that it generates which go to fund software developers
and vendors to add support for new device driver s.
Linux , though, depends on individuals
who, for the love of computing and the belief that there
should be an alternative to Microsoft Windows, decide that they would
like to develop a driver for a certain device. This type of system
will always lag behind a commercial system, as a developer who sits
in a research laboratory on a big salary and has eight hours every
day to spend on it will, on average, produce better software than
a developer who sets up a lab in a little room in their own home,
who has coffee stains on the keyboard and modem cable that is
slung around the doorway (or is it?).
W. Buchanan, 2000