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What Is Unix?

Unix (officially trademarked as UNIX, sometimes also written as Unix with small caps) is a computer operating system originally developed in 1969 by a group of AT&T employees at Bell Labs, including Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Douglas McIlroy, and Joe Ossanna. Today's Unix systems are split into various branches, developed over time by AT&T as well as various commercial vendors and non-profit organizations.

As of 2007, the owner of the trademark is The Open Group, an industry standards consortium. Only systems fully compliant with and certified to the Single UNIX Specification are qualified to use the trademark; others are called "Unix system-like" or "Unix-like".

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the influence of Unix in academic circles led to large-scale adoption of Unix (particularly of the BSD variant, originating from the University of California, Berkeley) by commercial startups, the most notable of which are Solaris, HP-UX and AIX. Today, in addition to certified Unix systems such as those already mentioned, Unix-like operating systems such as Linux and BSD are commonly encountered. Sometimes, "traditional Unix" may be used to describe a Unix or an operating system that has the characteristics of either Version 7 Unix or UNIX System V.

Unix operating systems are widely used in both servers and workstations. 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, causing both to be ported to a wider variety of machine families than any other operating system. As a result, Unix became synonymous with "open systems".

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 known as the Unix philosophy.

Under Unix, the "operating system" consists of many of these utilities along with the master control program, the kernel. The kernel provides services to start and stop programs, handle the file system and other common "low level" tasks that most programs share, and, perhaps most importantly, schedules access to hardware to avoid conflicts if two programs try to access the same resource or device simultaneously. To mediate such access, the kernel was given special rights on the system, leading to 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 "normal" 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, and in the 1980s non-blocking I/O and the set of inter-process communication mechanisms was augmented (sockets, shared memory, message queues, semaphores), and functionalities such as network protocols were moved out of the kernel.
Posted on May 29th, 2014 - Updated on May 3rd, 2016
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