Unix Hits the Big Four-Oh

There's been plenty of comment on the Internet lately about Unix reaching the big four-oh this year, although it's not quite clear when its birthday really is. OS Roundup: Happy birthday, Unix. There's much more to be said than 40 years old and not yet dead.

What we do know is that Unix was conceived in the spring of '69 and gestated over the summer months with a team at Bell Labs Computing Science Research Center that included Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie.

Not for them the sort of ponderous development schedules coders at Microsoft enjoyed: While Windows Vista took several years to develop from initial idea to finished product, the fathers of Unix worked to a different beat altogether. How's this for a confident approach to developing what may be the most important operating system the world has ever seen: "I allocated a week each to the operating system, the shell, the editor, and the assembler to reproduce itself ..." Thompson explains.

And so, 40 years ago, something came in to existence. "Although it was not until well into 1970 that Brian Kernighan suggested the name 'UNIX,' in a somewhat treacherous pun on 'Multics,'[and] the operating system we know today was born," confirms Ritchie.

Forty years on and Unix is still going strong — mainly in the form of AIX, HP-UX and Solaris. Systems running these Unixes still account for 33.1 percent of server spending, according to the most recent IDC Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker, compared to 37.3 percent for Windows and 13.8 percent for Linux.

Unix's market share has been declining over the past few years as Linux becomes more popular, but we shouldn't forget that Linux is a Unix derivative. You could certainly argue that the popularity of Linux is a testament to the greatness and durability of Unix — a chip off the old block so to speak. If you add Unix and Linux together as part of the same family, instead of seeing them as competitors, then Unix still accounts for more than half of all server spend.

Server spend ignores pirated Windows servers that are doubtless running in many parts of the world, but it also ignores many Linux implementations. And other Unix offspring are everywhere — from Plan 9 to anything with BSD in it, from OpenSolaris to Mac OS X (and the software running on Apple's iPod Touch for that matter). Lump all these together and Unix and its kin no doubt account for a solid majority of software running on servers around the world. Not bad for a forty year old.

Talking of Apple, the signs are that the company still doesn't "get" security, instead hoping that its small market share will discourage bad guys from attacking its systems. Maybe it's because its developers are too busy bringing out new software for its iPods and phones at the moment, but the company still hasn't gotten around to fixing a serious security vulnerability in its Java VM more than six months after Sun pointed it out and many months since Windows and most Linux distributions got round to fixing it.

Rich Mogull, founder of security firm Securosis, believes the problem is systemic. Unlike Microsoft, for example, Apple has not adopted a secure development lifecycle process, he says. "Based on a variety of sources, we know that Apple does not have a formal security program, and as such fails to catch vulnerabilities that would otherwise be prevented before product releases ... It's clear that Apple considers security important, but that the company also struggles to execute effectively when faced with security challenges," he says in The Register.

It's true Microsoft's processes don't eliminate security vulnerabilities in its software entirely, but then it doesn't have commercials that aim to convince customers its software is completely secure.

If the company wants to be taken seriously as an enterprise operating system maker — and it's not at all clear that it does — then it's going to have to do a lot more than add business features to its phones and point to its Unix credentials. Fixing critical bugs in its computer software before messing about with the firmware in its iPods and iPhones would be a great start. Apple users should demand nothing less.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Jun 16, 2009
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