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Unix celebrates 40 years of choices

Integral This summer the Unix operating system celebrates its 40th anniversary. The HP 3000's OS won't roll over to its 40th until 2012, but any Unix use back in 1969 would have to be labeled experimental, considering the environment was built for colleges, laboratories and government defense. HP's Unix, HP-UX, came onto Hewlett-Packard's product lineup in 1983. HP built its version upon the System V release from Bell Labs

Unix has survived at HP because of its popularity around the IT world. But being chosen often doesn't always confer superior technology. Unix holds the dubious distinction of having a book written about its shortcomings, The Unix Hater's Handbook, perhaps the only book ever dedicated to deriding an OS. But HP, along with vendors like Sun and IBM, have pumped decades of engineering into Unix to make it a business solution.

HP certainly did not start selling the OS with business in mind. The first versions in 1983 through 1985 were written strictly for engineering workstations, relics such as the HP Integral portable PC (above) and the Series 500 desktops. When HP bought Apollo Computer in 1989, advances such as Unix sockets were being integrated into HP-UX.

HP's Unix got the jump on MPE/iX in the first generation of the Precision RISC hardware releases (Series 800 and 900). In 1986 HP had to double back and revise its MPE port for the new hardware, while HP-UX, created using the same base MODCAL language as MPE XL, was ready first.

HP shipped Series 840 Unix systems to business customers before the HP 3000 Series 930 was ever ready. The 930, underpowered to start, had to be replaced with the Series 950, causing more delay. Some say the  3000 never retained any edge in HP's business computer line ever since.

Unix history What is misunderstood is the proprietary nature of Unix versions. Only the more recent distributions of Linux come close to the "open system" promises of those late 1980s rollouts. A look at a detailed family tree of Unix evolution over the last four decades illustrates open, closed and hybrid versions from Sun, HP, IBM and others. There's plenty of red "closed" versions in the chart above, including those being sold today by IBM and HP.

HP-UX was the first Unix to use access control lists for file access permissions rather than the standard Unix permissions system. HP-UX was also among the first Unix systems to include a built-in logical volume manager. In such advances the Unix vendors have given the IT community a way to distinguish between vendors' implementations. There are standards today for Unix implementations, a vast improvement over the Unix Wars of the 1980s, competition between the opposing versions of Unix.

Unix has been rich with choices ever since its inception, being developed by a community of programmers until vendors stepped in to differentiate features. But its glue is the common command set that gives administrators and developers a leg up on one Unix if they know another version. The commonality enjoyed perhaps its brightest moment came in the climax of Jurassic Park. To erase the threat of rogue dinosaurs, one character must take control of the park's computer. "It's a Unix system," says Lex. "I know this!" She then proceeds to navigate the files with the ease of movie computing to save the day.