X
Business

UNIX phoenix

From the ashes of UNIX's destruction there may arise a powerful and beautiful new creature.
Written by Evan Liebovitch, Contributor
I come not to bury Unix, but to praise it. Without Unix, there would be no Linux -- so indulge me if I'm not as quick as others to pronounce Unix dead. If anything, the recent purchase by Linux distributor Caldera of SCO's Unix assets signifies, at the very least, a rebirth of Unix rather than a death.

Unix helped change the way the world computed. Even MS-DOS, which introduced Unix-style pipes and sub-directories in its second release, was affected. Unix gave Richard Stallman a stable and useful target when he formed his free OS project project -- and not only because "GNV" (GNV is not VMS) didn't sound as cool as "GNU." Unix thus provided the frame of reference used by a certain Finnish computer student almost a decade ago.

I nix, you nix, they nix, we all nix
Many denizens of today's Linux bandwagon likely don't recall, or weren't around, in the early, exuberant days of Unix. Powerful and portable, it was supposed to bring back the original days of openness, a throwback to the pre-IBM days when most software was shared. Indeed, the term "open systems" was once commonly used to describe Unix, before the phrase was appropriated and destroyed by the various companies who sought to dominate the Unixverse.

The Unix euphoria of the early days was gone by the end of the decade, which had seen vendors choose sides and celebrate the forking of Unix into so many vendor-specific mutants. A combination of gross mismanagement by creator AT&T, and urges for greed and power by its licensees (Sun, IBM, Digital, HP and SCO being the major culprits) stifled the potential of open systems. While Unix succeeded in making obsolete most one-vendor OSs such as VMS and PrimeOS and was making its way into large-scale computing, the infighting left a gaping hole through which Microsoft successfully marched its way into the server marketplace.

Everything old is Unix again
So if I'm not here to bury Unix, why does this sound like a eulogy so far? Because it's impossible to correctly map out a future if you ignore the past.

Linux has rekindled the early enthusiasm of Unix because it redefines openness beyond anything a Unix vendor could dream of. The same energy I saw in early Unix user groups (I was a director of Uniforum Canada for some years) I see multiplied tenfold in the Linux world. Sure, commercial vendors have become involved in Linux -- when was the last time IBM puffed about its Unix involvement as much as it now does for Linux on the web and even on TV -- but they're doing so on the terms of the Linux community. The distinction between innovation and gratuitous forking is minimized, and even the most proprietary of companies are contributing back free software.

But Unix still has value that the Linux crowd may vastly underestimate in its haste to issue a death certificate. The Unix movement got the world thinking about computing standards such as POSIX and other conventions now maintained by The Open Group. Furthermore, Unix has successfully penetrated the corporate mindset far further than Linux has. (This is not to say that Linux couldn't get there on its own, but bringing Unix and Linux together makes this task much easier and faster.)

It'll take some time for Caldera to figure out how to integrate what it has just obtained from SCO. The Unix legacy of AT&T's Bell Labs has passed through many hands in the past ten years -- to Unix System Labs, to Novell, to SCO and now to Caldera -- which is an indication of its decreasing value in the face of Linux and Microsoft. Indeed, Caldera now has so many different resources at hand -- from the most ivory of towers in R&D to a first class VAR channel -- that figuring out how to leverage them all will take more than a few weeks to figure out, and more than an easily-misinterpreted conference call to explain.

The last punt
The Linux crowd wants everything opensourced. OpenServer VARs want to keep on selling their dead-end OS forever. Not everyone is going to get their agenda completely met in the process. There are indeed many challenges facing Caldera, and we'll examine them more closely next week. A few things appear certain, one of them being that this will be the last punt of the Unix legacy. Caldera offers a very capable environment in which Unix can -- and will -- reinvent itself.

What is clear is that Unix -- the technology invented in the '70s at Bell Labs, and the culture it created -- is far from dead. In many ways this milestone is a rebirth rather than a death, in what can only be described as a fulfillment of Unix's original promise of "open systems."

(Maybe we should call the result of this metamorphosis "Newnix"?)

Meanwhile, the company that profited the most from Unix's stumbling is in hot water again for bully tactics, and its leader is reduced to red-baiting in describing the Linux threat to Microsoft.

Life is good.

Do you think Unix still has life? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum.I come not to bury Unix, but to praise it. Without Unix, there would be no Linux -- so indulge me if I'm not as quick as others to pronounce Unix dead. If anything, the recent purchase by Linux distributor Caldera of SCO's Unix assets signifies, at the very least, a rebirth of Unix rather than a death.

Unix helped change the way the world computed. Even MS-DOS, which introduced Unix-style pipes and sub-directories in its second release, was affected. Unix gave Richard Stallman a stable and useful target when he formed his free OS project project -- and not only because "GNV" (GNV is not VMS) didn't sound as cool as "GNU." Unix thus provided the frame of reference used by a certain Finnish computer student almost a decade ago.

I nix, you nix, they nix, we all nix
Many denizens of today's Linux bandwagon likely don't recall, or weren't around, in the early, exuberant days of Unix. Powerful and portable, it was supposed to bring back the original days of openness, a throwback to the pre-IBM days when most software was shared. Indeed, the term "open systems" was once commonly used to describe Unix, before the phrase was appropriated and destroyed by the various companies who sought to dominate the Unixverse.

The Unix euphoria of the early days was gone by the end of the decade, which had seen vendors choose sides and celebrate the forking of Unix into so many vendor-specific mutants. A combination of gross mismanagement by creator AT&T, and urges for greed and power by its licensees (Sun, IBM, Digital, HP and SCO being the major culprits) stifled the potential of open systems. While Unix succeeded in making obsolete most one-vendor OSs such as VMS and PrimeOS and was making its way into large-scale computing, the infighting left a gaping hole through which Microsoft successfully marched its way into the server marketplace.

So if I'm not here to bury Unix, why does this sound like a eulogy so far? Because it's impossible to correctly map out a future if you ignore the past.

Linux has rekindled the early enthusiasm of Unix because it redefines openness beyond anything a Unix vendor could dream of. The same energy I saw in early Unix user groups (I was a director of Uniforum Canada for some years) I see multiplied tenfold in the Linux world. Sure, commercial vendors have become involved in Linux -- when was the last time IBM puffed about its Unix involvement as much as it now does for Linux on the web and even on TV -- but they're doing so on the terms of the Linux community. The distinction between innovation and gratuitous forking is minimized, and even the most proprietary of companies are contributing back free software.

But Unix still has value that the Linux crowd may vastly underestimate in its haste to issue a death certificate. The Unix movement got the world thinking about computing standards such as POSIX and other conventions now maintained by The Open Group. Furthermore, Unix has successfully penetrated the corporate mindset far further than Linux has. (This is not to say that Linux couldn't get there on its own, but bringing Unix and Linux together makes this task much easier and faster.)

It'll take some time for Caldera to figure out how to integrate what it has just obtained from SCO. The Unix legacy of AT&T's Bell Labs has passed through many hands in the past ten years -- to Unix System Labs, to Novell, to SCO and now to Caldera -- which is an indication of its decreasing value in the face of Linux and Microsoft. Indeed, Caldera now has so many different resources at hand -- from the most ivory of towers in R&D to a first class VAR channel -- that figuring out how to leverage them all will take more than a few weeks to figure out, and more than an easily-misinterpreted conference call to explain.

The Linux crowd wants everything opensourced. OpenServer VARs want to keep on selling their dead-end OS forever. Not everyone is going to get their agenda completely met in the process. There are indeed many challenges facing Caldera, and we'll examine them more closely next week. A few things appear certain, one of them being that this will be the last punt of the Unix legacy. Caldera offers a very capable environment in which Unix can -- and will -- reinvent itself.

What is clear is that Unix -- the technology invented in the '70s at Bell Labs, and the culture it created -- is far from dead. In many ways this milestone is a rebirth rather than a death, in what can only be described as a fulfillment of Unix's original promise of "open systems."

(Maybe we should call the result of this metamorphosis "Newnix"?)

Meanwhile, the company that profited the most from Unix's stumbling is in hot water again for bully tactics, and its leader is reduced to red-baiting in describing the Linux threat to Microsoft.

Life is good.

Do you think Unix still has life? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at evan@starnix.com.

Editorial standards