Once upon a time... or commercial Unix vs free Unix and more!

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original in en Georges Tarbouriech 

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Georges is a long time Unix user (commercial and free). After so many years, he felt like assessing the situation :-)

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Unix first appeared in 1970. AT&T released the first source code license in 1973. BSD (Berkeley Software distribution) provided source code to those having an AT&T license in 1977. The first "true" commercial release, System III, appeared in 1979 from the same AT&T. 1988 saw the birth of System V release 4... and at the end of the 80's there were at least 30 commercial Unix flavors, mostly with code incompatability!
At that time, most of the major companies had their own Unix: IBM had AIX, Apple had A/UX, Microsoft had XENIX, HP called it HP-UX...
Besides, Richard Stallman launched the GNU project (GNU is Not Unix) in 1984 and created the Free Software Foundation in 1985.
While the big companies were trying to sell expensive licenses, the Free Software Foundation was trying to spread the concept of free software. Free meant freedom to run the program, to modify the program, to distribute copies or modified copies for the benefit of the community, but not always for free (you may charge for it). If you want to learn more about it, just go to http://www.gnu.org.
Many people were attracted by this philosophy and at the beginning of the 90's there were different flavors of free Unix: NetBSD, Linux...
Today, about 50 commercial or free Unixes are available (may be more!).
So what?

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Thirty years later

The name Unix came from MULTICS, because the people who designed MULTICS thought it was too complex. One of the MULTICS team members, Brian Kernighan changed this name to UNICS and that again was quickly changed to UNIX.
Nevertheless, Unix is still today the only system multi "everything": multitasking, multi-users, multi-platforms...
That is, NO other system can do the same!
Every paper or computer magazine, "specialized" (in Wintel machines!) or not, presents Linux as an alternative to Win*. How can Linux be an alternative to Windows? Linux is Unix, and if there is an alternative then it must be one of the other commercial and free Unixes. The desktop environments available on free Unix, such as KDE or GNOME may give users a feeling of "déjà vu", but that's all. Furthermore, 10 years ago you were considered as a crazy guy if you had Unix on your personal computer!

Now, the important point is: you can have Unix at home and this gives Unix a new youth since users become more and more numerous!
The change is even more important for the professional world. Today, you can choose between many solutions at work: the competition between free Unix and commercial Unix is real.
What criteria can help to make the best choice?

Commercial Unix systems

At the beginning, these systems were reserved to big firms for big machines. Over time, micro-computers became more powerful than mini-computers and accordingly the market grew. Every manufacture tried to build powerful workstations for more users. Some of them succeeded.
Some big manufactures are "references", sort of, in the Unix field.

IBM http://www.ibm.com, Sun http://www.sun.com, SGI http://www.sgi.com, HP http://www.hp.com and many others are the best known and probably the most used.
This doesn't mean they are perfect. Most of them have their peculiarities and they are more or less proprietary Unixes (rather more than less!).
They are quite good on very big systems but probably not so good on smaller machines.
The prices are rather high, especially when the CPU is specific: SPARC, MIPS...
However, they often have something special. For instance, Sun is excellent at networking, SGI is the absolute reference for graphics...
Let's try to see what they "offer".


Since we are talking about big companies, we can't list the whole range of products. Anyway, their "small" workstations can be used as servers, for instance. That is, you could choose a RS6000 from IBM, an Ultra 2, 5, 10 or the brand new Blade 1000 from Sun, or an O2, Octane or Octane 2 from SGI.
Of course, these "workstations" are much more expensive than a top range Intel based machine.
Spare parts, aren't really "cheap" either. A graphic card may cost 5 or 6 times the price of the latest equivalent in the Intel word. Upgrading a CPU, will cost the price of, again, an Intel machine.
However these machines will last quite a long time. There is no need to change pieces of hardware every 3 months... They don't need either "racing" CPUs to work fast (their CPUs are not slow anyway). But even a small CPU, let's say 200Mhz, will give much better result than the Intel equivalent that nobody wants anymore! These workstations use multi-channel I/O and don't have to bear the famous "funnel" effect you get on "racing" Intel machines.


As we said before, the OSes on these high-end machines are rather proprietary. It's hard to say which one is the worst (the most proprietary). Personally, I would say Sun! That is, Solaris is not Unix, it's Solaris! This applies to the latest versions: 2.*, 7 and 8. Solaris 1.* was a good BSD, but this is only my opinion. Nevertheless, Sun did a great job for Unix: NFS, NIS... but that was long time ago.
If these companies are members of COSE (Common Open Software Environment) they provide you with the greatest desktop environment: CDE. Of course I'm joking, since CDE is a piece of s...oftware with more bugs than you can even imagine. Fortunately, there are a lot of free window managers available to replace that thing, or you can use alternatives like OpenWindows on Sun, for instance.
Apart from the OSes, software is quite expensive on these machines. However, the quality is often of high standard. And, don't forget, they can as well benefit from free software. Nevertheless, this is changing, since many big software packages have these days the same price as for other platforms. For instance, Lightwave, a great 3D software, costs the same price for every available platform (but, I'm still waiting for the SGI 6.0 upgrade already available on the other platforms).
By the way, some of these manufactures provide you with interesting tools. Once again, the best offer seems to come from SGI. Even more, SGI provides you with a full CDRom of free software.
Since we mention free software, GNU is also very important for the systems of these big manufactures. What a luck for them to be able to benefit from GNU compilers, for instance. It would be interesting to know the percentage of users of these big machines working with GNU compilers instead of "home-made" compilers (when they are provided with the system, otherwise you just have to buy another license!). And we could add: some of those compilers are awful; it's a fact! I can give you names...

Support and documentation

As soon as you pay for it, these big companies provide you with technical support. According to the type of support, the price of such a service can be a very high one.
If you don't pay for this service, you're on your own. However, their websites provide you with patches, documentation...
If you are "experienced", you may try to do without, as soon as you're not afraid of spending time to find solutions to your problems...
Usually, the online help is rather complete on these systems. Apart from the man pages there's a lot you can find about hardware or software, very often as HTML documentation to be read with a web browser. The best offer seems to be SGI's, since you have at least three different tools to find and read documentation.

What's going on?

The "funny" aspect comes from the fact that most of these companies sell machines based on Intel CPU, at a reasonable price!
What the hell caused SGI to release an Intel based machine working under NT4.0 (some call it Not Terminated 4.0)? Well, users asked for it: funny people!
And now the Linux "fashion" is changing the policy of these big companies!
Don't you find it strange to see those firms selling their machines with Linux, or, even more surprising, releasing their OS for free (Solaris 7 or 8 for example) when you know the price they were selling this OS a bit earlier?
Are they converting to philanthropy? Where is the trap?
Let's see the bright side of this new behavior: you can get remarketed machines for the price of an Intel PC... on which you'll be able to install a free Unix!
By the way, the new SGI linux based workstation has probably the best OpenGL implementation ever seen on this system. Well, SGI is the father of OpenGL: it helps!
Just a few words on a new Unix (well, let's call it NeXT revival!): Mac OS X. Could be a great choice! But isn't Apple making the same error as NeXT: a wrong market positioning. Wait and see or visit http://www.apple.com.!
To conclude this chapter, let's say these commercial systems are quite reliable, rather stable and CAN NOT be compared in anyway to the Unix killer, the one and lonely (fortunately!) NT4.0, the father (yes, they invented something in Redmond!) of the BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death)
Let's go to the real alternative.

Free Unix

Today everybody talks about Linux. It seems Linux succeeded where others failed. I mean, there are a lot of free Unixes, as performing as Linux, working on many more platforms, but the medias don't know them (by the way, do they know Linux?). This could result from the fact that Linux was initially running on Intel platforms and that is the the most widespread one.
For example NetBSD and its "derivatives" OpenBSD or FreeBSD are great. But NetBSD, for instance, wasn't only dedicated to the Intel platform when it first appeared. What should have been an advantage became a drawback.


NetBSD probably is one of the greatest free Unix. It works on something like 20 or more platforms, and it's really stable on most of them. This Unix is almost perfect and can be a good choice at work, as a replacement for commercial Unixes, according to what you want to use it for. It evolves less quickly than Linux, but is it a bad thing? The present version is based on BSD 4.4 and the latest release is 1.4.2.
Anyway, you can trust it!
A word on licensing. The NetBSD license is even more "free" than GPL. To learn more, just have a look at http://www.netbsd.org.


To make it short: the same as the previous one but running on a less platforms! The emphasis is especially on security. Otherwise, it has more or less the same qualities as NetBSD. Another Unix you can trust. Of course, it's also based on BSD 4.4. The present version is 2.7. More at http://www.openbsd.org.


Like its "big brothers" above, but especially dedicated to Intel and Alpha platforms. Check http://www.freebsd.org.


A revolution for many people, what it is not! Simply a good free Unix based on System V with a lot of distributions available. They are all the same and all different. The challenge seems to be: my installation is easier than yours!
Nevertheless every flavor has its fans. The differences between distros don't justify a debate. Debian is known for its philosophy, RedHat for its "abundancy", so for SuSE, Mandrake... I never used TurboLinux, Caldera... You'll find all the distributions by clicking on the button "links" at the top of this page.
Anyway, Linux is another reliable Unix.

What else?

These Unixes are NOT proprietary compared to commercial ones, even if they are different. The main difference comes from their origine: BSD or System V.
The great thing about free Unix is the enormous software development around it. This proves the dynamic of free software. Obviously, the free Unix is also excellent at application development. The number of available tools is quite impressive, and, of course, most of them are free ! And, once again, GNU is here!
Last but not least, you can use free Unixes on almost every available platform. Beside, you can install one of them on an old Intel 486 or on a really powerful Alpha machine (even if Compaq is now distributing Alpha technology!).
An usual complaint about free Unix concerns drivers. You can't use that graphic card or such a network card... Well, don't believe you'll be able to use the latest graphic card on Unix since it has been developed for Win*. Neither, don't expect to use an exotic one. But the widespread ones are perfectly usable.

Where to go from here?

We could answer with a question! Does this article intend to say "stop using commercial Unixes and start using free Unixes"?
Well, it's up to you!
That is, if you need "small" servers you can trust free Unixes (here, small means, not a Cray, for instance!).
They will be very good at many tasks: webservers, applications servers (not always, since it depends on the type of the applications), communications servers... and much more secure than a few others (guess who!).
What is often said about them is they don't provide technical support. Don't be fooled with such a statement! Very often, technical support is not very efficient. Sorry for that, but it's a fact! The main job of the people managing systems, networks... is to find solutions to the different problems. That's the way they learn the most: let's call that "experience"... and life would be boring if it wasn't to seek for solutions :-). Anyway, the idea of technical support follows its way and most of the distributors start providing this service.
The most important thing concerning free software is probably the word "share". When we say you can trust free software, it means the response time is much shorter than the one of the big companies. There's a whole community behind it: a problem found today may get its solution tomorrow. The people from this community share things!
Furthermore, for a company, (small or big) using free software is a guarantee to reduce costs (at least for now!). Most of free software does not cost anything and is very often really stable. Some of this software is often as good as its commercial competitor.
Another important point: the imagination! Free software provides us with tools we had never seen before. The communication area, for instance, is becoming very rich (Thanks to the Internet "revolution", 30 years old, too!). Tools concerning networking, security are released every day (or almost) and they are often quite sophisticated. This is applicable to many others fields.
Another argument you can hear against free software concerns the lack of documentation. Absolutely wrong! There are tons of documentation, and it's improving. Of course this documentation is sometimes not so elaborated as the one from commercial products. Very often, it only exists in one language (same for most commercial Unixes anyway!). Nevertheless, every distribution of free Unix provides you with a lot of documentation: this had to be said!
By the way, international documentation is why we are here ! LinuxFocus founder, Miguel Angel Sepulveda, noticed the language problem very early, hence the idea of the magazine you're reading.
And an even more noticeable fact about LinuxFocus is that it fully complies with free software philosophy. We are probably among the only magazines on the web without any advertisement (apart from our webhost what is quite deserved).
In short, we are not "sold" to any company! We are free: free as in free beer, free as freedom of expression... and happy.
All of us in the team agree to that. We also work like free software does. We are a small team, with members all around the world. And what's our main goal? To share information with readers. If you feel like it, join us...

The end

At least, it's over! You may have noticed this article is a plea for free software (and for Unix). Sure it is! I have nothing against companies trying by any means to make money. However, it depends on the means... But I have very much respect for those people doing a very great job for free. I'm proud to be a very small part of it. A remarkable point about it, is the way it works. Most of these jobs are done by people who never met, who are separated by thousands of miles.
Nevertheless they succeed in realizing projects in a very short time. To me it looks like a lesson on work organization! This should give ideas to many managers... If you're a manager, I'm ready to work on what you want from home ... as long as you leave me time to participate in free projects. (free ads!)
The other important point concerns free Unix and new private users.
Please, newcomers, do try to learn about Unix. There is tons of literature available in every language. It's worth it. Forget what was your previous experience with computers. One of the big strength of the King of Redmond was to make users believe they understood everything. Of course, his products are supposed to think for you... and they don't think very well! You can't expect using Unix staying "Winminded" (neither can you use Win* being "Unixminded", otherwise the machine would be sent through the window after 5 minutes!).
Anyway, if you make this effort, you won't regret it. And remember, Unix has a great advantage: everything is very well organized. You don't find libraries everywhere, or some important directories in the depth of the tree, and so on.
If the master word for free software is "share", the master word for Unix is "hierarchy". Think it over, it'll help!
After succeeding in this task, you'll be FREE... and freedom is one of the few great things that deserve some effort to get it.
We are living a great time...