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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Origins and History of Unix, 1969-1995 - TCP/IP and the Unix Wars: 1980-1990

TCP/IP and the Unix Wars: 1980-1990

The Berkeley campus of the University of California emerged early as the single most important academic hot-spot in Unix development. Unix research had begun there in 1974, and was given a substantial impetus when Ken Thompson taught at the University during a 1975-76 sabbatical. The first BSD release had been in 1977 from a lab run by a then-unknown grad student named Bill Joy. By 1980 Berkeley was the hub of a sub-network of universities actively contributing to their variant of Unix. Ideas and code from Berkeley Unix (including the vi(1) editor) were feeding back from Berkeley to Bell Labs.

Then, in 1980, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency needed a team to implement its brand-new TCP/IP protocol stack on the VAX under Unix. The PDP-10s that powered the ARPANET at that time were aging, and indications that DEC might be forced to cancel the 10 in order to support the VAX were already in the air. DARPA considered contracting DEC to implement TCP/IP, but rejected that idea because they were concerned that DEC might not be responsive to requests for changes in their proprietary VAX/VMS operating system [Libes-Ressler]. Instead, DARPA chose Berkeley Unix as a platform — explicitly because its source code was available and unencumbered [Leonard].

Berkeley's Computer Science Research Group was in the right place at the right time with the strongest development tools; the result became arguably the most critical turning point in Unix's history since its invention.

Until the TCP/IP implementation was released with Berkeley 4.2 in 1983, Unix had had only the weakest networking support. Early experiments with Ethernet were unsatisfactory. An ugly but serviceable facility called UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy Program) had been developed at Bell Labs for distributing software over conventional telephone lines via modem.[16] UUCP could forward Unix mail between widely separated machines, and (after Usenet was invented in 1981) supported Usenet, a distributed bulletin-board facility that allowed users to broadcast text messages to anywhere that had phone lines and Unix systems.

Still, the few Unix users aware of the bright lights of the ARPANET felt like they were stuck in a backwater. No FTP, no telnet, only the most restricted remote job execution, and painfully slow links. Before TCP/IP, the Internet and Unix cultures did not mix. Dennis Ritchie's vision of computers as a way to “encourage close communication” was one of collegial communities clustered around individual timesharing machines or in the same computing center; it didn't extend to the continent-wide distributed ‘network nation’ that ARPA users had started to form in the mid-1970s. Early ARPANETters, for their part, considered Unix a crude makeshift limping along on risibly weak hardware.

After TCP/IP, everything changed. The ARPANET and Unix cultures began to merge at the edges, a development that would eventually save both from destruction. But there would be hell to pay first as the result of two unrelated disasters; the rise of Microsoft and the AT&T divestiture.

In 1981, Microsoft made its historic deal with IBM over the new IBM PC. Bill Gates bought QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System), a clone of CP/M that its programmer Tim Paterson had thrown together in six weeks, from Paterson's employer Seattle Computer Products. Gates, concealing the IBM deal from Paterson and SCP, bought the rights for $50,000. He then talked IBM into allowing Microsoft to market MS-DOS separately from the PC hardware. Over the next decade, leveraging code he didn't write made Bill Gates a multibillionaire, and business tactics even sharper than the original deal gained Microsoft a monopoly lock on desktop computing. XENIX as a product was rapidly deep-sixed, and eventually sold to SCO.

It was not apparent at the time how successful (or how destructive) Microsoft was going to be. Since the IBM PC-1 didn't have the hardware capacity to run Unix, Unix people barely noticed it at all (though, ironically enough, DOS 2.0 eclipsed CP/M largely because Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen merged in Unix features including subdirectories and pipes). There were things that seemed much more interesting going on — like the 1982 launching of Sun Microsystems.

Sun Microsystems founders Bill Joy, Andreas Bechtolsheim, and Vinod Khosla set out to build a dream Unix machine with built-in networking capability. They combined hardware designed at Stanford with the Unix developed at Berkeley to produce a smashing success, and founded the workstation industry. At the time, nobody much minded watching source-code access to one branch of the Unix tree gradually dry up as Sun began to behave less like a freewheeling startup and more like a conventional firm. Berkeley was still distributing BSD with source code. Officially, System III source licenses cost $40,000 each; but Bell Labs was turning a blind eye to the number of bootleg Bell Labs Unix tapes in circulation, the universities were still swapping code with Bell Labs, and it looked like Sun's commercialization of Unix might just be the best thing to happen to it yet.

1982 was also the year that C first showed signs of establishing itself outside the Unix world as the systems-programming language of choice. It would only take about five years for C to drive machine assemblers almost completely out of use. By the early 1990s C and C++ would dominate not only systems but application programming; by the late 1990s all other conventional compiled languages would be effectivelyobsolete.

When DEC canceled development on the PDP-10's successor machine (Jupiter) in 1983, VAXes running Unix began to take over as the dominant Internet machines, a position they would hold until being displaced by Sun workstations. By 1985, about 25% of all VAXes would be running Unix despite DEC's stiff opposition. But the longest-term effect of the Jupiter cancellation was a less obvious one; the death of the MIT AI Lab's PDP-10-centered hacker culture motivated a programmer named Richard Stallman to begin writing GNU, a complete free clone of Unix.

By 1983 there were no fewer than six Unix-workalike operating systems for the IBM-PC: uNETix, Venix, Coherent, QNX, Idris, and the port hosted on the Sritek PC daughtercard. There was still no port of Unix in either the System V or BSD versions; both groups considered the 8086 microprocessor woefully underpowered and wouldn't go near it. None of the Unix-workalikes were significant as commercial successes, but they indicated a significant demand for Unix on cheap hardware that the major vendors were not supplying. No individual could afford to meet it, either, not with the $40,000 price-tag on a source-code license.

Sun was already a success (with imitators!) when, in 1983, the U.S. Department of Justice won its second antitrust case against AT&T and broke up the Bell System. This relieved AT&T from the 1958 consent decree that had prevented them from turning Unix into a product. AT&T promptly rushed to commercialize Unix System V—a move that nearly killed Unix.

So true. But their marketing did spread Unix internationally.

-- Ken Thompson

Most Unix boosters thought that the divestiture was great news. We thought we saw in the post-divestiture AT&T, Sun Microsystems, and Sun's smaller imitators the nucleus of a healthy Unix industry — one that, using inexpensive 68000-based workstations, would challenge and eventually break the oppressive monopoly that then loomed over the computer industry — IBM's.

What none of us realized at the time was that the productization of Unix would destroy the free exchanges of source code that had nurtured so much of the system's early vitality. Knowing no other model than secrecy for collecting profits from software and no other model than centralized control for developing a commercial product, AT&T clamped down hard on source-code distribution. Bootleg Unix tapes became far less interesting in the knowledge that the threat of lawsuit might come with them. Contributions from universities began to dry up.

To make matters worse, the big new players in the Unix market promptly committed major strategic blunders. One was to seek advantage by product differentiation — a tactic which resulted in the interfaces of different Unixes diverging. This threw away cross-platform compatibility and fragmented the Unix market.

The other, subtler error was to behave as if personal computers and Microsoft were irrelevant to Unix's prospects. Sun Microsystems failed to see that commoditized PCs would inevitably become an attack on its workstation market from below. AT&T, fixated on minicomputers and mainframes, tried several different strategies to become a major player in computers, and badly botched all of them. A dozen small companies formed to support Unix on PCs; all were underfunded, focused on selling to developers and engineers, and never aimed at the business and home market that Microsoft was targeting.

In fact, for years after divestiture the Unix community was preoccupied with the first phase of the Unix wars — an internal dispute, the rivalry between System V Unix and BSD Unix. The dispute had several levels, some technical (sockets vs. streams, BSD tty vs. System V termio) and some cultural. The divide was roughly between longhairs and shorthairs; programmers and technical people tended to line up with Berkeley and BSD, more business-oriented types with AT&T and System V. The longhairs, repeating a theme from Unix's early days ten years before, liked to see themselves as rebels against a corporate empire; one of the small companies put out a poster showing an X-wing-like space fighter marked “BSD” speeding away from a huge AT&T ‘death star’ logo left broken and in flames. Thus we fiddled while Rome burned.

But something else happened in the year of the AT&T divestiture that would have more long-term importance for Unix. A programmer/linguist named Larry Wall quietly invented the patch(1) utility. The patch program, a simple tool that applies changebars generated by diff(1) to a base file, meant that Unix developers could cooperate by passing around patch sets — incremental changes to code — rather than entire code files. This was important not only because patches are less bulky than full files, but because patches would often apply cleanly even if much of the base file had changed since the patch-sender fetched his copy. With this tool, streams of development on a common source-code base could diverge, run in parallel, and re-converge. The patch program did more than any other single tool to enable collaborative development over the Internet — a method that would revitalize Unix after 1990.

In 1985 Intel shipped the first 386 chip, capable of addressing 4 gigabytes of memory with a flat address space. The clumsy segment addressing of the 8086 and 286 became immediately obsolete. This was big news, because it meant that for the first time, a microprocessor in the dominant Intel family had the capability to run Unix without painful compromises. The handwriting was on the wall for Sun and the other workstation makers. They failed to see it.

1985 was also the year that Richard Stallman issued the GNU manifesto [Stallman] and launched the Free Software Foundation. Very few people took him or his GNU project seriously, a judgment that turned out to be seriously mistaken. In an unrelated development of the same year, the originators of the X window system released it as source code without royalties, restrictions, or license code. As a direct result of this decision, it became a safe neutral area for collaboration between Unix vendors, and defeated proprietary contenders to become Unix's graphics engine.

Serious standardization efforts aimed at reconciling the System V and Berkeley APIs also began in 1983 with the /usr/group standard. This was followed in 1985 by the POSIX standards, an effort backed by the IEEE. These described the intersection set of the BSD and SVR3 (System V Release 3) calls, with the superior Berkeley signal handling and job control but with SVR3 terminal control. All later Unix standards would incorporate POSIX at their core, and later Unixes would adhere to it closely. The only major addition to the modern Unix kernel API to come afterwards was BSD sockets.

In 1986 Larry Wall, previously the inventor of patch(1), began work on Perl, which would become the first and most widely used of the open-source scripting languages. In early 1987 the first version of the GNU C compiler appeared, and by the end of 1987 the core of the GNU toolset was falling into place: editor, compiler, debugger, and other basic development tools. Meanwhile, the X windowing system was beginning to show up on relatively inexpensive workstations. Together, these would provide the armature for the open-source Unix developments of the 1990s.

1986 was also the year that PC technology broke free of IBM's grip. IBM, still trying to preserve a price-vs.-power curve across its product line that would favor its high-margin mainframe business, rejected the 386 for most of its new line of PS/2 computers in favor of the weaker 286. The PS/2 series, designed around a proprietary bus architecture to lock out clonemakers, became a colossally expensive failure.[17] Compaq, the most aggressive of the clonemakers, trumped IBM's move by releasing the first 386 machine. Even with a clock speed of a mere 16 MHz, the 386 made a tolerable Unix machine. It was the first PC of which that could be said.

It was beginning to be possible to imagine that Stallman's GNU project might mate with 386 machines to produce Unix workstations almost an order of magnitude less costly than anyone was offering. Curiously, no one seems to have actually got this far in their thinking. Most Unix programmers, coming from the minicomputer and workstation worlds, continued to disdain cheap 80x86 machines in favor of more elegant 68000-based designs. And, though a lot of programmers contributed to the GNU project, among Unix people it tended to be considered a quixotic gesture that was unlikely to have near-term practical consequences.

The Unix community had never lost its rebel streak. But in retrospect, we were nearly as blind to the future bearing down on us as IBM or AT&T. Not even Richard Stallman, who had declared a moral crusade against proprietary software a few years before, really understood how badly the productization of Unix had damaged the community around it; his concerns were with more abstract and long-term issues. The rest of us kept hoping that some clever variation on the corporate formula would solve the problems of fragmentation, wretched marketing, and strategic drift, and redeem Unix's pre-divestiture promise. But worse was still to come.

1988 was the year Ken Olsen (CEO of DEC) famously described Unix as “snake oil”. DEC had been shipping its own variant of Unix on PDP-11s since 1982, but really wanted the business to go to its proprietary VMS operating system. DEC and the minicomputer industry were in deep trouble, swamped by waves of powerful low-cost machines coming out of Sun Microsystems and the rest of the workstation vendors. Most of those workstations ran Unix.

But the Unix industry's own problems were growing more severe. In 1988 AT&T took a 20% stake in Sun Microsystems. These two companies, the leaders in the Unix market, were beginning to wake up to the threat posed by PCs, IBM, and Microsoft, and to realize that the preceding five years of bloodletting had gained them little. The AT&T/Sun alliance and the development of technical standards around POSIX eventually healed the breach between the System V and BSD Unix lines. But the second phase of the Unix wars began when the second-tier vendors (IBM, DEC, Hewlett-Packard, and others) formed the Open Software Foundation and lined up against the AT&T/Sun axis (represented by Unix International). More rounds of Unix fighting Unix ensued.

Meanwhile, Microsoft was making billions in the home and small-business markets that the warring Unix factions had never found the will to address. The 1990 release of Windows 3.0 — the first successful graphical operating system from Redmond — cemented Microsoft's dominance, and created the conditions that would allow them to flatten and monopolize the market for desktop applications in the 1990s.

The years from 1989 to 1993 were the darkest in Unix's history. It appeared then that all the Unix community's dreams had failed. Internecine warfare had reduced the proprietary Unix industry to a squabbling shambles that never summoned either the determination or the capability to challenge Microsoft. The elegant Motorola chips favored by most Unix programmers had lost out to Intel's ugly but inexpensive processors. The GNU project failed to produce the free Unix kernel it had been promising since 1985, and after years of excuses its credibility was beginning to wear thin. PC technology was being relentlessly corporatized. The pioneering Unix hackers of the 1970s were hitting middle age and slowing down. Hardware was getting cheaper, but Unix was still too expensive. We were belatedly becoming aware that the old monopoly of IBM had yielded to a newer monopoly of Microsoft, and Microsoft's mal-engineered software was rising around us like a tide of sewage.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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