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Basic Unix - So What is Unix, Exactly
This article describes the Unix operating system.
Unix is a computer operating system first developed at Bell Labs (and, to get the legal language out of the way, a trademark of AT&T Bell Laboratories). An "operating system" is a master program which coordinates other programs' activities and manages files.
One of the most popular and widespread operating systems in the world, Unix runs on more brands of computers than probably any other operating system in existence. This is partly because Unix is "portable": it is written in C, a high-level, machine-independent language. Programs written on one Unix machine can be easily adapted to other Unix machines (C is particularly well-integrated with the operating system itself).
In addition, Unix is based on a collection of small, easily understood utilities which allow you to connect them in many different ways (and in ways that the authors did not predict), building procedures and sophisticated tasks to suit your own needs. This "Unix philosophy" is often contrasted with monolithic programming environments (IBM mainframes or the Macintosh are sometimes mentioned) in which you can only perform tasks the system designers could predict; such systems, while becoming increasingly complex, often have bells and whistles you may not use, and lack those you want.
The power and flexibility of Unix does not come without a cost; many people find Unix systems extremely unfriendly. Commands and responses are not only terse -- some are positively opaque. Still, if you are willing to put up with a certain amount of difficulty, you may find that you are more than rewarded by the power of Unix.
So why do you, a member of the University of Chicago community, want to use Unix? Here are the most commonly given reasons:
- Unix allows a number of people to work on the same machine at once. It also allows multitasking, so each person can work on several things at once.
- It's a good environment for programmers: Unix is portable, has excellent software tools, and has unified concepts and a flexible file system in which everything is text.
- Unix is particularly well-suited to networking; electronic mail, network news, file-transfer programs, remote logins, and terminal-to-terminal communication are very easy on Unix systems.
- Unix systems are all over campus, and if you learn Unix on one machine, you have an advantage when you move to any of the others.
- Unix systems are everywhere. (This is especially true in the academic world.)