eWEEK 30: Unix Proves Staying Power as Enterprise Computing Platform

eWEEK 30: Unix remains a major server platform in enterprises and on the Internet three decades after PC Week started covering the computer industry.

Back in 1984 during the early days of PC Week, Unix was not a new operating system, but it was an operating system that was just beginning to take root in the mainstream of enterprise computing.

Unix was first developed in 1969 at AT&T's Bell Labs. But it was during the mid-1980s when its commercial roots were first planted and IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems began to sell Unix to customers.

In 1983, Sun released SunOS 1.0, which was based on the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) version of Unix, led by Sun co-founder Bill Joy. That same year, AT&T introduced Unix System V, which was functionally different from the BSD-based SunOS. Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) released its first Unix system called ULTRIX in 1984, which was also BSD-based. The competition between BSD-based versions of Unix and AT&T System V-based versions of Unix was a core part of the Unix experience of the 1980s.

Unix System V's debut was a key milestone in the evolution of the operating system because it was the version on which Hewlett-Packard and IBM based their respective commercial editions of Unix. HP-UX 1.0 was first released in 1984, and IBM's AIX first debuted in 1986.

Kirk Bresniker, vice president, chief technologist and HP Fellow for HP Servers, has a long history working on HP-UX. Bresniker told eWEEK that in the early days of Unix, it was primarily deployed on workstations with one or two processors. In contrast, modern Unix systems can now scale to hundreds of cores with massive scalability.

Tony Befi, vice president of Enterprise Systems Program Management in IBM's Systems and Technology Group, started his career at IBM in 1979 working on the mainframe side of the business and moved over to the Unix side in 1996. Befi told eWEEK that his earliest recollection of AIX back in 1986 was also as a workstation technology.

"The early Unix marketplace was workstations running graphics processing and technical computing," Befi said.

The evolution of Unix from a workstation technology to an enterprise computing and server technology has a lot to do with the evolution of the workstation concept itself, Markus Flierl, vice president of software development for Solaris Core Technology at Oracle, told eWEEK.

"The whole notion of a workstation has really changed," he said.

In the 1980s, the workstation was where people did all their work, where applications were based and where code was compiled, Flierl recounted. The notion of a dedicated workstation where a user is only able to do things on that one machine began to shift in the 1990s as server-based computing took hold.

In 1990, IBM launched the RS/6000 hardware platform running AIX, which was still targeted at workstations, although IBM's Befi said it started the evolution of AIX into the enterprise computing space.

"When we launched the RS/6000, I looked at Unix from a technology perspective doing peer reviews and at that time it wasn't clear where it would wind up," Befi said.

For much of Unix's history, the operating system ran primarily on proprietary RISC silicon including DEC Alpha, Sun SPARC and IBM Power, but there were x86 variants as well. In 1980, AT&T licensed Unix to Microsoft, which built its own variant of Unix called Xenix.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.