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Unix is a family of operating systems first developed in the late 1960s and 70s. A lot has changed in computer science since then, but Unix is still around, and operating systems based on it power most of the world wide web, the majority of phones, and a good number of desktop and laptop computers.
Unix was first developed in 1969 at Bell Labs, and was intended to be a workbench for developers — that is, a set of tools for programmers to use while writing new applications to be run on multiple platforms. It wasn't originally intended to be a platform for running applications itself.
Use of the Unix platform outside of Bell Labs grew after AT&T began licensing it for use to schools. This led to a proliferation of Unix variants at academic institutions and eventually commercial operations as well. Notable Unix derivatives include BSD, created by UC Berkeley, and Sun OS. The BSD version of Unix became the basis for most of the other versions that have been developed.
The Unix Way
Unix was somewhat unique when it was first developed, incorporating the best ideas of operating system design current at the time.
It is is extremely modular, with a very small "kernal" and all functionality being provided by individual programs. A major part of the design philosophy is that complex features should be implemented by the interaction of many simpler programs. This approach had influence on later notions of Service Oriented Architecture.
Another key aspect of the Unix operating system was that it was multi-user and had time-sharing facility built into it. You didn't just start up the system and use it, you had to log in as some kind of user. Users could be given different permission levels, and different application directories, which allowed for many different users to share a single computer. Time sharing features allowed many users, connecting from terminal clients, to use the system concurrently. This was a major improvement over earlier batch-processing models of computer sharing.
Unix and Linux
In the 1980s, the GNU (GNU is Not Unix) project, under the leadership of Richard Stallman, began working on a Free and Open Source fully-compatible replacement for Unix. By 1990, most of the components of that system were completed, but not the kernal, the core of the operating system. Linus Torvalds, working separately, created what became the Linux kernal, which was fully operable with the other GNU components and served as a Free replacement for Unix.
Many people ask whether Linux is Unix or not. That's a complicated question. Linux is based on Unix, and began life as a "Unix clone." Development has continued since 1991 and some ideas and features have diverged, but Linux today is very much Unix-like, and is mostly compatible with the Unix standard.
Unix and Mac OS X
The Mac operating system, OS X, is not only based on Unix, it is a direct descendant of Unix, having been based on a version of BSD. In fact, Apple actually has its operating system certified by the Open Group, the owners of the UNIX brand (see below), and pays them a licensing fee. Mac OS X is not just Unix, it is officially UNIX.
This is the reason for much of the architectural similarity between Mac OS X and various Linux distributions. Additionally, this partially accounts for the popularity of Mac systems among web developers who want a similar computing experience on their local computer as on their servers, which are usually Linux, but who don't want to run Linux locally.
UNIX and Unix today
The Open Group, an industry standards consortium, currently owns the trademark for UNIX (all caps), and publishes the official standards for the Unix operating system.
While the Open Group has control over what can call itself UNIX, it can't really exert any authority over the wider conception of "based on Unix" or "Unix-like." For this reason, there is no strict definition of what is and isn't a Unix-type operating system.
Many people have found it helpful to use three over-lapping categories:
- Official UNIX — Operating systems, such as Mac OS X and Solaris, which have the official seal of approval from the Open Group and may use the UNIX trademark.
- Genetic Unix — Operating systems that are direct descendants of one of the original Bell Labs Unix versions. BSD, FreeBSD, and its descendants fall into this category.
- Unix-like — Operating systems that never borrowed any closed-source code, but were reverse-engineered to work like Unix. Linux and all of its variations fall into this category.
The multi-user, time-sharing architecture of Unix makes it particularly well-suited to web hosting. If you include Unix-like operating systems (Linux), the vast majority of web hosting is done on Unix.
Some web hosting companies specifically advertise that they provide "Unix web hosting," and they really are only providing Linux, like every other web host. This is fine, but a little misleading.
If you need a specific Unix-style operating system other than Linux, such as Solaris or FreeBSD, be sure to check the web host's features and maybe even speak to a customer support person before signing up for a plan. Don't assume that a mention of "Unix" on a piece of marketing material means you'll be able to run the OS you want.