On blood-lines, forks and survivors

By Anuradha Weeraman

UNIX has a colorful history that goes back many decades and the stories of how certain aspects of the operating system evolved or came to be, usually at the hands of one luminary or the other over a weekend, is now well documented in the lore of this sub-culture, and continues to kept alive and passed orally from generation to generation in the back alleys of Usenet and IRC. Some stories have also been known to surface on YouTube, every now and then.

One of these stories is how Ken Thompson implemented grep in a day, based on the regular expressions implementation of ed — the canonical line editor. Similarly, many of the core utils of UNIX followed a similar pattern of genesis from a very practical need to do one thing, and do it well, which was the basis of its entire philosophy.

Thus began the journey of many forks, implementations and blood lines of UNIX that live on to this day in the form of BSDs, Linux and commercial UNIX variants that shall not be named.

GNU/Linux, which is not a direct descendant of the original bits of either AT&T or BSD, and thus not heir to the title of UNIX in the eyes of some purists, ironically brought UNIX to the masses in ways that the more pure-breeds could not. Capitalizing on the confusion created by the AT&T / BSD battles, Linux set its sights on world domination (albeit unwittingly), and the rest as they say is mostly history.

Today, GNU/Linux leads the pack among the Open Source UNIX variants that are active today (such as FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD). The commercial variants, still alive in data centers, continue to be pushed by big-name vendors, despite being caught in a death spiral and struggling to stay afloat in the face of the penguin tsunami. The once inimitable SunOS/Solaris fizzled away quietly, but continue to live on in Illumos and OpenIndiana, a shell of its former self.

And so it comes down to a handful. On the one hand, GNU/Linux, the irreverent and bastard poster-child that continues to evolve at break-neck speed, and the Right Honourable BSDs that continue to keep the original philosophy alive in its purest form and fighting valiantly into the next decade and into the twilight of most of its developer and user base.

And that brings me to the end of this otherwise hyperbolic ramble. In my next post, I will touch upon some of the key differences between these two great variants and what I think of them, so stay tuned.