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What's the deal with UNIX?

UNIX -- GNU/Linux -- Whatever


UNIX is a group of hugely powerful and useful operating systems. In fact it is probably the most widespread operating system on servers and industrial-scale number-crunchers and the only one that is described in an open standard and of which competing computer manufacturers produce different interoperable variants.

An extraordinary trait of UNIXes among today's operating systems is the widespread use of command shells in which the user types commands in a sophisticated instruction language. This language enables the user to complete multiple tasks with one command line and to automate tasks. While using a graphical file manager may seem more comfortable to the uninitiated, it in fact takes much more time and effort than using a shell. When I started using a UNIX system for the first time, I also went for the graphical user interface (being used to it from the Atari). A more experienced colleague told me I'd soon see I could do most things more efficiently in a shell - and I did.

UNIX systems are designed for efficiency for the experienced user rather than ease of use for the beginner. They have always been systems for doing serious work with, not for entertainment. It takes some time to get the hang of all that UNIX hackery - but when you have learnt it, you can do most things much faster than people who use programs with graphical user interfaces. Many text-based and apparently simple UNIX programs have a lot of advanced features that make them quite powerful. As a beginner, you cannot do anything much with them, which is why many people never try using them. But if you take that trouble to start with and learn to use those tools, it pays off later.

Warning: If you are the sort of person who executes programs by clicking on icons, selects one of competing software packages by the numbers of colours they display and bookmarks from the sixth-level sub-menu of your browser, UNIX is not for you. UNIX is the operating system of computers without a graphics card which boot and are controlled via the network and of efficiency fanatics who can rename some hundred files with a few keystrokes before you're through to the second-level submenu ;).


Linux is short for what should more accurately be called "Gnu/Linux" systems. Linux is just the kernel of the operating system which provides low-level functions but doesn't do anything on its own. For a computer system based on the Linux kernel, many basic programs are needed which are standardised across UNIX systems. A non-commercial version of them was developed by the GNU project at about the same time as Linus Torvalds developed Linux. Today's GNU/Linux systems comprise both. (See here for the connection.)

Unfortunately, current Linux distributions show a worrying tendency of catering to Windoze users and other illiterates, presumably because no-one else is stupid enough to pay money for software. Configuration is done mainly by vendor-specific administration tools, which rarely work and differ from distribution to distribution, ensuring a steady cash-flow for support. Here are a few features of a recent Suse distribution I had the lack of pleasure to encounter:

So unless you are among those direly needing a nanny, here's my advice on getting Linux:

That said, perhaps the lure of easy money from using Linux to compete with Computer Illiterate Systems Inc. will prove too much for many software vendors, and for Linux. It may be best to move away from it. I'm thinking of FreeBSD (not to be confused with free LSD), which may be less corrupted by the mass market.

Here is a run-down of the Linux distributions I've used in the past, with some notes about my experiences, in chronological order:

Mandrake, now Mandriva
Good distribution, had all I needed and not too many frills, even included some small games. Sensible approach to configuration, an admin tool which didn't modify anything unless you told it to. These statements may be out of date.
Decidedly mediocre, if not worse. Tries to be a nanny distribution which solves all your problems automagically but doesn't quite make it. Startup scripts modify your configuration, reaching a stable state several reboots after you changed something by hand. Sensible separation between SuSE's and your manual settings for some config files, though. May be suitable for dummies if or when it has matured. WARNING! Some versions come without a compiler, so you're stuck with what you've got!
At first sight intended for beginners, in fact something a UNIXer can live with quite well. Best package manager I know (aptitude/dpkg), which handles downloads automatically and works from the command line. Lean-and-mean stuff like fvwm not supplied; compile it yourself from source. Root account disabled by default. Some small glitches which I put down to the relatively new x86_64 edition.


While we're talking about UNIX, why not complete the discussion with a rant about the operating system which is as widespread and useless as tabloid journalism, television and drink container tops you can't properly pour from? Let's go for it.

On account of a new job, I have come into contact with the system some people use for sleepily immersing themselves in brightly coloured animations under the pretence of working (hence the expression "windozer"). Before that experience, I had thought that UNIX systems were the only kid on the block for working efficiently. Now I know.

Here's a brief run-down of the UNIX advantage:

Let's stop, I have to eat and sleep some time. Still, working with the software equivalent of children's toy tools gives you unusual insight into human nature. For instance, I should not have thought it possible to work so slowly that menu animations don't slow you down. Apparently, some seem to manage. Likewise, it is new to be paid for waiting for programs to complete because one CPU-hungry process brings the whole machine to a halt. The only use of certain software programs is as a money-maker for their perpetrator, a purpose which they fulfill admirably. So those enriching him should be pitied rather than despised, and it sure would be unfair to run them over with your car. In this spirit, here is a bumper sticker, available only for true UNIX aficionados as XFig source.

TOS / Impressum