The UNIX® Evolution: An Innovative History

By The Open Group

The history of computing would not be complete without Ken Thompson[1] and the late Dennis Ritchie[2] who were visionaries during the early days of computing. Both men couldn’t have anticipated the impact of their (and others) contribution of the UNIX system (initially dubbed as UNICS[3]) to the world starting in 1969. Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and others created a collaborative programing environment [4] that would promote, what now is commonly called “open development”.  In 1975, that vision became far more collaborative with the release of version 6 of the Bell Labs’ UNIX operating system, which was the first version made widely available outside of Bell Labs, and ultimately became the University of California Berkeley BSD UNIX[5]. The UNIX operating system is “now considered one of the most inspiring and influential pieces of software ever written.” [6]

What started out as a communal programing environment or even an early word processor[7], the UNIX system turned out to be a more durable technology than Thomson and Ritchie could have imagined. It’s not only a durable operating system, but it is adaptable, reliable, flexible, portable and scalable.  Ultimately, the UNIX OS would end up being supported across multiple systems, architectures, platform vendors, etc. and also spawn a number of look-alike compatibles. Lastly, UNIX technology would be the engine that drove innovation even beyond programming and data processing to markets and technologies beyond the realm of computer science.

The academic and commercial take-up of UNIX systems would help germinate the growth of many existing and new technologies. An example of that innovation would be in bioinformatics that was critical to advances in genetic engineering including the human genome project. Investigations of the physical world, whether it’s high energy physics, modeling proteins, designing Callaway’s Big Bertha Club, or simulating car crashes to improve passenger safety was part of the overall innovation enablement of UNIX. Moreover, UNIX systems contributed to more ethereal innovation being a driving force of the growth of ARPANET (to become the World Wide Web) and being the first World Wide Web server[8]. Examples of where science and business have been touched by UNIX innovation include assisting high-energy physics laboratories create standards to improve collaboration via HEPiX[9], NASA’s Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement (SEWP) to maximize value while reducing cost[10], and the modern UNIX standard, which has helped vendors, developers and customers maximize their investment[11]. Even touching the world of entertainment in which computer generation visual effects have become ubiquitous[12]. There are few technologies and industries in which UNIX systems did not have an impact.

The UNIX legacy of Thompson and Ritchie is far from over with numerous UNIX systems being critical to both personal computing and enterprise computing. Apple, a truly iconic company, embraces UNIX technology as the core of the Mac OS X operating system, which is certified against the Single UNIX specification[13]. Major vendors such as HPE, IBM, Inspur, and Oracle offer UNIX products, which are also certified against the Single UNIX Specification; today’s UNIX systems provide solutions to most industries including driving current innovations around cloud computing, mobility, virtualization), etc. Most customers have come to depend on the enterprise grade, highly reliable, scalable, and secure UNIX systems that drive their daily business continuity, and the innovative solutions that help them scale their businesses to the next level.

Companies like Audi AG use certified UNIX systems as a robust, flexible, and high performance platform for managing its business operations using IBM AIX running a private cloud infrastructure[14]. Another example of innovation is Best Western, the hotel chain, which uses certified UNIX systems from HPE to deliver processing-intensive services providing their customers with real-time, 24X7 responsiveness[15]. Lastly, Toshiba has used certified UNIX systems from Oracle to reduce operational and maintenance costs by 50% creating a private cloud using virtualization technologies[16].

From the humble roots of Thompson’s and Ritchie’s original UNIX system to the current branded versions of the commercial UNIX systems, this OS continues to be at the core of the modern computing world driving innovation.

By The Open Group

Highlights from the Evolution of UNIX®
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[4] Dennis M. Ritchie, The Evolution of the Unix Time-Sharing System. 1979.




[8] -web/


[10] The NASA SEWP (Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement) began as a means for a NASA scientist to easily obtain his computer in 1992 and has grown to be one of the premier vehicles for the entre US Government to purchase Information Technology.  In the formative years of the SEWP program UNIX, and in particular the UNIX brand as trademarked and certified by The Open Group, was a keystone to ensuring a standardized set of solutions that met the needs of Government scientists and engineers.” – Joanne Woytek, NASA SEWP Program Manager, January 14, 2016










Filed under Enterprise Transformation, Single UNIX Specification, Standards, The Open Group, Uncategorized, UNIX

5 responses to “The UNIX® Evolution: An Innovative History

  1. Geoff Clare

    Reference 7 has a broken link. It should be:

  2. From a quick reading of this article, one would conclude that Linux never happened. Clearly the most dominant and successful member of the Unix family tree, Linux was originally written using Maurice J Bach “The design of the Unix operating system” as a guide. Since then, it has leapfrogged the proprietary Unices to dominate the internet web server marketplace, the mobile market and now accounts for 98% of the top 500 supercomputers on the planet.

    Come one, take a bow for Linux and give credit where credit is due!

  3. This video demonstrates why Unix was mathematically ordained to succeed:

  4. This can have the advantage of moving some of the window rendering to the GPU on the graphics card and thus reducing the load on the main CPU , but the facilities that allow this must be available on the graphics card to be able to take advantage of this.