Free Unix - for business & pleasure!

Most of us, in college, encounter Unix regularly - though we may not know it. The computer on which our mail is stored before we pick it up is running Unix. So are the computers which transfer our mail, run the library system and serve out Trinity's web pages. I'm going to talk a little about what Unix is, the free versions of Unix which are available and why you might be interested in trying them.

What is this thing called Unix?

Unix (pronounced You-nicks) is an operating system (OS) for computers. An operating system provides access to the basic things that programs need to run - memory, disks, processors, networks etc. Unix performs a similar jobs to that of Windows or MacOS. However, unlike Windows and MacOS, Unix is produced by many companies for many different types of computers.

Originally Unix was developed for the mini-computers of the 70s and 80s. Computers were expensive and scarce so sharing them was important. Unix provided a way for several people to run several programs on a computer at the same time. It proved very popular as a result. It was also one of the first systems to use TCP/IP - the protocols which are now the basic language of the Internet. Since then, Unix and TCP/IP have contributed strongly to one another's success.

Unix quickly became a popular choice for universities - I believe the School of Mathematics in Trinity had the first Unix system in Ireland. For many years large institutions would have a Unix system on which "serious" computation was done. It was often used to provide e-mail and other "way-out" networky things. Today, with a computer on every desk, we all know what e-mail is and how to browse the web. What does an OS from the 70s have to offer the computer user of today?

What Unix has to offer.

Unix, due to its heritage, offers something slightly different to Windows or MacOS.

On the down side, Unix has traditionally been used for "serious" computing. This means there has not been the same motivation for developing user friendly tools and controls, which are the basis of MacOS or Windows. Some people say that learning about computers though Windows is like learning phrases of a language and learning through Unix is more like learning the grammar and the individual words. Both approaches have their merits.

Unix was originally designed to run on the more humble computers of the 70s. Fortunately, the power of computers has increased enormously since then. Consequently, Unix has been rendered an efficient and nippy OS. By comparison, Windows has "expanded to fill the space available". This leaves us in the strange situation where a single user OS for desktops is now far bulkier than a multiuser OS for servers!

Unix also offers more stability than Windows or MacOS. It is quite rare that a program crashing on Unix will make your computer reboot or misbehave. This was a very desirable feature if you were sharing an expensive computer among many people. Indeed, it is still desirable today - even if you are the computer's only user. Unix machines can go for months or even years without being rebooted!

So, Unix may not be as easy to use, but does offer some useful features (efficiency, stability, security...). How come more people aren't using it?

Free Unix - for all!

Unix originated at a time when computers were very expensive. This made it difficult for Joe Public to own a machine on which he could run Unix. On the other hand, Unix was almost a research project at this time and was available to anyone who wanted it. One of the standard versions of Unix, BSD (Berkeley Standard Distribution), is named after the Californian University.

As Unix became more successful computer vendors produced their own commercial versions of Unix - which they justifiably charged for. The original owners of the Unix code saw an opportunity to make some money and a legal fight broke out about who owned what bits of Unix.

While this fight was going on a Finnish student - Linus Torvalds - began writing a version of the Unix kernel from scratch. (The kernel is the central program in Unix). His kernel ran on PCs which were now easily powerful enough to run something like Unix and more within Joe Public's price range. Naturally Linus's efforts quickly were noticed and a large group of people began working on his system - Linux.

Meanwhile, the legal fight had finished and the original Unix code had been split into two pieces, one commercial and one the result of research. Various people took the research code and replaced the commercial code with free code, thus producing a working version of Unix for the same PCs.

The traditional reason that we're not all running Unix may have been expense or legal messing. Now we have several excellent free implementations of Unix to choose from, for both servers and desktops.

Free Unix - Today.

Today, almost all the computers in the School of Maths run free Unix. I know Computer Science are seriously considering replacing some of their Windows NT servers with Linux servers. Most if not all of the major Irish Internet service providers are using free Unix. So, how can you jump on the free Unix bandwagon?

All the versions of free Unix are available on the net - where to look depends on which one you feel like installing. I'll outline two of the choices - both of which I have worked with.

Red Hat Linux
Linux is primarily the kernel and several people have gone about putting together a complete Unix OS for this kernel. Red Hat are one company who produce such a distribution with a reputation for ease of use. Red Hat provide configuration tools similar to the Control Panels of Windows or MacOS. This makes Red Hat quite suitable and friendly for the beginner.
FreeBSD is possibly the most popular of the free versions of Unix derived from the original BSD code. It includes a detailed and comprehensive set of Unix manual pages. The installation procedure is on a par with the Red Hat one. However, FreeBSD is a more traditional Unix and doesn't really provide control panels.
Naturally I can't possibly do justice to either in a few lines - I'd suggest that you have a look at their web sites if you'd like to know more.

All these versions of Unix are available free on the web - but they're rather large. You can buy CD sets both via Red Hat's and FreeBSD's web pages. For about $50 you get the basic software, documentation and hundreds of pieces of add-on software. If you feel thrifty you can buy a basic CD from Cheap Bytes for less than $5.

Finally you'll have to follow the instructions given carefully. Remember - you have to make some hard disk space available which won't be available to Windows while you're trying Unix out. Hopefully you won't want to go back.


The free Unix world is currently a very interesting place to be. It is a world of rapid and sometimes exciting new developments. Some people think that Unix may beat Windows NT at its own game. It hasn't got to the stage where we're all be buying PCs from Gell3000 with Linux on them - but we should know that we have a choice.