Putting Linux in Perspective

While I was cleaning up my office I ran into the March 1986 issue of UNIX/WORLD, a long-since deceased magazine. I had saved this particular magazine because I am the author of the article featured on the cover: The Unix System on the IBM PC.

While what I am writing here may sound like humor, it actually is real. That is, it is about what has happened in the last 20 years. That article was about the beginning of the revolution. Our "real" computer in the office was a Codata 3300 which featured an 8MHz 68000 processor, 750KB of RAM and a 27MB hard disk. What did it cost? About 16 thousand 1984 dollars.

In those 20+ years, the price of 1000 times as much hardward has dropped to one tenth the cost of the Codata and the cost of a UNIX-like operating system has dropped to almost zero while the capabilities have expanded possibly one thousand fold like the hardware. In any case, on to the article.

First, lets look at the hardware requirements. Here is what I said in the article.

"To get going with a PC-based Unix system, the minimum hardware requirements are an IBM or compatible machine with at least 256K RAM, one floppy disk drive, and a 10-Mbyte hard disk."

Note that by "IBM or compatible" we are not talking about even an IBM AT. We are talking about an 8086-based PC. If you aren't laughing yet, read this again. One thousand times that much RAM is pretty much inadequate for today's UNIX/Linux system and one thousand times that much disk would be a bare minimum. And a floppy disk? Wow, we really did load UNIX and even early Linux distributions from floppy disks.

Much like your Linux system choices of today, there were choices back in 1986. In the article I looked at three versions of real UNIX (meaning software licensed from AT&T) and two clones. Also, much like today, I didn't come up with the one single best answer. Each had advantages and disadvantages.

The details of each choice are of little significance today but it is worth looking at the basics.

  • PC/IX was a port of AT&T UNIX System III done by Interactive Systems Corporation for IBM. It was a decent port by lacked BSD programs such as the C-shell and the VI editor. It cost $900.
  • VENIX/86 was a full UNIX port based on Version 7. (Note that Version 7 came before System III.) It included the C-shell, VI and the ability to run "medium model" (> 64K code space) programs. For an two-user license it cost $875. An eight-user license was $1075. For an additional $1000 you could get the source code for the drivers.
  • Xenix 5, Release 2 is a port of UNIX System 5, Release 2 licensed to Microsoft (surprise) but then ported to the IBM PC by The Santa Cruz Operation. It is the largest, best documented (and probably least reliable) of the REAL UNIX ports. It comes in pieces with the basic system at $495, text processing at $295 and development system meaning C compiler and associated programs at $395.

That's it for the three real UNIX ports. Now, on to the clones.

  • Coherent is a look-alike system from Mark Williams Co. It is designed to act more or less like UNIX Version 7. The best part is good documentation. Cost? $500.
  • CO-IDRIS is the other look-alike. It was originally developed by Whitesmiths, Ltd. for the PDP-11 but then ported to the IBM PC. It is a "do it different" clone where program names are changed and, as strange as this sounds, it can run under MS-DOS. You get the whole thing for only $695.

Finally, the article offers a couple of hardware alternatives to offer better performance. Each consists of a card that plugs into a PC slot giving you a different processor on which to run UNIX.

  • Opus 532 Persona Mainframe offers a National 32016 processor and a port of UNIX System V for only $3140 with an amazing one megabyte of RAM.
  • The Sirtek VersaCard/Microcard gives you a Motorola 68000 processor running Unix System V for only $2095 with 256K bytes or RAM.

Now, what does all this mean? Well, over the years many people have asked why we bought a $16,000 dog of a computer in 1984, why we taught C programming classes on UNIX systems when MS-DOS was clearly what everyone was using and such. I guess the answer is that it gave us a head start on what has become the path to world domination.


Phil Hughes


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Back in the day...

indigo196's picture

Back in the day I toyed with Apple computers and Basic in addition to some VMS machines running some flavor of *nix. I was highly interested in computer and programming, but my father just thought I wanted to play games. sigh. He also thought there was no future in computers; I think he thought pottery held more of a future. On that note I took a 15 year retreat from technology. When I got in I was a Microsoftie... and have made a career out of it. In my heart I desire to once again know the freedom I had back in the old days... so I am re-exploring the *nix variants and slowly removing the android Borg computers from my home. Memories.

I'm new to Linux

borgward's picture

Any chance getting on of the versions of UNIX, and running it on my Tandy 1000 TX?

Re: I'm new to Linux

C. Harting's picture

You still have a running 1000TX? Wow. But it would require a version of Linux that runs on 8086/8088 processors, which wouldn't have a lot of features.
If you can find copies of any of the OSes that Phil listed, I think the only one you *might* have any luck installing and running on the Tandy is Coherent...
I installed and ran Minix on my Tandy 1000, I forget what year...

Old UNIX Dudes?

Phil Hughes's picture

When I wrote this article I expected to see comments from people new to Linux about the amazing progress in technology over 20 years. Instead I see a bunch of old UNIX dudes (like me) talking about the "good old days".

What are you doing today? That is, basically a Linux user, still working with UNIX at work, converted where to work from UNIX to Linux, ...

Phil Hughes

The problem with Coherent ....

Anonymous's picture

The problem with Corherent was that the guys are Mark Williams Co. wouldn't implement a TCP/IP stack for it.


Anonymous's picture

Let's not forget the first Unix with demand-paged virtual memory: the AT&T PC 7300 (or UNIXPC). It had 1MB RAM, 4MB virtual memory, 10 MHz 68010, SysVR3, loadable drivers, and email, among other things. It even had primitive windowing.

That was the first computer I bought (new, in 1986, IIRC). With it, I taught myself UNIX, ksh, C, awk and a host of other things. I downloaded gobs of stuff late at night from OSU over its 1200 baud modem using UUCP. Using dBaseIII, I created a checkbook register that I used for nigh on 10 years. I think I stopped using the paper register around 1987.

unix on PC

Carl Jones's picture

There certainly has always been a choice of operating system.

My first PC (after my Mac Lisa) ws a Compaq 386 "lunch-box" style computer. I never ran DOS or Windows on it.

I have never used Windows as the primary operating system on any PC that I have owned. I have, however, been forced to buy copies of Windows because of Microsoft's illegal (definitely illegal: they've been convicted) licencing tactics. Microsoft probably counts most of my machines as PCs running Windows.

$16K in 1984 for an 8MHz PC! You were ripped off man!

Jack Waldron's picture

In 1984 I had an Intel 8088 running at 10MHz with 640KB RAM and a 20MB disk.
Cost? About $2000

Granted you had a better processor, but I could have built you such a system for less than $4000 and had a nice hefty profit in my pocket. I know, I was building PC clones in 1984.

A bit more than a PC

Phil Hughes's picture

First, it had 750KB of RAM which was expensive at the time. Beyond that, here are some of the features:

  • 8 intelligent RS-232 serial ports
  • The disk drive actually had two 6805 processors in it to offer a blazingly fast 33ms average access time (for the day)
  • The CPU board had real hardware memory protection
  • It had a big (meaning 720KB) 5-1/4" floppy drive
  • It included a real, licensed, multi-user version of UNIX

Yeah, by today's standards it still sounds like a joke but it was a bit more than a PC. Besides being the computer for our business we had a small classroom and students accessed it using dumb terminals.

While we considered keeping it to show our history we opted to trade it for a more powerful computer--an Atari 1040. :-)

Phil Hughes


Anonymous's picture

Was Minix around in 1986? I was running it in 1988. And running various ports of unix tools to DOS. All on a 286. And only $150.

I think Coherent needed a 286 by 1989 or so.

Most of those Unixen didn't have graphics, X11 or TCP/IP networking either.

When I loaded up Linux in '91 with X11 on a 386 it was like getting a new machine. Finally I could run similar programs to the Suns at work.

Just another data point.

Anonymous's picture

Just another data point. Coherent 3.0 for a 286 was $99 around 1990. Quite some way down from the $500. And the 1000+ page documentation was brilliant. Surprisingly the documentation was written by a single guy.

Just another data point

Anonymous's picture

>>Surprisingly the documentation was written by a single guy.<<

Yeah, most really good documentation comes from guys who are married.

That was good :)

Anonymous's picture

That was good :)