Unix vs. Linux: What's the Difference?

The choice between UNIX and Linux is not an easy one. These operating systems both have their upsides and downsides. There are certain things you need to consider before deciding which operating system to adopt. Here are the major differences between Linux and UNIX.

Intro to Unix

The first thing you need to know is that UNIX was created in the late 1960s at AT&T Bell Labs. It was co-developed along with the C programming language, which they created to develop UNIX. One of the greatest legacies of UNIX is the C programming language. The C programming language has gone on to be the most useful in the history of programming. At the time that they developed UNIX, it was the standard for universities and other enterprises. An overwhelming majority of computer science courses were quick to adopt UNIX.

Ken Thompson was the leader of this project, and he went on to be one of the most famous computer scientists in the history of the world. The UNIX operating system was created to be used at the command line. Until recently, there were no graphical user interfaces for the operating system, and all commands had to be typed in word by word at the command line. The operating system is still quite popular for many corporations and universities.

Intro to Linux

The name Linux is actually the name of the kernel. The proper name for Linux is GNU/Linux. It signifies that the Linux kernel is the foundation on which the GNU software system is built. The kernel was developed in 1991 by a Finnish computer scientist called Linus Torvalds. He developed it as a free alternative to UNIX. At that time, UNIX was quite expensive for most college students to afford. He created this open-source project and invited everyone to contribute what they could. As time went on, Linux quickly grew and became one of the most common operating systems in existence. In today's world, Linux is the most commonly used operating system in the server market. It is also the operating system that drives most embedded devices. For example, the Linux kernel serves as the foundation for the Android operating system. It should also be noted that Linux was created as a clone of UNIX. It means that the architecture of Linux is quite similar to what you have in UNIX.

Differences between Linux and Unix

There are major differences between the two operating systems. The first and most glaring difference is Linux is an open-source operating system, and UNIX is closed-source and proprietary. The Linux kernel and associated components are free for you to download and modify. You can also compile your own Linux distribution using open-source code. The main shell for Linux is called BASH, while the UNIX shell is called Bourne Shell. Linux comes in multiple distributions like Ubuntu, OpenSuse, Fedora, and Debian. There are multiple flavors of UNIX from HP, IBM, and there is an open-source version of UNIX called BSD.

Features of Unix

You can run hundreds of commercial applications on UNIX. It is also an operating system that supports multitasking, and you can use it to power servers and workstations. Depending on the flavor of UNIX that you have, you can use its powerful security features to keep everything running well. This operating system is still the standard for some universities and corporations that have been in business for multiple decades.

Features of Linux

Since Linux is an open-source clone of UNIX, there are many features that both of these operating systems share. For example, both are capable of multitasking and can be operated from the command line. Linux is open-source, so you can access the entire source code for the kernel whenever you please. You also have multiple user-accounts with user access control mechanisms to prevent one user from breaching another. Linux also has security enhancements for operating in a server environment. Modern versions of the Linux kernel also have virtualization built-in so that you can use it in a cloud environment.

Main Differences

The most significant difference between Linux and UNIX is the price. Linux is always free, while UNIX can vary depending on which vendor you buy it from. Linux provides more GUI options, and there is a larger community of Linux users. Bugs are patched more quickly for Linux since there are so many users and programmers working on it. Linux is also available in more computer architectures than UNIX. The biggest advantage that UNIX has over Linux is its support of the ZFS filesystem. Linux also comes in multiple distributions that vary widely. For example, different distributions will have their own package management system and executable format. The various distributions will also have their own ways of organizing the filesystem. It can make getting help difficult if you suffer a problem with your distribution. Linux offers the ability to update the kernel without rebooting, which is a significant advantage in server and enterprise environments. Both of these operating systems don't suffer from widespread viruses infecting systems. However, Linux is a bigger target for hackers, since it is so ubiquitous.

Downsides of Linux

The driver infrastructure in Linux can be subpar for some distributions. It is also complicated for Windows users to move to Linux. Linux also suffers from a lot of applications not being available on it. There are many different distributions, so you will have to choose the one that works for you, and each one has various downsides. Linux is a monolithic kernel, so one failure can lead to the whole system crashing.

Downsides of Unix

There aren't many users of UNIX in the modern world. It is also not free, so it doesn't make sense to use UNIX unless you are working with programs that specifically depend on it. Hardware support is poor compared to other operating systems. Making a simple mistake while typing something in the shell could destroy your system permanently. The way things are going, UNIX seems like it's a dying platform with no future. However, this might be changing with the growing popularity of FreeBSD and OpenBSD. UNIX is probably the most difficult operating system to learn and master for most modern computer users. A significant portion of popular software will have compatibility issues when running on UNIX.

The Final Word

Both of these operating systems will give you the features you need in a modern computing environment. However, you need to understand which operating system will be best depending on your requirements. Make the right choice, and you will be happy with your workstation or server performance for many years to come.

George Whittaker is the editor of Linux Journal, and also a regular contributor. George has been writing about technology for two decades, and has been a Linux user for over 15 years. In his free time he enjoys programming, reading, and gaming.

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