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Why I love Unix

© March 2009 Anthony Lawrence

I was first exposed to Unix on a Radio Shack Model 16. It was running Tandy Xenix and up to that minute I hadn't even read anything about Unix. That may sound odd, but this was almost thirty years ago: Internet access was rare and just starting to be available to people not in government or academia and computer books and magazines were equally scant. The computer revolution was just starting and so was my Unix education.

I can well remember mistyping commands and getting trapped in a ">" prompt. Some Tandy engineer in Texas explained what that meant. I found some books, I read a lot of man pages, I experimented.. I learned my way around.

Most of what I was doing then was writing programs in something called "Profile". It ran on Tandy Model II and III computers and although it was very weak by today's standards, it was pretty cool stuff at the time. It got even cooler when it came out as "Filepro" on Xenix. I saw that first at a newspaper who had managed to get an early beta of that and wanted a sales input system developed.

There was a lot Filepro couldn't do that my customer needed. My earlier explorations allowed me to do a lot of those things with shell scripts: awk, sed, grep.. a little C.. we could get stuff done.

Of course I was seeing Windows here and there too. It didn't really get a lot of traction until Windows 286 - I can well remember the first time I saw that, too. clumsy, slow, troublesome.. how could anyone possibly think this was good? People did, but I stuck with Xenix. Windows was single user - I couldn't write useful business applications on that and it didn't have the tools I needed anyway. I bought a Windows PC clone fairly early on; I even sprung for the Microsoft C Development System because I had to do some Microsoft work, but my heart was never in it. Clumsy, inelegant, difficult. I'd use it and program for it when I had to, but it always made me grumpy.

Many of my Tandy Xenix customers started buying SCO Xenix so of course I started learning about that. As time went on, that became SCO Unix. I had already started picking up on SunOS too and a little HP/UX and AIX - it was all Unix, it had the tools, I could get things done. Microsoft was getting strong on the desktops, but it was still mostly single user. There were things like MultiDos but compared to Unix, it was still all pathetic.

Windows started to have possibilities with NT. They managed to pique my interest enough to buy books, to dig in and learn a bit. I actually did get an MCSE at that time and seriously thought about moving into the Microsoft world. But it was still so clumsy, so annoying. So many of the things that I could do so easily on any Unix platform were so difficult on Windows.. and so much rebooting! I just couldn't get my heart into it. Too hard, too weak, too fragile. One day I just made up my mind: no more Windows work, period.

That was it. I knew it wasn't necessarily the right financial decision. I was already moving away from programming into support and troubleshooting and there was no question where most of that work was. That's the problem with Unix from a support perspective: set the systems up right initially and you might not hear from your customer for years. Windows systems offered much more potential for income, but I just didn't like working on them. They didn't have the command line tools, a lot of stuff crashed and burned so easily: it was just all so unpleasant to work on. I turned my back on Windows.

Of course that was never 100% true. I wouldn't write Windows programs, but I still had to put up with the damn things in the context of other work. They were replacing dumb terminals left and right and TCP/IP networks were becoming cheap and common. These stupid beasts were going to be talking to my Unix servers and I sometimes had to deal with their problems and deficiencies. That remains true today - I can't totally ignore Windows.

But I don't have to like it. Sure, Windows has gotten better. I haven't seen a real BSOD in years (though having to reboot is just as common). You can get just about any tool you want. But the basic philosophy of Windows still offends me: the weak command line, the ridiculous Registry, the point and click mentality for everything, the secrecy, the undocumented crap.. that stuff is still there and always will be.

Windows apologists sometimes like to paint Unix as a dying dinosaur. That just shows their ignorance: if anything, Windows is the dinosaur in danger of being wiped out by Macs and Linux. While I might have put a lot more money in my bank accounts had I walked the Windows path, I'm glad that I didn't. I LIKE Unix. There's still nothing for me to like about Windows.

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Wed Mar 25 11:57:48 2009: 5852   BrettLegree

I love Unix because "it just makes sense" to me. Something about it - it is logical to my engineer brain.

The very first computer I ever used was a PDP-11 running some kind of Unix (not sure what), back in the 80's. So I'm a relative newbie that way - in fact, I didn't even know it was Unix.

I guess I really started to take an interest in Unix and Unix-like systems around 2000, when I ran across FreeBSD - yes, I encountered that before I encountered Linux. I had heard of Linux, but not tried it. And FreeBSD just seemed to be so much more logical to me.

(Which reminds me, I should put a FreeBSD machine on my network again.)

You're right, we have to deal with Windows but we don't have to like it. I wish I could say I hadn't seen a real BSOD in a long time, but my work laptop seems to throw one every few months. Perhaps it is a hardware problem <grin> since it certainly couldn't be the software!

Wed Mar 25 12:30:16 2009: 5854   TonyLawrence

I think you can make a good case that engineering and scientific types tend to prefer Unix.

That might be sufficient reason for the rest of the world to steer clear :-)

Wed Mar 25 13:03:23 2009: 5856   BrettLegree

Hmm, good point.

I can hear the parents telling their children, "Johnny, stay clear of Unix... you'll end up like that guy... an *engineer*..."

Wed Mar 25 15:01:21 2009: 5860   TonyLawrence

This is funny: somebody over at LHB just said:

It's difficult to fathom someone in IT who "doesn't do Windows" in today's market. That's like a car mechanic who "doesn't do fuel injection".

That really shows how little those folks know, doesn't it?

Wed Mar 25 15:30:16 2009: 5864   BrettLegree

Oh, that is a good one - because as you and I both know, there are *no more* cars with carburetors on the road these days...

And of course, the only part of a car you have to ever fix is the fuel injector system!

Thu Mar 26 10:54:22 2009: 5875   JKWood

The irony of that statement is not to be found in the idea that Unix is more primitive but still relevant. To make the analogy fit better, I'd say "Someone in IT who 'doesn't do Windows' is like a mechanic who 'doesn't do windshield repair.'" We who prefer *nix and shun Windows aren't working on antiquated or limited technology.

Thu Mar 26 11:03:19 2009: 5876   BrettLegree


Very true and perhaps your analogy is better.

(As well, I personally don't think carburetors are primitive technology - you can do some pretty neat stuff with them. And unlike fuel injectors, I can fix them myself...)

Thu Mar 26 12:29:57 2009: 5877   TonyLawrence

The implication was that it would be difficult to find work without doing Windows, so yes, the windshield makes the point.

The irony is that those that have that idea are unaware of the Unix and Linux and BSD machines that are very likely sitting in the data centers of the companies they work for. They also have no idea that the company across the street has all Mac desktops and the place on the corner is actually completely Ubuntu.

There's no lack of non-Windows work. It is true that we see our customers less often: unlike the Windows techs, we don't have to be there to chase daily problems. That's why there are less of us, and it's also why we make more money.

Thu Mar 26 14:33:09 2009: 5879   BrettLegree

You make a good point Tony.

There are companies out there doing great work without Windows, as you are well aware. Yet inside Windows-centric shops you hear people say, "how can anyone do any serious work without Windows?"

Well, the place where I worked before this job was a Mac shop. We did really hardcore process engineering, much more challenging than what I do now (I'm a glorified paper pusher now).

That was my first real experience with a Mac (we all had Ti Powerbooks running 10.2 or 10.3). We did things other companies couldn't do because we were not worried about our computers going belly-up when we were out in the field working. They just worked.

Coming here and being given an NT4 box was like having icepicks jammed into my eyes.

Seriously, I went from no unintended restarts in a whole year on that Mac, to several BSOD's on my first day of work...

I also think that in today's economic climate, there might be a bit more work for the non-Windows folks - some companies might be interested in FOSS now that money is a bit tighter.

That's my hope, anyway!

Thu Apr 2 00:55:07 2009: 5959   anonymous

> I haven't seen a real BSOD in years

I made the mistake of allowing 'doze to perform the reboot it had been obnoxiously insisting on for about a week... and saw two. One was the black kind; you know, the "can't find <important system file>" that required digging out an original CD to run 'repair'...

The closest I've seen in the world of Real Operating Systems is Fedora 10's mkinitrd that, for quite some time (but finally fixed, recently) couldn't cope with "relatime" having been manually added to /etc/fstab (the resulting initrd would cause the kernel to fail to boot). Annoying, but easy enough to tell grub to boot the older kernel. (And I can't recall that I have *ever* seen a kernel panic.)

Thu Nov 12 20:55:58 2009: 7534   Dan

I am convinced that the only reason Fedora Desktop has not slammed Microsoft is due to the inability to sell it for a profit. But other then that it slams Microsoft.

We need to go no further then security to make that argument.

But then we can make the whole argument on efficient use of resources....CPU and RAM.

And we won't forget being able to chose how thin or thick the installation will be. Try being most people and doing that on Windows.

RedHat did a paltry attempt at creating a desktop, but it needs some fine tuning and they need to do away with its annual support contract for Joe User.

Fine tune it for Joe User to just install and use, someone else will take it and put it on thousands of PC's and never give you a dime.

But Fedora is great, Linux is great. I am trying to get the grandmas and kids on it...it is easy to teach, hard to break unless you give them root, easy to fix when they break it..set up 4 or 5 users to start with and just give them a new user/password when they break it...then fix it at your convenience.

Stability, how many windows machines can you leave running stabile for 6-9 months? How many can you log on remotely without leaving your system open to hackers (ssh vs. PCanywhere ...I mean anyone)

Thu Nov 12 21:17:47 2009: 7535   TonyLawrence

My BSD hosed web server crashed this week. The tech who rebooted it told me "We reboot them weekly".

Yeah, right, like I wouldn't have noticed that in "uptime" when I log in every day.

They probably DO reboot the Windows crap every week.

Fri Nov 13 16:25:52 2009: 7547   BigDumbDinosaur

Something in the article I didn't notice before:

Sure, Windows has gotten better. I haven't seen a real BSOD in years (though having to reboot is just as common).

If you feel cheated from not having seen a BSOD stop in for your fix. I've got two boxes in the shop that do that right after ISL. They both belong to the same guy and by pure, and I mean pure, coincidence, his kid had used both of them to wander around the Internet. Now, I wonder why these two Window$ machines are not feeling well...

BTW, one of the machines has all of this guy's business records. I can't tell you how many times I have counseled him (and others) to keep the kids away from any PC used for anything important. Geesh!

Fri Nov 13 16:29:01 2009: 7548   TonyLawrence

I know. I went to look st a neighbors machine yesterday - he lets his grandchildren play with it..

Oh, well....


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