It seems that the debate over what operating system is the best is never-ending. Whether you are talking about Windows vs. Apple, iOS vs. Android, or Linux vs. UNIX, there are always proponents on either side ready to argue about why one OS is better than the other.

The UNIX vs. Linux debate is especially interesting because Linux is an offshoot of the UNIX operating system. Both OSs share similar traits but serve drastically different purposes in today’s business world. In many circles, UNIX has been all but abandoned in favor of Linux and other open source solutions. Many people now choose to run Linux on their home computers as well. 

Two people in office setting looking at computer screens

If you are wondering whether your next implementation should be UNIX or Linux-based, this article will shed some light on the advantages and disadvantages of both.

UnixLinux
Free to use, but specifically designed business solutions can be expensive.Free to use
Proprietary, but with some open source solutions as wellOpen source
Good for multi-tasking and allowing many users to connect at the same timeGood for multi-tasking and many users connected simultaneously, primarily because it’s based on Unix
Efficient use of robust virtual memoryNot as good when it comes to the efficient usage of fits virtual memory
More secure than Windows and other  operating systems, such as macOSOne of the most secure OSs, even better than Unix, because it’s constantly tested by the open source community 
Primarily used by large enterprises and government entitiesWidely used by a variety of people and companies
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History

UNIX was created in the 1960s by the AT&T Bell Labs. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie are the fathers of UNIX and the commercially available UNIX OS became available in 1970. The initial release was not much more than a command line interpreter and some small utility programs, but the stage had been set for multi-tasking operating systems that have now taken over the world.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds began working on a UNIX-like OS known as Minix. The Minix source code was freely available under GNU GPL and he successfully modified this code for use on x86 PC systems. By September 1991, Torvalds had successfully completed the first Linux kernel designed for PCs. This kernel included various system utilities and libraries from the GNU project to create a usable operating system based completely on open source code.

Linux also incorporates the popular Python programming language into most distributions; furthering the usefulness of the OS. Because Python is one of the most popular programming languages in the world, its presence within the Linux system makes working with it more accessible to a larger group of people. 

Usage

A few years ago, UNIX was the domain of large corporations. No other operating system was able to leverage the power of symmetric multiprocessing systems or systems with more than eight CPUs like UNIX. During this time, Linux started gaining popularity for small to medium-sized businesses, but was still not considered an option for enterprise-level implementations.

As far as consumer use, Linux and UNIX were both used strictly by academic types interested in both platforms as a hobby.

In more recent years, this has changed. UNIX is still used in some capacity at enterprise levels, but the costs are so significant that many of these businesses have turned to Linux as a much more cost-effective alternative. In fact, search engine giant Google relies on Linux servers to process all of its search algorithms. UNIX is still popular (in a different form) because of its use in the popular OS X offering from Apple. Apple’s computers rely on a UNIX kernel and are often considered some of the most reliable personal computers available.

Knowledgeable Linux administrators are increasing in demand as a result of businesses migrating to this robust OS. 

Linux received an additional shot of popularity when Google decided to base its popular Android mobile OS on the Linux kernel. Every iteration of the Android OS is based on the current Linux kernel, providing mobile users with many of the same security features and functional benefits of the desktop and server systems.

The release of more consumer-minded Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint have also led to increased popularity for the Linux platform.

Cost differences

As a general rule, Linux is free to use and modify. Even the server versions of Linux such as Red Hat, Mandrake, and SUSE are usually free as long as organizations purchase a support contract with the distribution.

UNIX, on the other hand, can be extremely expensive. UNIX installations deployed in a company can run around $1,407 for every user, while Linux comes in at a much lower $256 per user. This means that if you have a company with 250 users, a full UNIX deployment would cost more than $350,000. Part of the reason for the high cost is that each UNIX system is custom-written for the client. Comparatively, Linux has base packages that are easily customizable and meet the needs of most users.

Open source vs proprietary

The differences in cost underscore one of the biggest ways that UNIX and Linux differ: Linux is open source, and UNIX is proprietary. As a proprietary solution, users have to purchase a license to run UNIX, making it far less accessible than Linux.

Many of the other differences between the two systems are a result of Linux being open sourced and UNIX being proprietary. Because Linux is available for free, programmers around the world have been contributing to its development and ease of use for years. Linux’s growth and range of applications have largely been driven by the large Linux development community.

Linux as an IoT solution

Because Linux is an open source solution, it has been embraced by developers in the Internet of Things (IoT) community. There are many IoT devices in people’s homes, on their bodies, and in the workplace, and the potential for more IoT development may still be untapped. Linux powers Raspberry Pi, which is used by developers designing IoT solutions. This may further cement Linux’s dominance in the operating system market for years to come.

UNIX entering the open source sphere

Although Linux has been the open source giant of the pair, UNIX also has some open sourced offerings, including NetBSD, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD. While the UNIX open source community isn’t as large or prolific as its Linux cousin, members are still producing solutions that may produce a wider range of UNIX solutions in the future.

Core benefits of UNIX

Multi-tasking

UNIX was built to be a high-performance computational solution. Specifically, UNIX was designed for sharing information between different users and systems, as well as multi-tasking. With a UNIX system, several people can connect to a machine simultaneously, and they can do so from different locations. This was a core objective of UNIX’s architecture and why it’s used in so many systems today. Linux is also good at multi-tasking, primarily because it was derived from UNIX.

Because UNIX is a multi-tasking tool, it has been the go-to solution for many web servers. A web server has to allow many users to connect at the same time. It also has to provide each user with the content they need, in addition to processing a series of requests quickly enough to avoid inhibiting the user experience. UNIX is perfect for this kind of environment.

With Unix as the operating system for your web server, you can have a custom-designed web app, such as a customer relationship manager (CRM), running on the server and easily manage several users connecting at the same time. For example, within the CRM, you may have a simple word processor that allows users to input information about customers with whom they’ve interacted. UNIX can manage many users accessing that same element of the web app at the same time. This would be similar to having you and ten of your friends all using Microsoft Word on your computer—at the same time.

Simple command-line functionality

UNIX sought to make the command-line so easy that ordinary users would feel comfortable with it. UNIX’s developers did this by reimagining the command interpreter. They designed sets of commands that were made available as separate programs. These gave birth to coroutines, which involve stringing together chains of processes—that run simultaneously—to create a desired result. UNIX, therefore, made it easier for a user working within the command line to do more with less manual entry.

Coroutines accomplish this by allowing the user to have two functions work together—like teammates. For instance, suppose you have an apple sauce factory and a UNIX computer running a machine that mashes apples into pulp.

Using sensors, two functions within the machine calculate 1. how many apples enter the machine and 2. how much is in a container holding the pulp of processed apples. For the first machine, the one that takes the apples, there’s a function that counts the number of apples and requests more when needed. For the second machine, there’s a function that outputs the amount of apple pulp in the container.

UNIX makes it possible for the first function to run then pause. At that point the second function runs and calculates how much pulp is in the container. It can then send that result back to the first function, so it can decide how many apples to request. As a team, the two functions can ensure just the right amount of apples are introduced into the machine to fill the container with just the right amount of pulp.

The text-based process

The original UNIX system was entirely based on command scripts built within textual shells. This means that, instead of typing out a long series of commands by hand, you can simply refer to a shell that contains a common command — or group of commands — that people use. When that shell is activated, all the commands within it are executed. This makes it easier to execute complicated tasks because they’re broken down into a series of pre-written commands.

For example, suppose you’re using a Mac and have a folder opened within Terminal. If you type “pwd” in Terminal, your computer will tell you where your folder is on your computer and its name. This process would normally involve many small steps, but thanks to the text-based shell commands, it can be done with only a handful of keystrokes.

As another simple example, take UNIX’s “-le” operator. You can think of “le” as standing for “Less than or Equal to.” When you type this into UNIX, it examines the numbers before and after it to see how they compare to each other. By typing in these two letters, you instruct UNIX to do several different things. It interprets the numbers as being units of value, then understands the value of each. The underlying program also discerns which one is greater than the other by comparing the values each number connotes. If the numbers are equal to each other, the system understands that as well. By entering two letters you get a series of computations, which makes coding faster and significantly easier.

UNIX vs Linux: virtual memory

One of the standout features of UNIX is the efficiency of its virtual memory. Virtual memory is memory outside of your physical memory that exists on your disk. Your computer uses it to free up random access memory (RAM), which is limited to however much is apportioned to your physical memory.

UNIX outperforms Linux when it comes to how efficiently it uses virtual memory. This makes it possible for the computer to be suddenly inundated with a memory-heavy task, quickly copy some of the data that needs to be accessed to virtual memory, and then carry on with the memory-intensive task — all without interrupting other core processes. The ability of UNIX to do this efficiently makes it better at handling multiple small tasks at once and, when used in a server environment, providing information to several users simultaneously.

For this reason, banks, especially those that have to facilitate transactions with other banks, use UNIX instead of Linux. Governments that run critical databases also use UNIX because, with its efficient virtual memory, it can handle heavy workloads without sacrificing security.

How Linux and UNIX intertwine today

The communities of developers that power the evolution of UNIX and Linux may be in different silos, but they often share information. As a result, some of the advancements that have been made in the Linux arena have been assimilated into the UNIX universe. For example, some GNU utilities have been integrated as add-ons in UNIX systems because developers needed features that weren’t, at the time, part of the UNIX environment. 

One example is AIX by IBM, which is a UNIX-based system. AIX started offering an AIX Toolbox designed for Linux Applications that included hundreds of GNU packages. This software could be appended to an installation of AIX, making it easier for users to transition from Linux to the UNIX-based AIX system.

Threats and security

Both operating systems are vulnerable to malware and exploitation; however, historically both OSs have been more secure than the popular Windows OS. Linux is actually slightly more secure for a single reason: it is open source.

When a new bug or vulnerability is discovered in Linux, it is immediately reported in the Linux forums and is typically fixed within days. Since UNIX is proprietary, users have to wait for an official patch to be released.

The fact that Linux is open source also means that there are tens of thousands of developers worldwide looking for ways to improve the code daily. Innovation is much faster than anything experienced in the UNIX community (or any other OS community for that matter).

Despite the proprietary handicap of UNIX, both operating systems do provide significant security implementations including the segmentation of the user domain in a multiuser environment, the isolation of tasks in a multitasking environment, and a password system that can be encrypted (or located remotely), as well as a host of other features that make them almost impervious to the malware attacks that have become so commonplace in the Windows macOS arenas.

Looking into the future

Current estimates are that Linux machines comprise around 1.84% of all computers connected to the Internet. Keep in mind that these figures do not include the Android OS and the many consumers who have chosen to run their home computers using open-source Linux distributions.

Pure UNIX-based systems, on the other hand, are primarily run by enterprises and governments. At this point, it’s safe to say that for everyday users, UNIX is quickly becoming a thing of the past. It is difficult for a business to justify spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on UNIX hardware when Linux machines are just as capable and significantly less expensive. However, because of the need for reliable, safe enterprise-level systems, the demise of UNIX has been greatly exaggerated. Due to its stability, dependability, and easy-to-defend infrastructure, UNIX will likely continue to play a pivotal role for many influential institutions and organizations. Check out this article to learn more about the best Linux operating systems, and to dig deeper, check out Udemy’s courses on this topic

Page Last Updated: December 2021

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