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linuxvsunixIt 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.  You can learn more about using Linux on your PC in Introduction to Linux.

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.


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 multitasking 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 has 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.

More recently, Linux incorporates the popular Python programming language into most distributions; furthering the usefulness of the OS.  You can learn more about using Python to automate Linux functions in Introduction to Bash Scripting and Python 101.


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.  If you have any interest in this career field, the best place to start is the Learn to Run Linux Servers from Scratch course where you can prepare for Linux certification.

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 Redhat, Mandrake, and SUSE are usually free as long as organizations purchase a support contract with the distribution.

UNIX, on the other hand, is extremely expensive. Midrange UNIX servers start at approximately $25,000 and can cost as much as $250,000 including hardware. High end UNIX servers can cost upwards of $500,000. IBM, HP, and SUN are some of the largest distributors of UNIX systems today. 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.

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 a 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 on a daily basis. 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, 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 arena.

Network security is extremely important in Linux server administration. Learn to Run Linux Servers Part 2 explains some of the more advanced security and troubleshooting techniques used in Linux server administration.

Looking into the Future

Studies have shown that Linux has grown faster than any other server OS over the past few years. Current estimates are that Linux has a user base of about 25 million machines compared to only 5.5 million combined UNIX installations.

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.

At this point, it’s safe to say that UNIX is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Especially given the current state of the economy, 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. In the next few years, UNIX will most likely become a thing only found in history books about the evolution of today’s operating system.

Page Last Updated: October 2013

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