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The Answer Guy

By James T. Dennis, tag@lists.linuxgazette.net
Starshine Technical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

(?)The Five Flaws of the Unix System

From Ashley G. on 29 Jul 1998



(!)I think some flames are in order here:
  1. This is not the "We do your homework for you" service.
  2. I volunteer many hours per month answering questions about Linux. There are others out there who can answer your questions about other forms of Unix. I frequently answer questions about how to interoperate between Linux and other OS' including many forms of Unix. Most of what I say about Linux applies to most other forms of Unix. However the distinction is important.
  3. You need to learn where your [Caps Lock] key is and keep it turned off if you plan to get any co-operation or respect from anybody on the 'net (in Usenet netnews or on any technical mailing lists).
  4. There is no such thing as "the Unix System" there are many different versions of Unix --- and there have been for almost thirty years.
  5. If someone told you that there were "five" specific "flaws" in Unix they were suffering from horrible misconceptions.
  6. As likely it may be the case that you've critically misundertood someone.
Now to answer your question:
There is no list of generally held "flaws" in Unix or Linux that I know of. There are a number of problems with even postulating such a list.
First there isn't any one Unix system. C-Kermit claims to support about 700 versions and implementations of Unix (and Unix-like operating systems).
There is considerable ongoing academic debate about what precisely is Unix. I won't bother trying to provide my own definition --- it would just get me flame mail and perpetuate the debate. There are many people who will even deny that there's any doubt. They will say: Unix is any system that has been "branded" by The Open Group as conformant to the X/Open portability guidelines (XPG4 or XPG3). Others will pipe in and say that any thing that meets Spec1170 is Unix, while others will claim that POSIX is the one true standard.
At that point we'll go through the whole debate as to whether Unix is limited to just those systems which are dubbed to be "Unix" by this or that standards body, or whether it applies to Unix like systems --- such as Linux.
Indeed we could argue for days about what precisely is Linux. In the strict sense it is considered to be a set of kernel sources and the ancillary device drivers, and makefiles. In common usage Linux refers to any of a number of collections of software that run under a compilation of those (kernel) sources. Others, notably Richard Stallman, argue that the term Linux should be applied only to the kernel sources and that a different term should be applied to larger aggregations of software built around it.
His argument is valid -- since most Linux distibutions are about 5% to 10% Linux kernel sources, and drivers and about 25% GNU software. Since RMS is the principle of the Free Software Foundation (the organization that owns the copyright over the GNU sources) he has a reasonable interest in seeing that people know where some of the major components of their Linux based GNU systems come from.
Eventually the FSF will have a full operating system of it's own: the HURD. The GNU project was started to build such a system and the fact that they released a large number of vital components for public use is what made Linux possible.
At the same time there are other bodies that have produced major software subsystems that are conventionally included in a Linux distribution.
The computer science research group (CSRG) at University of California, Berkeley released a large number of packages and a large body of source code for public use (BSD). Many of the common utilities under Linux (most of the NetKit, I think) are from these sources.
The X Window system comes from MIT's Athena project and the free implementation of that which we use under Linux is principally from the XFree86 Project. XFree86 is the X Window system that's used by a number of Unix implementations including FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD.
So, if we were to try to fairly represent these parties in our nomenclature we'd have to refer to our systems as:
Linux/GNU/BSD/XFree86/"MIT X Window System" Systems
... which is why a respectfully decline to comply with rms' desire for me to use the phrase Linux/GNU when I mean "Linux" (in the common broader sense).
The other reason I choose not do to this most of the time is that I find it more difficult to read in that form. This is undoubtedly a horrible character flaw on my part but I find that I sometimes subvocalize (mentally "sound out") passages of technical text in my efforts to understand and proofread it. So, if rms likes he can simply say that my refusal to refer to this is symptom of my stupidity. I'll cop to that.
So, I suppose we could say that the "first flaw" of Unix is that no one seems to know what Unix is.
While it is tempting to try to follow this line of logic and devise four more for you --- I think it will be much quicker and more amusing for you to read The Unix-Haters Handbook by Simson Garfinkel, et al (IDG Books, (c) 1996).
Conveniently this book is in four "Parts":
Part 1: User Friendly?
Part 2: Programmer's System?
Part 3: Sysadmin's Nightmare
Part 4: Et Cetera
... and I think that every serious student of Unix and Linux should read this book. For one thing it requires an advanced understanding of Unix to understand the complaints --- and a really advanced knowledge to see how many of these complaints don't apply to many "modern" Unix variants (Linux in particular).
For the rest of it I found it amusing, frustrating and significant that the many contributors to Unix_Haters did not list modern available alternatives that exhibited the features they preferred in an OS and environment (or at least that lack the features that they hate). There were references to the ancient "Lisp Machines" but there was no clear endorsement nor were there any suggestions about how things "should be."
So, as the title suggests this is a curmudgeonly book without constructive merit. However, the Unix and Linux enthusiast should be thoroughly familiar with the material for the same reason that a self-respecting agnostic should be thoroughly familiar with the major religious works of whatever society surrounds him or her.

Copyright © 1998, James T. Dennis
Published in Linux Gazette Issue 32 September 1998

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