UNIX Wars – The Battle for Standards

UNIX Wars – The Battle for Standards

Today, we are used to all BSD and Unix systems being similar, at least internally. That hasn’t always been the case. At one time, there was a little war between two factions for control of the soul of Unix. Today, we are going to take a look at the Unix Wars.


Division: a Barrier to Success

After its introduction in the 1970s, Unix grew in popularity, especially in the fields of academia and research. It didn’t hurt that the US government also used it. Users were drawn to it because of its promise of portability, which allowed it to be used on a wide range of platforms and have access to a growing number of applications. With technology advancing so quickly, it was important to be able to move to the next new platform when it was released. 

However, many of these benefits could not be found in the various versions of Unix. “Vendors paid lip service to the complaint but worked night and day to lock in customers with custom Unix features and APIs.” By 1991, there were over 30 commercial versions of Unix available.

Each of these systems were designed to not work together. “Software applications written for one Unix variant could not operate on other Unix systems without expensive and difficult modifications.” It was also difficult to make applications work from one hardware platform to another, even with the same version of Unix.

This mess of incompatibility caused people to think twice before choosing Unix. After all, why invest money in new software and equipment when there is a possibility it won’t work with the stuff you already have. “The lack of a product standard produced the first major impediment to Unix acceptance, because end-users incurred major cost and problems in integrating their applications.”

Lines are Drawn

Seeing that it was hurting their bottom line, a number of companies joined forces to create a Unix standard. In 1984, the Open Group for Unix Systems was formed. It consisted of companies from around the world, including Bull, ICL, Siemens, Olivetti, and Nixdorf. The group was also informally known as BISON, due to the companies involved. Philips and Ericsson joined shortly afterwards. The group’s name was later changed to X/Open.

X/Open decided to base their new Unix standard on AT&T’s System V. It appears that they chose this version of Unix because they “decided to run the risk of exploitation by AT&T rather than by IBM”. The group published their first specification, entitled X/Open Portability Guide Issue 1, in 1985 and “covered basic operating system interfaces”. 

In 1987, a wrench was thrown into the group’s plans when AT&T and Sun Microsystems announced that they would be joining forces to “pursue co-development of a standard Unix operating system based on AT&T’s System V, Berkeley’s BSD 4.2, and the graphical capabilities of Sun’s Sun-OS”. Each company had its own motives for creating this union. AT&T wanted to promote its operating system and lure in more people to make software for their platform. Sun Microsystems wanted to promote their new SPARC chip set. It also helped that “AT&T purchased a sizable percentage of Sun Microsystems”.

Others in the computer world were not happy with this union. They feared that it would give AT&T more control of the market and tie Unix too closely to Sun hardware. DEC engineer Armando Stettnersaid “When Sun and AT&T announced the alliance, we at Digital were concerned that AT&T was no longer the benign, benevolent progenitor of UNIX…Sun was everyone’s most aggressive competitor. We saw Sun’s systems were direct replacements for the VAX. Just think: the alliance combined our most aggressive and innovative competitor with the sole source of the system software — the balance shifted.”

A number of companies decided that they had to do something about this new AT&T-Sun alliance. In early January of 1988, representatives from “Apollo, DEC, Gould Electronics, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell-Bull, InfoCorp, MIPS, NCR, Silicon Graphics, UniSoft, and Unisys” met at DEC’s offices in Palo Alto, California to discuss the issue. Initially, they called themselves the Hamilton Group because the DEC building was located on Hamilton Avenue. They requested a meeting with Vittorio Cassoni, Senior VP of AT&T’s Data Systems Division. Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t have any positive results.

In May of 1988, the group announced the creation of the Open Software Foundation. This new foundation wanted to create a Unix standard that didn’t depend on AT&T’s proprietary software. “Unlike X/Open, OSF planned to produce an operating system that it would license to its members, rather than function only as an advisory body.”

Gordon Bell, a minicomputer pioneer, commented on the group in an unpublished paper in 1988. He said, “OSF is a way for the Unix have-nots to get into the evolving market while maintaining their high-margin code museums.'” “The Wall Street Journal for May 18 noted that no one present at the launch of OSF could recall ever seeing Ken Olsen (co-founder of DEC) sharing a stage with an IBM chief executive.” Ken Thompson commented, “Just think, IBM and DEC in one room and we did it!” By the end of the year, the membership of the Open Software Foundation increased substantially.

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The Open Software Foundation tried repeatedly to get AT&T to join. They even offered to use AT&T’s System V, but wanted development shared among all the members of the foundation. AT&T didn’t like that idea because they wanted to be the only ones to control the direction of System V. With System V out of the picture, the foundation members decided to use IBM’s AIX. Members of the foundation were encouraged to make suggestions for improvements for the system. Over the next two years, membership grew to over two hundred companies, including “computer manufacturers, peripheral and component hardware manufacturers, software developers, and standards organizations”.

In the meantime, AT&T and Sun Microsystems moved to consolidate their power and gain allies of their own. This led to the creation of the Unix International trade association in 1988. Members of Unix International could “advise” AT&T on System V and promote its development, while AT&T “retained proprietary control of Unix and future modifications”. Votes by the Board of Directors were based on the financial contribution of each participating organization.

The Open Software Foundation and Unix International gained members over the years. They both ended up with over two hundred members.

As time went on, both groups worked on their own versions of Unix. In November of 1989, AT&T released a “commercial version of System V Release 4”, which was planned to be compatible with 80% of Unix installs. The following year, Open Software Foundation released “OSF/1, based on IBM’s AIX and Carnegie Mellon’s MACH operating systems”.

Uniting Against a Common Enemy

The battle for Unix standardization continued into the 1990s, until a couple of events changed everything. First, in the early 1990s, the world economy took a turn for the worst. “Bull, DEC, IBM, and the computer side of Siemens all lost money. AT&T resold its share of Sun.” Second, Microsoft entered the enterprise operating system with the release of Windows NT in 1993. “The proprietary NT was aimed squarely at Unix and was intended to extend Microsoft’s desktop hegemony to the data center and other places owned by the likes of Sun servers.”

In an attempt to stop an exodus of users from Unix to Windows NT, Unix rivals created the Common Open Software Environment, which was another attempt to create a Unix standard.

In 1994, the two organizations fighting for dominance joined forces. Unix International and the Open Software foundation merged and eventually became today’s The Open Group. According to the merger announcement “Bringing together former participants of the Open Software Foundation (OSF) and UNIX International (UI), the new organization also incorporates the successful elements of the common open software environment (cose) process. The mission of this new organization is to develop portable, interoperable, and scalable technologies for our customers. Based on the OSF structure, the organization will initially continue to carry the name OSF, although a name change is being considered to reflect its wider scope and broader industry participation.”

Two years later, X/Open merged with the Open Software Foundation to create The Open Group. Today, this group is the “certifier of Unix systems and owner of the Single Unix Specification, now the official definition of “Unix”.”

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