Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

3.27. Why is UNIX so prevalent on the Internet?

Answered by Dave Taylor (

If you're connected to the Internet, it's entirely possible that you are using a Macintosh, PC, or other machine, but odds are that you're actually using a UNIX system. Indeed, UNIX computers are the backbone of the Internet, and the heart of much of its design. If you've been on the Net for any length of time, this isn't news to you, but do you know why?

The Internet grew out of various projects in the 1960s and 1970s, many associated with the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). One place you'll be familiar with the name of this organization is ARPANet, the precursor to the Internet.

There were many goals of the federally funded ARPANet, but the most important was that it would be a vehicle for universities and research facilities to share information about government-related projects. Through targeted funding of various organizations, utilities and tools were born that gradually evolved into services we know as e-mail (based on the simple mail transport protocol, SMTP), remote logins (Telnet), and remote user interaction (talk, finger).

Almost all these development machines were running the UNIX operating system, a system particularly suited for software development and much favored at research institutions and universities where the programmers could actually work with the source code to the operating system itself (which was quite a difference from such stalwarts as IBM and DEC, who wouldn't even talk about the operating system internals, let alone open the system up to university students!). Further, most of these machines were Digital machines, mostly VAX and PDP series minicomputers, with UNIX replacing the then-aging VMS operating system, mostly due to its greater flexibility.

The TCP/IP protocol was also developed significantly with Department of Defense ARPA funds. The story goes that there were two groups developing competing TCP/IP protocols, one at UC Berkeley and one at AT&T, and to everyone's surprise, the Berkeley version was chosen by ARPA as the standard. The machines that were used at UC Berkeley were UNIX machines, and AT&T's Bell Laboratories was the birthplace of that operating system.

Without doubt, one of the changes that has occurred on the Internet in the last few years is that the number of non-UNIX machines has dramatically increased, as programmers and users on other platforms require the many networking services available on UNIX-based TCP/IP networks.

Much of the continued evolution of the Internet and its tools and interfaces are still UNIX-based, with the UNIX systems offering the combination of price and performance that allow them to work with the volumes of information flying through the wire without stopping the user from working on his or her own tasks. On an inexpensive UNIX workstation, for example, a user can work on a word processing document without any delays, never realizing that an electronic-mail based server, Gopher server, and FTP archive are all actively being utilized simultaneously.

Table of Contents | Previous Section | Next Section