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Unix and Linux

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In computing terms, Unix is old. Effectively it is the granddaddy of all network operating systems. Developed initially by AT&T labs in the early 1970s, Unix was designed as a network operating system for computer scientists by computer scientists. Rather than having a graphical interface, command-line utilities with short, often meaningless names were, and still are, used to manage the system. It was fast, clean, and purposeful. Pretty was not a requirement.

As the product developed, it became a popular choice in universities, colleges, and governmental departments, where the need for a high-performance operating system that ran on a modest level of hardware was greatest. Because of its use in these environments, it became the basis for today's Internet, which is another reason for its continuing level of popularity.

It took some years for the Unix operating system to permeate fully from the educational and governmental institutions into the corporate server room, but it did happen. Businesses that had traditionally run mainframe computers liked the fact that there were versions of Unix that ran on minicomputers and microcomputers, yet still offered high levels of performance and reliability. This fact was the main reason businesses then, as they do today, used Unix as a platform to run very large and often very mission critical applications.

There are many different versions of Unix available, but most of the changes between versions have been subtle. These minor changes have enabled individuals skilled in one version of Unix to learn another version with relative ease. Much of this portability is due to the fact that Unix employs the use of programming languages, particularly C, to create functionality on the system. Anyone becoming involved with Unix from a systems administration perspective will almost certainly have to have a good understanding of the C language and programming principles in general to get on.

In 1994, the entire landscape of the computer industry was changed by a man named Linus Torvalds when he introduced a network operating system kernel called Linux. Nowadays, the low (or no) cost nature of Linux, and the fact that it runs on almost any modern PC, has attracted interest from users everywhere. Another reason that it is gaining such a foothold in the industry is that many hardware and software manufacturers have recognized Linux as a viable operating system and have started to create products that are compatible.

The fact that Unix and Linux are now competing against products such as Windows NT/2000 and Novell NetWare means that they have had to adapt in terms of packaging, marketing, and appearance. Even so, both platforms have managed to remain reasonably true to their roots, remembering that when all is said and done, they have a lot going for them.

More than with any other network operating system, those who choose to learn and become involved with Unix or Linux are joining a community of like minded people, many of whom have a generally unique and "open" view of technology. This sense of community appeals to many people and serves as a valuable tool, especially to those who are new to the IT industry.

Why Use Unix?

Companies usually choose a Unix system for one reason-because they need to. Either they choose it for its unparalleled reliability or because they need a system with the very highest levels of performance. Either way, they get exacdy these features when they install almost any one of the currently available versions of Unix on their systems. However, utilizing Unix is not a simple undertaking. Unix is not an operating system for the fainthearted.

Unlike operating systems like NetWare and Windows NT/2000, Unix systems require a degree of customization, tuning, and configuration to maximize their capabilities. Also, the command-line nature of the operating system does little to soothe the nerves of a small business owner who is looking for a quick way to get up and running. These facts make Unix unattractive to small and medium-sized businesses that have limited technical support available. So, to a large extent, Unix is predominately used in the domains of big business, government, education and those in Internet related businesses.

Very powerful applications, often costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, are written to run on Unix's well understood and robust architecture. Many of these applications are not household names, and you won't find them on the shelf at your local computer store. They are highly specialized applications designed for specific purposes, such as Computer Aided Design (CAD), controlling industrial machinery, and advanced graphics. As stated earlier, businesses use Unix for one reason-because they need to.

However, applications for a Unix system don't have to be expensive. There are literally thousands of applications available, many of which are free, that can be run on a Unix system. They include games, productivity packages, such as word processors and spreadsheets, products for scientific uses, and utilities galore. All of them written to the same basic rules that make Unix computing what it is-make the best use of the hardware and make the best use of the operating system.

Why Use Linux?

Though not as prevalent in a corporate environment as Windows NT, Novell NetWare, or even Unix, Linux is beginning to gain a strong foothold in corporate computing. The fact that Linux runs on hardware that other operating systems cannot lays strongly in its favor, although the increasingly rapid drop in computer hardware costs has begun to negate this advantage somewhat. Linux is a low cost, fully featured, secure, resilient network operating system that provides many, if not all, of the functions a modern business requires. It is particularly suited for operation as a Web server and in Internet security applications, areas that have contributed greatly to the product's overall growth.

For those new to the networking industry, Linux represents a particularly interesting opportunity as more and more businesses want to use it, but often have no Linux related skills already in-house. Although employers may not hire employees directly for their Linux knowledge, it makes an interesting addition to an individual's skill set, especially if the organization has a use for other networking skills that the individual possesses.

For a low cost product, there is nothing cheap about the range of features that Linux provides. However, support by third-party manufacturers may not be as good as that for other operating systems, such as Windows NT. Manufacturers are catching on to the fact that Linux is here to stay, and if they want to stay in the game, they had better start producing compatible products.
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