Unix is a family of multitasking, multiuser computer operating systems that derive from the original AT&T Unix, development starting in the 1970s at the Bell Labs research center by Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and others.
Unix systems are characterized by a modular design that is sometimes called the "Unix philosophy". According to this philosophy, the operating system should provide a set of simple tools, each of which performs a limited, well-defined function. A unified filesystem (the Unix filesystem) and an inter-process communication mechanism known as "pipes" serve as the main means of communication, and a shell scripting and command language (the Unix shell) is used to combine the tools to perform complex workflows.
At first, Unix was not designed to be portable or for multi-tasking. Later, Unix gradually gained portability, multi-tasking and multi-user capabilities in a time-sharing configuration. Unix systems are characterized by various concepts: the use of plain text for storing data; a hierarchical file system; treating devices and certain types of inter-process communication (IPC) as files; and the use of a large number of software tools, small programs that can be strung together through a command-line interpreter using pipes, as opposed to using a single monolithic program that includes all of the same functionality. These concepts are collectively known as the "Unix philosophy". Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike summarize this in The Unix Programming Environment as "the idea that the power of a system comes more from the relationships among programs than from the programs themselves".
The Unix operating system consists of many libraries and utilities along with the master control program, the kernel. The kernel provides services to start and stop programs, handles the file system and other common "low-level" tasks that most programs share, and schedules access to avoid conflicts when programs try to access the same resource or device simultaneously. To mediate such access, the kernel has special rights, reflected in the distinction of kernel space from user space, the latter being a priority realm where most application programs operate.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the influence of Unix in academic circles led to large-scale adoption of Unix (BSD and System V) by commercial startups, including Sequent, HP-UX, SunOS/Solaris, AIX, and Xenix. In the late 1980s, AT&T Unix System Laboratories and Sun Microsystems developed System V Release 4 (SVR4), which was subsequently adopted by many commercial Unix vendors.
In the late 1980s, an open operating system standardization effort now known as POSIX provided a common baseline for all operating systems; IEEE based POSIX around the common structure of the major competing variants of the Unix system, publishing the first POSIX standard in 1988. In the early 1990s, a separate but very similar effort was started by an industry consortium, the Common Open Software Environment (COSE) initiative, which eventually became the Single UNIX Specification (SUS) administered by The Open Group. Starting in 1998, the Open Group and IEEE started the Austin Group, to provide a common definition of POSIX and the Single UNIX Specification, which, by 2008, had become the Open Group Base Specification.
Unix had a drastically simplified file model compared to many contemporary operating systems: treating all kinds of files as simple byte arrays. The file system hierarchy contained machine services and devices (such as printers, terminals, or disk drives), providing a uniform interface, but at the expense of occasionally requiring additional mechanisms such as ioctl and mode flags to access features of the hardware that did not fit the simple "stream of bytes" model. The Plan 9 operating system pushed this model even further and eliminated the need for additional mechanisms.
Early Unix developers were important in bringing the concepts of modularity and reusability into software engineering practice, spawning a "software tools" movement. Over time, the leading developers of Unix (and programs that ran on it) established a set of cultural norms for developing software, norms which became as important and influential as the technology of Unix itself; this has been termed the Unix philosophy.
Linux distributions, consisting of the Linux kernel and large collections of compatible software have become popular both with individual users and in business. Popular distributions include Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora, SUSE Linux Enterprise, openSUSE, Debian GNU/Linux, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Mandriva Linux, Slackware Linux, Arch Linux and Gentoo.
Trademark names can be registered by different entities in different countries and trademark laws in some countries allow the same trademark name to be controlled by two different entities if each entity uses the trademark in easily distinguishable categories. The result is that Unix has been used as a brand name for various products including bookshelves, ink pens, bottled glue, diapers, hair driers and food containers.