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Today's Unix: New All Over Again
Pages: 1, 2

Something Borrowed

Though Unix has received support from major corporations such as HP and Sun, it's still the open source developers who spent time creating utilities and tools, as well as working on more portable versions of Unix that kept what was a cryptic and difficult operating system around long enough for it to mature into the powerful, elegant, and user-friendly OS we have today. Unix owes a huge debt to the open source community for providing applications such as those mentioned in the last section.

Need a database for your FreeBSD box? You can download and use MySql for no charge as long as your use is personal. Interested in serving up Web pages? Download and install the number one Web server, Apache. Once Apache is installed, you can develop with Java using Tomcat, or you can use an embedded scripting approach with PHP -- again, downloadable, open source, free software. It's true that many of these products also work on other operating systems, such as Windows. But the concepts behind each began with Unix.

One can literally fill books just trying to list all of the software that's freely available, or available for a small price, and most of it is open source and runs on the majority of Unix platforms.

(If you have a spare day or two, you can access Source Forge and browse through all of the open source projects it manages. In addition, access FreeBSD software at the FreeBSD Web site; Mac OS X downloads at; more on Linux at; and general Unix utilities and tools at the GNU site.

In the last decade, we've also seen a blend of traditional open source effort and corporate management, with releases of Linux such as Red Hat or Mandrake, and Apple's Mac OS X, with its proprietary interface built on an open source Unix known as Darwin. It's this combination of open source effort and corporate support and stability that's taking Unix to the desktop and laptop machines of the world; a move that's taking our old friend out of the basement and giving it new purpose.

Something Blue

One of the first things I tried when I received my new Powerbook was to access the Terminal application and attempt to log in as root using the well-known su -l command. It was then that I discovered that Mac OS X was more than a smart GUI layered on to a Unix kernel -- the integration between the two is much more extensive.

If you've accessed the Terminal in Mac OS X, then you're most likely aware that the root user is not enabled by default. To enable root, you must access the Netinfo Manager application (from the Finder menu, access Go, then Applications, then Utilities), clicking on the Security menu and then choosing "Authenticate" to authenticate that you're the computer's administrator. Once authenticated, you can then enable or disable the root user.

Having to manually enable root is just one of the many twists to the integration of Unix (Darwin) with Apple's sophisticated user interface, known as Aqua. The reason for the disabled root is security -- if the traditional superuser is disabled, it's much more difficult to crack into the Mac OS X kernel functionality and wreak havoc on the system. Since most Mac users will never access the command line, or will ever need true root access, a decision was made to disable it by default.

You'll bump into another twistie when you attempt to compile downloaded software, even downloaded software that makes use of the automated configuration tools. Chances are you'll run into an error similar to the following:

configure: error: installation or configuration
 problem: C compiler cannot create executables

This less-than-helpful message occurs because you have to specifically install developer tools that come on a separate disk from the Apple Mac OS X installation disk.

In spite of the differences you might encounter working through the Aqua user interface, one common connection between this new environment and more traditional Unix flavors is your ability to use X Window (X11)-based software within the Mac OS X environment, even though the two could be considered competitive GUIs.

I wrote this article using OpenOffice, an open source office application that's freely available for Linux, Solaris, and Windows. Recently, the OpenOffice organization released a beta version of the application for Mac OS X. Rather than attempt to port OpenOffice directly into Aqua, the organization took an interim step and ported the source to Darwin with a X Window user interface. The next step once the first port is successfully tested will be to port to Apple's Quartz graphical interface, and finally to Aqua.

To run OpenOffice, I needed to download and install an X Window system, and it just so happens there's one available -- XDarwin. Additionally, there's a X11 window manager that works with XDarwin -- OroborOSX. To install both, it was literally a matter of downloading the packages, uncompressing them with Stuffit, and double-clicking on each installation package -- first XDarwin and then OroborOSX. No muss or fuss with paths or parameters or settings of any form (based on default installation). Once the X Window environment was in place, I then used the same procedure with OpenOffice. The total time to download and install all three packages was less than fifteen minutes; a shorter amount of time then it takes to install a certain other office application product. A person could get used to this.

Blue seems to be a lucky color with Unix, because Red Hat's newest Linux installation, Red Hat Linux 8.0, now comes with a spiffy new GUI the company calls Bluecurve. Having installed Linux many times over the years, I was relieved when the installation program was able to detect and configure all of my peripherals, including my wireless mouse and keyboard. I was also very pleased when I was able to add and configure my wireless network card with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Of course, activating the wireless connection failed at first, and I'm having to do some research to find a solution, and I'll most likely have to do some tweaking to get it to work. But, hey! It wouldn't be Unix if all the challenges were removed, now would it?

Shelley Powers has been working with, and writing about, web technologies--from the first release of JavaScript to the latest graphics and design tools--for more than 12 years. Her recent O'Reilly books have covered the semantic web, Ajax, JavaScript, and web graphics.

O'Reilly & Associates recently released (October 2002) Unix Power Tools, 3rd Edition.

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