The Beauty of the Beast

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Most Mac users break the world of computer operating systems down into two camps: Us (the Mac OS) versus Them (Windows). But that black-and-white view of the computer world ignores an operating system you probably rely on every day without knowing it–and one with the promise to turn your Mac into a far more powerful computer than you ever imagined possible.

We're talking about Unix, the operating system that keeps the Internet up and running, poses one of the greatest threats to Microsoft's monopoly, and is poised to sweep into Mac users' lives with the introduction of Mac OS X, expected later this year.

Unix has a reputation for being a scary, complicated system that's the polar opposite of the friendly, easy-to-use Mac OS. And that reputation is somewhat deserved–but that's not the whole story. New versions of Unix that run on Mac hardware are giving slow Power Macs new life by turning them into screaming-fast Internet servers. Apple is also hard at work on the upcoming Mac OS X, making the power of Unix more friendly and appealing to the average Mac user. That's why, even if you've made the solemn vow never to type on a command line, knowing about Unix will help bring the future of the Mac (and perhaps the entire computer industry) into focus for you.

The first thing to understand about Unix is that it's not one single product from one developer, like the Mac OS or Windows. It's more of a specification for an operating system–in addition to the official Unix versions there are countless clones and variants, including one of the most popular ones around, Linux ( ). Linux is a free version that is developed by a group of volunteer programmers on the Internet and has taken the software world by storm–mostly because it's free, it's stable, it isn't controlled by any single monolithic corporation, and it doesn't come from Microsoft. Software giant Corel is even working on a Linux version of its WordPerfect Office suite in an attempt to break Microsoft's dominance in both the operating-system and office-suite markets.

Unix has been evolving since the early 1970s, long before the dawn of personal computers. Thus, Unix wasn't designed to run on personal computers at all–it was designed to run on expensive servers, with users logging in remotely from terminals or low-powered computers. As time has passed, personal computers have evolved to the point that they now can run Unix themselves, rather than just logging in to a remote Unix server. While most of the personal computers using variations of Unix are still Intel-based PCs, the number of Macs running Unix has begun to grow rapidly.

Unix's Face

Unix's basic user interface (called a shell) is about as far from the Mac OS as you can get–it's plain text, just like DOS. Unix doesn't have a built-in graphical user interface like the Mac OS or even Windows. When graphical user interfaces first began their proliferation–still during the days when Unix ran only on servers–researchers at MIT developed X Windows, a framework that lets developers write Unix programs that have a graphical interface.

But while the Mac has the Finder, there's no common face for Unix. Many different programmers have developed many different graphical user interfaces–typically called desktop managers–for Unix. Most of them will be just familiar enough that users can perform basic work, but they're a far cry from the intuitive interface that Mac users have come to expect–partially because there are no cohesive user-interface guidelines for Unix as there are for the Mac.

Unix's Power

So if Unix is complicated and scary, why would any Mac users care to run it on their Macs? The answers are speed and stability. Underneath its complex facade, Unix is a stable, fast operating system that is especially appropriate for use as an Internet server.

In fact, Power Macs that start to feel too slow for the Mac OS can gain new life as Unix servers, hosting Web sites or routing a workgroup's e-mail. Although the Mac OS of today is a precariously balanced construction of code, Unix is designed to do its business as quickly as possible, leaving your computer's processor mostly free to do actual work.

Unix is far more efficient than the Mac OS in the way it manages processing horsepower and memory. Unix uses preemptive multitasking, a system of controlling applications so that no single program can hog all the processor power–but programs that need a lot of power can take priority over ones that are less vital. If you've ever noticed how sluggish your Macintosh can run when some other program is working in the background, you've seen the result of the Mac OS's less efficient cooperative multitasking.

Unix also offers memory protection, a scheme that essentially provides an impenetrable wall around every running program. That way, if one program goes nuts, it not only can't hurt any other program but it can also be shut off without harming your system or forcing you to reboot. If you've ever had to reboot your entire system because of a misbehaving application–and this happens to every single Mac user–you can see what an improvement memory protection is.

As a result, even the slowest Power Mac can be shockingly fast and stable when it's running Linux. And that means organizations can keep putting those computers to use long after they would've otherwise been written off as useless.

Sure, Unix's strengths sound great–but its weaknesses (for example, its lack of a consistent, graphical user interface; its complexity; and certain security issues) loom even larger. Thankfully, Apple has decided to merge the best of Unix and the Mac OS, and the result is Mac OS X. Apple has made it clear that the version of Mac OS X intended for regular Mac users will provide the same friendly Mac interface we use every day–perhaps with some new innovations. But hidden away beneath the surface will be Unix, providing the speed and stability that Unix built its reputation on.

The Promise of OS X

If Apple does its job right, using Mac OS X will feel like using the Mac OS and not some Mac-Unix hybrid. The same can't be said of Mac OS X Server, Apple's new $999 server operating system that's an intermediate step between the Unix-rooted NextStep environment and the Mac OS.

Apple is billing Mac OS X Server as a powerful software package for Web serving, and it's hard to argue against this: because of its Unix underpinnings, Mac OS X Server can run Apache, the free Web server software that's the most popular Web server package on the Net. What Mac OS X Server adds to Apache is a user interface–Apple has written Mac-style control panels and assistants to make setting up Apache easier than it would be on, say, a standard Linux system. (Whether it'll be as fast as Apache on Unix is still unknown–at press time, Apple wouldn't allow Macworld to test a prerelease version of OS X Server.) This isn't Apple's first time working with Unix–the company used to offer its own variant of Unix, A/UX.

Whether you want to be prepared to be a Mac OS X power user on the day the new OS is released or you just want to see how fast that old Power Mac of yours can be as an office e-mail, Web, or file server, you can get Unix experience today by running a version of it on your Power Mac.

There are two different ways to run Unix on Macs: either you can run Unix inside the normal Mac OS or you can completely replace the Mac OS with Unix.

Unix Inside

The gentlest way to introduce Unix into a Mac environment is to use the $249 Power MachTen 4.1.1, from Tenon Intersystems ( ). It's a full-blown version of BSD 4.4 Unix, with X Windows, networking capability, development tools, and everything else Unix has, but it runs as a Mac application. This means that you can switch from the Mac universe to Unix with the click of a mouse. The downside of this solution is that MachTen is as vulnerable as any other Mac OS app to the misbehavior of other software.

Despite these limitations, don't be fooled into thinking that MachTen is a Unix emulator, in the same way that Connectix's Virtual PC is a Windows emulator. The Unix software inside MachTen executes instructions native to the Mac's PowerPC chip, meaning that MachTen and its apps run at native speeds. If you're careful not to run too much other stuff on your Mac, using MachTen is a particularly convenient option because of the ease with which you can switch back and forth.

Linux Takeover

Although it's popular to run Linux on Intel-based PCs as an alternative to Windows, there are also two popular versions of Linux that run on Power Macs: MkLinux and LinuxPPC. (Another variant, Yellow Dog Linux [ ], is on the horizon.)

Unlike Power MachTen, both MkLinux and LinuxPPC need to take over your entire Mac when they're running. This means that you have to restart your computer whenever you want to switch between Linux and the Mac OS. You'll also have to dedicate at least 500MB of hard-disk space to a Linux installation. Fortunately, however, MkLinux and LinuxPPC are similar enough that despite the differences between the two, both can run the same apps.


First introduced in 1995, MkLinux is the oldest Linux for the Mac, and its development was originally funded by Apple. It's completely free–you can download it from For those who don't want to spend time downloading its multihundred-megabyte bulk, you can purchase a copy for $50 from Prime Time Freeware ( ). This gets you two CDs plus an informative book about MkLinux; if you want just the software on CD, it's $20. That tome has most of the documentation that you'd otherwise spend a lot of time hunting around for on the Net. At that price, it's a steal.

MkLinux's main advantage is hardware compatibility: it runs on just about every Power Mac out there, including the original 6100, 7100, and 8100 series. Since those are the PowerPC-based Macs that are most likely to be declared too old to use, they're also the most likely candidates for conversion into Linux-based systems. The result: Macs once slated for the giveaway pile can provide solid performance in their new lives.


The other Mac-based Linux is LinuxPPC ( ). Unlike MkLinux, whose evolution has floundered, LinuxPPC is under very active development, bringing continuous improvements in usability, speed, and reliability with it. LinuxPPC can also be downloaded for free, but it's much more convenient to purchase the $32 set of two CDs that contains all the software and source code.

LinuxPPC is leaner and meaner than MkLinux. Its developers have taken advantage of the more open systems that Apple designed and built in the days of Mac clones. The LinuxPPC team has created a Linux that is even more streamlined–and therefore faster–than MkLinux.

Unfortunately, LinuxPPC runs only on Power Macs that have a PCI bus. The good news is that it does work on all PowerPC-based systems other than the 6100/7100/8100 family; its Performa siblings; or the PowerBook 1400, 2400, and 5300 models. (The definitive list of supported hardware is at It's a pity that the first Power Mac generation is left out, but unless Apple provides the LinuxPPC team with the necessary documentation, MkLinux will remain the only option for those Macs.

Perhaps the most important thing about LinuxPPC is its attention to making Linux as painless to install as possible. The latest version of LinuxPPC, release 5.0, will include a brand-new graphical installer that will help you set up Linux on your Power Mac fairly easily. You can even set Linux to boot directly into an X Windows graphical user interface rather than a scary command-line interface, if you so desire.

However, all these improvements to the process don't mean that running LinuxPPC is as easy as running a Mac–Linux is still something for people with a techy mentality. And much more than is the case with computers running the Mac OS, Unix-based systems are vulnerable to attack if you're not careful. Unix will often load a number of server applications invisibly and by default. If you're planning on running a Linux server that's accessible to the whole Internet, you must learn a bit more about Unix system administration than if you are just setting up a local workgroup server.

And while there are only a few general-use Linux applications out there, the numbers are growing. You can run Netscape Communicator ( ) on LinuxPPC, and Applix ( ) will soon offer a version of its Applixware suite of business apps for LinuxPPC. One by one, the barriers to getting started with Unix are disappearing. Hopefully, by the release of Mac OS X they will have faded away completely.

Unix on Power Mac: Where to Get It
Company Product Price Phone Comments
LinuxPPC LinuxPPC Release 4 $32* 414/427-8555 Fast and stable; doesn't work on NuBus Power Macs.
Prime Time Freeware MkLinux DR3 $20** 408/433-9662 Compatible with old Power Macs; slightly slower than LinuxPPC.
Tenon Intersystems Power MachTen 4.1.1 $249 805/963-6983 Runs within the Mac OS; susceptible to Mac OS crashes.
*Also available as a free download from . **Also available as a free download from ; two-CD set plus book, $50.

Unix definitely isn't something to be afraid of; instead, it's something to be curious about. Its performance tweaks make it a faster, more reliable operating system than the Mac OS. Until Mac OS X arrives, you'll have to forfeit some ease of use if you want to give Unix a try. Whether you're just interested in experimenting with the new Linux operating system that everyone's talking about or you're actively preparing for Mac OS X, you have lots of options today for running Unix on your current Power Macintosh.

And although Apple has committed to keeping the "classic" Mac OS alive well into the next millennium, the long-term future of the Mac OS is based on Unix technology. If Apple's engineers do their job right, regular users won't have to know about Unix buzzwords or see its command-line countenance in order to reap the rewards of its power and stability.

April 1999 page: 80

Unix isn't just one operating system–it's a term that's often used to describe all sorts of operating systems. The original Unix began life as a research project at AT&T's Bell Labs in late 1969; Unix's built-in clock considers January 1, 1970, the dawn of time. The University of California, Berkeley was also working on a version of Unix, based on AT&T's project, that ultimately saw the light of day in 1975. Berkeley's Unix was known as BSD, short for Berkeley System (or Software or Standard, depending on who you ask) Distribution, and was intended for higher-education, noncommercial use. Over time, AT&T released several revisions of its Unix; the one that really made its mark was called System V.

The Unix name has been a source of legal contention, and its trademark has changed hands several times during various corporate purchases and mergers. Because of licensing restrictions, intellectual-property rights, and also technical preferences, several Unix clones have been developed from scratch over the years, specifically to allow them to evolve independently of the large legal entities that owned the rights to the Unix name and the operating system.

Minix was one such clone, as is Linux, which began development in 1991 under the guidance of then-student Linus Torvalds. In the years since, Linux has remained open-source software–all of its source code is freely accessible to users and modifiable by anyone who would choose to do so.

There are also a number of open-source BSD derivatives out there–FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD to name but a few. While they haven't had the public acclaim that Linux has enjoyed, each has its own fans; for example, Yahoo uses FreeBSD on all its servers. Since the different BSDs and Linux are open-source systems, there is occasional cross-pollination between the two camps. MkLinux, for example, uses various bits of device-driver code from NetBSD. Apple's Mac OS X Server is even based in part on FreeBSD.–STEPHAN SOMOGYI AND GEOFF DUNCAN

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