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20 Years of Berkeley Unix: From AT&T-Owned to Freely Redistributable

by Marshall Kirk McKusick

Originally published in Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, 1st Edition, January 1999.

Early History

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie presented the first Unix paper at the Symposium on Operating Systems Principles at Purdue University in November 1973. Professor Bob Fabry, of the University of California at Berkeley, was in attendance and immediately became interested in obtaining a copy of the system to experiment with at Berkeley.

At the time, Berkeley had only large mainframe computer systems doing batch processing, so the first order of business was to get a PDP-11/45 suitable for running with the then-current Version 4 of Unix. The Computer Science Department at Berkeley, together with the Mathematics Department and the Statistics Department, were able to jointly purchase a PDP-11/45. In January 1974, a Version 4 tape was delivered and Unix was installed by graduate student Keith Standiford.

Although Ken Thompson at Purdue was not involved in the installation at Berkeley as he had been for most systems up to that time, his expertise was soon needed to determine the cause of several strange system crashes. Because Berkeley had only a 300-baud acoustic-coupled modem without auto answer capability, Thompson would call Standiford in the machine room and have him insert the phone into the modem; in this way Thompson was able to remotely debug crash dumps from New Jersey.

Many of the crashes were caused by the disk controller's inability to reliably do overlapped seeks, contrary to the documentation. Berkeley's 11/45 was among the first systems that Thompson had encountered that had two disks on the same controller! Thompson's remote debugging was the first example of the cooperation that sprang up between Berkeley and Bell Labs. The willingness of the researchers at the Labs to share their work with Berkeley was instrumental in the rapid improvement of the software available at Berkeley.

Though Unix was soon reliably up and running, the coalition of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Statistics began to run into problems; Math and Statistics wanted to run DEC's RSTS system. After much debate, a compromise was reached in which each department would get an eight-hour shift; Unix would run for eight hours followed by sixteen hours of RSTS. To promote fairness, the time slices were rotated each day. Thus, Unix ran 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. one day, 4 p.m. to midnight the next day, and midnight to 8 a.m. the third day. Despite the bizarre schedule, students taking the Operating Systems course preferred to do their projects on Unix rather than on the batch machine.

Professors Eugene Wong and Michael Stonebraker were both stymied by the confinements of the batch environment, so their INGRES database project was among the first groups to move from the batch machines to the interactive environment provided by Unix. They quickly found the shortage of machine time and the odd hours on the 11/45 intolerable, so in the spring of 1974, they purchased an 11/40 running the newly available Version 5. With their first distribution of INGRES in the fall of 1974, the INGRES project became the first group in the Computer Science department to distribute their software. Several hundred INGRES tapes were shipped over the next six years, helping to establish Berkeley's reputation for designing and building real systems.

Even with the departure of the INGRES project from the 11/45, there was still insufficient time available for the remaining students. To alleviate the shortage, Professors Michael Stonebraker and Bob Fabry set out in June 1974, to get two instructional 11/45's for the Computer Science department's own use. Early in 1975, the money was obtained. At nearly the same time, DEC announced the 11/70, a machine that appeared to be much superior to the 11/45. Money for the two 11/45s was pooled to buy a single 11/70 that arrived in the fall of 1975. Coincident with the arrival of the 11/70, Ken Thompson decided to take a one-year sabbatical as a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, his alma mater. Thompson, together with Jeff Schriebman and Bob Kridle, brought up the latest Unix, Version 6, on the newly installed 11/70.

Also arriving in the fall of 1975 were two unnoticed graduate students, Bill Joy and Chuck Haley; they both took an immediate interest in the new system. Initially they began working on a Pascal system that Thompson had hacked together while hanging around the 11/70 machine room. They expanded and improved the Pascal interpreter to the point that it became the programming system of choice for students because of its excellent error recovery scheme and fast compile and execute time.

With the replacement of Model 33 teletypes by ADM-3 screen terminals, Joy and Haley began to feel stymied by the constraints of the ed editor. Working from an editor named em that they had obtained from Professor George Coulouris at Queen Mary's College in London, they worked to produce the line-at-a-time editor ex.

With Ken Thompson's departure at the end of the summer of 1976, Joy and Haley begin to take an interest in exploring the internals of the Unix kernel. Under Schriebman's watchful eye, they first installed the fixes and improvements provided on the "fifty changes" tape from Bell Labs. Having learned to maneuver through the source code, they suggested several small enhancements to streamline certain kernel bottlenecks.

Early Distributions

Meanwhile, interest in the error recovery work in the Pascal compiler brought in requests for copies of the system. Early in 1977, Joy put together the "Berkeley Software Distribution." This first distribution included the Pascal system, and, in an obscure subdirectory of the Pascal source, the editor ex. Over the next year, Joy, acting in the capacity of distribution secretary, sent out about thirty free copies of the system.

With the arrival of some ADM-3a terminals offering screen-addressable cursors, Joy was finally able to write vi, bringing screen-based editing to Berkeley. He soon found himself in a quandary. As is frequently the case in universities strapped for money, old equipment is never replaced all at once. Rather than support code for optimizing the updating of several different terminals, he decided to consolidate the screen management by using a small interpreter to redraw the screen. This interpreter was driven by a description of the terminal characteristics, an effort that eventually became termcap.

By mid-1978, the software distribution clearly needed to be updated. The Pascal system had been made markedly more robust through feedback from its expanding user community, and had been split into two passes so that it could be run on PDP-11/34s. The result of the update was the "Second Berkeley Software Distribution," a name that was quickly shortened to 2BSD. Along with the enhanced Pascal system, vi and termcap for several terminals was included. Once again Bill Joy single-handedly put together distributions, answered the phone, and incorporated user feedback into the system. Over the next year nearly seventy-five tapes were shipped. Though Joy moved on to other projects the following year, the 2BSD distribution continued to expand. The final version of this distribution, 2.11BSD, is a complete system used on hundreds of PDP-11's still running in various corners of the world.

VAX Unix

Early in 1978, Professor Richard Fateman began looking for a machine with a larger address space on which he could continue his work on Macsyma (originally started on a PDP-10). The newly announced VAX-11/780 fulfilled the requirements and was available within budget. Fateman and thirteen other faculty members put together an NSF proposal that they combined with some departmental funds to purchase a VAX.

Initially the VAX ran DEC's operating system VMS, but the department had gotten used to the Unix environment and wanted to continue using it. So, shortly after the arrival of the VAX, Fateman obtained a copy of the 32/V port of Unix to the VAX by John Reiser and Tom London of Bell Labs.

Although 32/V provided a Version 7 Unix environment on the VAX, it did not take advantage of the virtual memory capability of the VAX hardware. Like its predecessors on the PDP-11, it was entirely a swap-based system. For the Macsyma group at Berkeley, the lack of virtual memory meant that the process address space was limited by the size of the physical memory, initially 1 megabyte on the new VAX.

To alleviate this problem, Fateman approached Professor Domenico Ferrari, a member of the systems faculty at Berkeley, to investigate the possibility of having his group write a virtual memory system for Unix. Ozalp Babaoglu, one of Ferrari's students, set about to find some way of implementing a working set paging system on the VAX; his task was complicated because the VAX lacked reference bits.

As Babaoglu neared the completion of his first cut at an implementation, he approached Bill Joy for some help in understanding the intricacies of the Unix kernel. Intrigued by Babaoglu's approach, Joy joined in helping to integrate the code into 32/V and then with the ensuing debugging.

Unfortunately, Berkeley had only a single VAX for both system development and general production use. Thus, for several weeks over the Christmas break, the tolerant user community alternately found themselves logging into 32/V and "Virtual VAX/Unix." Often their work on the latter system would come to an abrupt halt, followed several minutes later by a 32/V login prompt. By January, 1979, most of the bugs had been worked out, and 32/V had been relegated to history.

Joy saw that the 32-bit VAX would soon make the 16-bit PDP-11 obsolete, and began to port the 2BSD software to the VAX. While Peter Kessler and I ported the Pascal system, Joy ported the editors ex and vi, the C shell, and the myriad other smaller programs from the 2BSD distribution. By the end of 1979, a complete distribution had been put together. This distribution included the virtual memory kernel, the standard 32/V utilities, and the additions from 2BSD. In December, 1979, Joy shipped the first of nearly a hundred copies of 3BSD, the first VAX distribution from Berkeley.

The final release from Bell Laboratories was 32/V; thereafter all Unix releases from AT&T, initially System III and later System V, were managed by a different group that emphasized stable commercial releases. With the commercialization of Unix, the researchers at Bell Laboratories were no longer able to act as a clearing-house for the ongoing Unix research. As the research community continued to modify the Unix system, it found that it needed an organization that could produce research releases. Because of its early involvement in Unix and its history of releasing Unix-based tools, Berkeley quickly stepped into the role previously provided by the Labs.

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