Quick guide

This is a picture of my son when he was young.

In 1963, ANSI defined the 7-bit ASCII standard code for characters. At the same time IBM had developed the 8-bit EBCDIC code which allowed for up to 256 characters, rather than 128 characters for ASCII. It is thought that the 7-bit code was used for the standard as it was reckoned that eight holes in punched paper tape would weaken the tape. Thus the world has had to use the 7-bit ASCII standard, which is still popular in the days of global communications, and large-scale disk storage.
Isn't that interesting?


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Rambling on Processes and Scheduling

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Itís amazing to think that UNIX  has survived over the years, even after it was tipped to takeover the operating system  market from DOS  in the mid-1980s. So what happened? Why has it survived? Why donít more people use it? Well itís survived because itís totally robust and reliable. Itís well trusted and relatively secure. It has always supported networking. AndÖ So, whatís the problem? Well its big problem has always been that it requires a skilled computer administrator to set it up and keep it running. There is no way that most home users, or small businesses could support this level of support. Another problem is that it is very difficult to recruit, and keep, good UNIX administrators. I have seen this first hand, as I used to be responsible for an Electronic Computer Aided Design (ECAD) network. It ran extremely well and was based on Apollo and HP  workstations. Unfortunately we started to lose our system administrators as they were offered much higher salaries than my university could not afford. Soon we were left with no properly trained UNIX administrators. For a while the system ran reasonably well and was patched when something went wrong, but it was not properly maintained, and there were no backups. Soon the on-line CD  manuals became unavailable, next printer queue kept failing, next some of the computers failed to log users in, and so on, until eventually there was a lightning strike which sent an electrical spike through the computers. Unfortunately it blew up one of the disk drives. The network never really recovered from this, as the damaged drive was the one that contained most of the ECAD software, which was so complicated to setup it was almost impossible to recover its original state. From that day forward my department vowed to move its ECAD software towards PCs, as they were so much easier to setup and administrate. The students could even install software on their computers at home (which in those days were lumbering 80386 -computerís, with 1MB of memory , and a VGA  monitor).

      So ask anyone who has used UNIX  and they will tell you that it tends to be much more reliable than a PC  system using Microsoft  Windows . So why is this? Well itís probably because UNIX machines tend not to be based on legacy type systems, and use peripherals which have robust interfaces, and cost is normally not a major factor.


So why do more users not adopt UNIX ? Well, until recently, it was still very much text command based, where users must enter text commands at a user prompt (just as DOS  did). Most technically trained users actually prefer this type of mechanism to run commands, but home users can never remember the required command, or the options to use with it. Thus UNIX has always been seen as a Ďtechieí operating system , as it allows users to carefully control and monitor the operation of the system. By the way, the word Ďtechieí is my least favorite word, and I think it is totally disrespectful to people who have a deep understanding of technology. Iíve seen messages such as:

ĎThe e-mail system is very easy to use and you can press the mouse key to read your messages if you want. For you techies, it is based on a POP-3 server

ĎWe have changed the cables in the campus (for the techies, they use Cat-5  cable ).í

Itís as if people with a technical knowledge are some alien force who would take over the planet if they had half a chance. Maybe we should, just for the fun of it. Where would the Company Directors be if the Ďtechiesí brought down their entire IT infrastructure, or where would Stock Market Dealers be if the Ďtechiesí crashed the stock market computer (or even failed to back up the data  at regular intervals), or where would the Government  be if they did not have computer systems which kept track of taxes, and made payments. So, need it go on? I donít think so. With the Internet , electronic mail , data communications, and so on, it is really the Ďtechiesí who have the power. So the next time you see an e-mail with the word Ďtechieí in it, immediately put it in your recycle bin, and then trample on it a few times. In fact, just setup your electronic mail system to automatically delete any messages with the word in it. Please don't call us 'techies'. 

Okay, Iím sorry. Back to UNIX . So, in the face of the all-powerful Microsoft  Windows , what has saved UNIX from an early grave? Well apart from Sun  Microsystems , it must be Linux , which guides the user through the steps of setting up the operating system . With a basic PC , you can end up with a WWW  server , an FTP  server, a TELNET  server, an electronic mail  server, a domain name server, and so on. But, its big problem is that it doesnít have the same support for peripheral devices as Microsoft Windows has. Iíve had to field lots of questions from students who could not setup their networking card or their video  adaptor to properly install (me too!). My advice was always: Ďuse an older version  of the device, as itís more likely to be supportedí. But some people love all these problems. Microsoft Windows is really like buying a video with a big button  that says PLAY, TUNE STATIONS, FORWARD, REWIND and another that says RECORD. For most people this is all the functionality they require. Others would like to be able to change the way that the video recorder operates, such as having the following buttons: PAUSE, FAST PLAY, MANUAL STATION TUNING, MONITOR SIGNAL STRENGTH, and so on.

      So where would we be without UNIX ? Well I donít think that the Internet  would have even existed without it. UNIX carefully allowed TCP  and IP  to grow, adding all the other services that they required. And where did WWW  browsers come from? And distributed processing and distributed file system s ? Oh, and electronic mail ? And TELNET ? And FTP ?  Well, Microsoft  Windows  depends on the support of the dollars that it generates which go to fund software developers and vendors to add support for new device driver s. Linux , though, depends on individuals who, for the love of computing  and the belief that there should be an alternative to Microsoft Windows, decide that they would like to develop a driver for a certain device. This type of system will always lag behind a commercial system, as a developer who sits in a research laboratory on a big salary and has eight hours every day to spend on it will, on average, produce better software than a developer who sets up a lab in a little room in their own home, who has coffee stains on the keyboard and modem cable  that is slung around the doorway (or is it?).

© W. Buchanan, 2000