Unix/Linux Won & Are Now The Rules of The Road
Mike Levin is a 20+ year veteran of the SEO industry who has seen many changes in technology over the years. From his experience as a student intern at Commodore to his current knowledge of Intel Management Engine (IME) and its implications for privacy, Mike has a deep understanding of Unix/Linux and its ever-growing presence in the tech world. Read his blog post to learn more about his journey and the impact of Unix/Linux.
Unix/Linux: The Unstoppable Force in Tech
By Michael Levin
Friday, February 10, 2023
Okay, wow. It’s Feb 10th and my last day in Ziff Davis Audience Development department. I guess it’s okay to talk about now because another division of ZD was interested in my when my department got eliminated. And that division is… Drum roll please, MOZ! Okay, write this blog post as if people who know you (and should know you) are reading it.
Hi, I’m Mike Levin, someone who resisted calling myself an SEO back 1n 1997 and 98 when I made my first static site generator (SSG) akin to Jekyll, but instead of just stylizing pages it sliced & diced raw data formats like XML into individual linked-together pages using page titles as the anchor text in previous / next buttons. For anyone familiar with the early days of SEO, you can imagine how effective an artistically automated link-shaper was in driving traffic, and so I ended up having to call myself an SEO because that’s where the best job opportunities were.
So I moved to New York City. I did not productize my slice & dice system, but I did take jobs where that gave me an edge. It was not only that I had super-cool proprietary tools of my own, but by having them I was better able to judge the SEO goodness of client sites. Oh, I also created a tracking system akin to Google Analytics and a whole web-based content management system akin to Ruby on Rails or Django which I used in conjunction with slice & dice. Having total command over my own set of tools made me uniquely qualified to see what was good and bad about client sites and how they might improve.
And so began my long career of always developing in-house tools for my own use and for use on my SEO-clients, but never for general release to the public. Well, I can’t say never. One of them, an outgrowth of the Google Analytics-like product became HitTail, a Web 2.0-era writing-topic suggestion tool for bloggers. It had a 15 year run, being passed from owner to owner (I didn’t own it) until it was no longer profitable. It just didn’t have my tender love and care for those 15 years as I moved onto other things.
Those other things, in addition to just staying gainfully employed in NYC, getting married, having a kid, buying a NYC apartment, included repositioning myself onto new technological tools. I grew up in the era of the first home game-machines like the Atari 2600 (or VCS for my non-US friends), missed the Commodore 64 and instead got on the flash-in-the-pan Coleco Adam. My Dad talked me into it because it was a better deal, and thus started my illustrious career of falling in love with tech destined to go rapidly obsolete, which was particularly damaging to me because I’m not a particularly fast learner.
Being a slow learner is not bad. It often means you learn slow but learn well. But when you’re that type of person, you need what you’ve learned to last for a long enough time to be worth it. I rely a lot on my muscle memory like one uses when driving. Now imagine the rules of driving changing like which side of the road you drive on, what traffic lights mean and such. This is how tech keeping going obsolete so fast messed with me. It messed me up, man. And it only got worse with me eventually falling in love with the Amiga computer and going to work for Commodore as a stars-in-my-eyes student intern. Can you imagine Commodore going under during that time? Ugh!
Mismatch! Mismatch! Mismatch! Early in life it was the fault of the circumstances of my birth and my parents and such. After a certain point continuing this pattern was my own fault. Who knows when the crossover occurs, but I suspect it’s somewhere around 12 years old, the age of my child right now. At 6 years old I believe that your own autonomy allows you to come up with survival strategies to just get along in a life where many things are beyond your control. In another 6 years, you’ve pieced a lot together and think you know a thing or two about life and take control in what little ways you can: circle of friends, media you consume, etc. But in another 6 years, at eighteen years old, you’re taking the reins fully for yourself.
By this time, I tried my hand at all sorts of programming. All the cool scripting languages I learned on the Adam and the Amiga were gone. The C programming language defeated me several times. My mind just isn’t made for it. I like things much more like driving a car, where even though the tech from car to car my vary a little, generally most things stay the same. As dangerous as driving is, it would be far worse if all the rules of the road changed every half-decade or so, like they do in tech. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
Little did I know it, but I was born less than 50-miles and a few months from the birth of Unix, by Ken Thompson working in the AT&T Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Unix was in very rough shape then and I was only zero-years old, so you can hardly blame me for recognizing it for what it was. Over the years I flirted with Unix, mostly through Commodore which did the same, but the Amiga computer was my love. Thankfully, much about the Amiga was lifted from Unix via the TRIPOS.
TRIPOS was developed by PSION (now Symbian) in the United Kingdom and was used as the basis for the AmigaOS, the operating system for the Commodore Amiga computers. TRIPOS was known for its advanced multitasking capabilities, which allowed multiple tasks to run simultaneously and share system resources, including the CPU, memory, and I/O devices. This made it possible to run multiple applications and perform multiple tasks at the same time on the Amiga, which was a key selling point of the computer. TRIPOS was also widely used in other computer systems, such as the Acorn Archimedes, and is considered to be an early and important example of a preemptive multitasking operating system.
TRIPOS was developed in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during a time when Unix was becoming increasingly popular. The developers of TRIPOS were familiar with Unix and incorporated many of its ideas and concepts into their operating system. TRIPOS was considered to be one of the most Unix-like operating systems of its time and was state-of-the-art, thus the AmigaOS was none too shabby, and I consider myself profoundly lucky to have encountered both the Amiga and the people surrounding it during those formative years from about 18 years old to 21 years old when I graduated college and my dad died. Oh the shit hit the fan. I took over his check cashing store during which time I had to shoot a robber and was sent to jail for having a gun even though the license I applied for six months earlier finally arrived while I was awaiting trial.
Now how’s that for story telling? AI isn’t going to generate real-life experiences for you. My path to where I am now at fifty-two years old has been a long and circuitous one. I am what you might call “well seasoned”. But unlike sour old bitterlings, I feel refreshed, renewed and indeed vindicated that the Unix-like OS stuff I learned long ago has now won. It won in the form of Linux. And it won specifically because Microsoft has begun shipping Windows with Linux basically built-in. Windows doesn’t technically ship with Linux, but the underlying “NT” technology.
NT supports hardware abstraction, which allows the operating system to run on a wide range of computers with different hardware configurations using a hardware abstraction layer (HAL). Interestingly, this is exactly the thing that allows Windows systems today to run Linux blended in with Windows proper. This is not a compromised software approach like CygWin (a wonderful earlier product for Unix-like support on Windows) but rather a genuine Linux kernel running as if it were on dedicated Linux hardware.
So if any of you really truly hate Windows know that the shell-game is being played and that Windows might one day be wholly Linux underneath and you wouldn’t even know it. They’ll just one day swap the Windows kernel for the Linux kernel and attach all Windows software to a display manager like Apple did when they switched from proprietary OS9 to Unix OSX. It was brilliant when Apple did it, and it’s going to be brilliant again as Microsoft does it… 20 years later (within 4 years).
All this means Linux won. Unix won, but Linux in particular won because Microsoft chose Ubuntu Linux to be the default Linux on Windows. They could have hardly made any other choice because the onus for doing this is giving developers what they want, and Debian-derived Linuxes (which Ubuntu is) are just so user-friendly compared to their Red Hat Enterprise Linux alternatives. Also, Red Hat and all the distros like CentOS and Fedora are already associated with the IBM-camp. There are many little differences between Unix, Red Hat Linux and Debian Linux, but the biggest one is the software repositories that are used. Red Hat versions use RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) which many people know as yum (Yellowdog Updater Modified). Debian uses the dpkg (Debian Package Manager) which many people know as apt-get (or just apt for Advanced Packaging Tool).
Unix has the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) ports collection used by BSD-based operating systems, such as FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD. BSD-based operating systems were popular in the early days of Unix, but their popularity declined in the 1990s with the rise of Linux. This was in part due to legal battles that challenged the BSD license and made it more difficult for BSD-based systems to compete with Linux, which was licensed under the GPL (General Public License). The GPL license, which required that derivative works be released under the same license, helped to spread Linux quickly and widely. While both Unix and Linux have spread based on their merit, Linux was also accelerated by its license, which encouraged further development and distribution.
Microsoft could have thrown their weight behind YUM, APT or PORTS. They chose APT, as did most of the “non-Enterprise” world. That is, home Linux users mostly use apt because of the vast popularity of the Ubuntu Linux distribution. Even as Ubuntu lost popularity, Linux distributions that are “derived from” Debain (as Ubuntu) was became more and more popular. A notable example is the RaspbianOS for the phenomenally popular and revolutionary $30 Raspberry Pi tiny computer designed to be embedded into projects requiring fully capable general purpose computers. I was the 2nd to unbox the Raspberry Pi on the Internet. The first person was an insider and not a genuine customer. So I was the first Raspberry Pi customer to unbox one on the Net.
Perhaps debating such tiny differences between Unixes and Linuxes is besides the point. It is Unix-like operating systems that won, and they all have enough in common that it equates to the new rules of the road in tech. Deeper down in the hardware there are other rules that have to do with partitioning and managing hardware resources. But those deeper hardware capabilities need an operating system too, which is of course also Unix-like. In fact, that’s where real Unix is perhaps massively more popular than even Linux without you even knowing it.
Intel’s management technology, known as Intel Management Engine (IME), is a separate processor built into Intel CPUs starting with the Sandy Bridge generation, which was released in 2011. The IME runs its own operating system, which is based on a stripped-down version of the MINIX microkernel. AMD has its own version and who knows what Apple does, but you can bet it’s something similar.
The role of Unix in the IME is to provide a secure environment for system management tasks such as power management, system monitoring, and remote management. The IME operates independently of the main operating system and runs even when the main system is turned off or in a low-power state, which allows it to perform tasks such as monitoring the system for potential security threats and updating the BIOS.
IME has a full network stack, so it can call back to mama or let others into your computer even while it’s off. Yeah, this raises crazy-concerning backdoor privacy issues, but it also hits the point home: Unix/Linux won. You don’t only get Linux with every new Windows system, but you get a bonus Unix running right now on your computer while you read this (if on desktop) that you’ll never see or know about. If you’re reading this on mobile, you don’t gave IME, but you definitely are on Unix/Linux and your privacy issues are even worse but that’s besides the point.
Point is Unix/Linux won on so many levels that if you’re investing your knowledge and & know-how into anything else, you’re waiting to be obsoleted. What won’t ever be obsolete? Unix/Linux. It’s the pee in the pool of tech. And there’s plenty of things under the Unix/Linux umbrella that are the everyday tools of professional tech life.