PCs are (or can be) Unix workstations

March 5, 2010

My entry about the end of Sun was posted on Hacker News and garnered a comment thread. In two comments that I'm condensing and excerpting here, HN user rbanffy wrote (in context):

There is a huge difference between a glorified PC and a Unix workstation.


Unix workstations were built to run Unix. A Mac pro is essentially a PC. [...]

The difference looks subtle now, when every desktop computer is essentially the same. For those who lived through this, like the writer of the original article, it was blatantly obvious.

Since my name is being invoked, I am going to speak up: I reject this view. A Unix workstation is no more and no less than a machine, dedicated to a single user, that runs Unix with a graphical environment. The idea that PCs cannot be Unix workstations is the same kind of elitism and mythology that people deride in Lisp fanatics, and it is clearly wrong. To argue otherwise is to use a very selective reading of the history of Unix workstations, one that ends the moment that Unix workstation companies started making products using PC components and PC companies started making 'Unix workstation' grade components usable on PCs.

It is also to use a selective reading of the history of the marketing of Unix workstations. Very few Unix workstations were sold as ultra high performance machines; most were sold as 'fast enough and cheap enough', and quite often this was not very fast and as cheap as possible to run Unix. In fact, at the height of the Unix workstation era you could routinely find workstations without floating point hardware.

Yes, the Unix workstations generally worked with less sweat and effort. This was for the same reason that Apple Macs just work, namely that the workstation vendor controlled both hardware and software and so could closely integrate them.

Yes, Unix workstations originally had better performance than PCs. This was because PC performance was terrible, in fact all performance was terrible, and people had to pay extra for the ability to run Unix at (marginally) acceptable speeds. Both parts changed over time; by the end of the era of dedicated Unix workstations, they were worse than PCs for the same (or more) cost (cf). One major reason that the march of the cheap slaughtered the dedicated Unix workstation vendors was that PCs got good enough to be good Unix workstations.

(Unix vendors could still build $10,000 machines that performed better, but it turned out that people by and large didn't need and weren't interested in that much performance; once they could get what they wanted and needed for less than $10,000, they stopped paying $10,000 for machines. Late-period Unix workstation vendor marketing tried desperately to persuade people that they really did need that performance, for obvious reasons.)

Written on 05 March 2010.
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Last modified: Fri Mar 5 01:09:18 2010
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