Large Unix programs were historically not all that portable between Unixes

September 1, 2021

I recently read Ruben Schade's I’m not sure that UNIX won (via) and had a number of reactions to it. One of them is about the portability of programs among Unixes, which is one of the issues that Schade sees as a problem today. Unfortunately, I have bad news for people who are yearning for the (good) old days. The reality is that significant Unix programs have never been really portable between Unix variants, and if anything today is at an all-time high for program portability by default between Unixes.

Back in the days (the late 1980s and early 1990s specifically), one of the things that Larry Wall was justly famous for was his large, intricate, and comprehensive configure scripts that made rn and Perl build on pretty much any Unix and Unix-like system that you could name. Wall's approach of configure scripts was generalized and broadened by GNU Autoconf, GNU Autotools, and so on. These tools did not automatically make your complex programs portable between different Unixes, but they gave you the tools that you could use to sort out how to achieve that, and to automatically detect various things you needed to do to adopt to the local Unix (and if you used some of them, you automatically got pointed to the right include directories and the right libraries to link with).

People did not create and use all of these tools because they wanted a complex build process or to write lots of extra (and often obscure) code. They used these systems because they had to, because there were all sorts of variations between the Unix systems of the time. Some of these variations were in where programs were and what their capabilities were (the POSIX compatible Bourne shell wasn't always /bin/sh, for example). Others were in what functions were available, what include files you used to get access to them, and what libraries you had to link in.

(Hands up everyone who ever had to add some variation of '-lsocket -lnsl -lresolv' to their compile commands on some Unix to use hostname resolution and make IP connections.)

You might hope that POSIX would have made all of this obsolete in old Unixes. Not so. First, not all Unixes were fully POSIX compatible in the first place; some only added partial POSIX compatibility over time (I'm not sure any were really POSIX compatible very fast). Second, even when Unixes such as Solaris had a POSIX compatibility layer, they didn't necessarily make it the default; you could have to go out of your way to get POSIX compatible utilities, functions, include files, and libraries. And finally, not everything that substantial Unix programs wanted to use was even covered by POSIX (or free of issues when implemented in practice).

All of this incompatibility was encouraged by the commercial Unix vendors because it was in their cold blooded self interest to get people to make their current programs hard to build and run outside of Solaris, IRIX, HP-UX, OSF/1, or whatever. The more of a pain it would be to move to another vendor's Unix, the less chance that vendor could steal your customer from you by offering a cheaper deal. In a related development, Unix vendors spent a long time invoking the specter of "backwards compatibility" as a reason for never changing their systems to make them more POSIX compatible by default, to modernize their command line tools, and so on.

The situation with modern open source Unixes is much better. They are mostly POSIX compatible by default, and Unixes having converged on a relatively standard set of include files, standard library functions, and so on. There are variations between Unixes (including between different libc implementations on Linux) and between current and older releases, but for the most part the differences are much smaller today, to the degree that a lot of the work that GNU Autoconf does by default feels quaint and time-wasting.

(Where there are major differences they tend to be in areas related to system management and system level concerns, instead of user level C programs like rn.)

PS: Unix programs tended to be much more portable between the same Unix on different architectures, but relatively few old Unix vendors ever had such environments, especially for long. And let us not talk about the move from 32-bit to 64-bit environments, or the issue that was known as the time as "all the world's a Vax" (experienced as people began to move to Suns, which among other differences had a different endianness).

Written on 01 September 2021.
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Last modified: Wed Sep 1 22:06:05 2021
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