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Volume 1, Issue 2
October 2001

Outline List

In This Issue

On the Road to Smarter Highways

Your Wish is the Tele-Actor's Command

Lego Robot Passes Go, Collects Prize

Making the Human Body More Hospitable

Berkeley UNIX and the Birth of Open-Source Software


Lab Notes, Research from the College of Engineering

Berkeley Engineering: Changing Our World

Berkeley UNIX and the Birth of Open-Source Software

Bill Joy

Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, spent hours tricking out code for the UNIX operating system as a Berkeley Engineering graduate student. Sun Microsystems photo

In 1969, UC Berkeley electrical engineering graduate Kenneth Thompson and his Bell Laboratories colleague Dennis Ritchie wanted to play a computer game called "Space Travel" on a dusty old mainframe computer. To do it, the two were forced to write a new operating system for the machines. The end result was UNIX, still the industry standard operating system, in various flavors, for workstation and networked computing and a key component in the Internet's infrastructure.

Three years after Bell Laboratories released the first commercial version of UNIX in 1971, UC Berkeley computer science professor Bob Fabry obtained a copy of the $99 operating system to cut costs in setting up the campus' computing resources and, of course, for his students' experimentation. These were hardcore hackers in the original sense of the word - individuals who use technical know-how to push a computer to its limits and beyond. Spearheaded by graduate student Bill Joy, who went on to co-found Sun Microsystems, Fabry's students spent infinite hours tricking out Thompson and Ritchie's original code with new features. (Coincidentally, Thompson returned to Berkeley that same year as a visiting professor on sabbatical from Bell Labs.)

Early in 1977, responding to requests for copies of their tricked-out version of the operating system, Joy released Berkeley UNIX under the official moniker BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). While Joy charged a small fee for copies of BSD, it was essentially available to anyone who wanted it, enabling a world of hackers to improve on his group's improvements. Those upgrades were then filtered by Joy and his team for incorporation into future releases. This revolutionary paradigm in software distribution is now known as Open Source - the source code, the raw programming behind the software, is accessible for anyone to build upon and change.

Almost immediately, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency became BSD buffs, enabling Fabry to negotiate the funding of additional research and the formation of the Computer Science Research Group at the University. One of the CSRG's tasks was outfitting BSD with a way for BSD-running computers to talk with each other over ARPANET, the governmental predecessor to the Internet. Rising to the occasion, Bill Joy created an elegant framework for how Arpanet computers could interconnect and integrated the TCP/IP protocol, the lingua franca of today's Internet, into Berkeley UNIX.

After legal battles in the early 1990s with an AT&T (formerly Bell Labs) subsidiary, BSD became truly free. Today, with its direct descendants behind Web sites like Yahoo! and Microsoft Hotmail, Berkeley UNIX is holding its ground against the wildly popular UNIX derivative Linux in the battle for industry dominance.

From AT&T Owned to Freely Redistributable:
BSD UNIX: Power to the people, from the code:
UNIX BSD Information:
The Open Source Initiative:

Lab Notes is published online by the Public Affairs Office of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering. The Lab Notes mission is to illuminate groundbreaking research underway today at the College of Engineering that will dramatically change our lives tomorrow.

Lab Notes is written by David Pescovitz.
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© 2001 UC Regents. Updated 9/19/01.