The age of Unix workstations is over. What did we learn? • The Register

Feature When the market for proprietary UNIX workstations collapsed, few vendors survived… and those that did seemed not to learn much from it.

OSnews has an interesting post on “the mass extinction of UNIX workstations,” and makes a some good points. Some of them are interconnected: for instance, while a decade or two back, old UNIX kit was almost worthless and was often being thrown away, now it commands serious prices from collectors – and some things, notably the software to run on the machines, is totally unobtainable these days.

That’s good news if you have the likes of an old SPARCstation in storage: You might be pleasantly surprised at what it’s worth now.

Another big issue, though, is what the knowledge and the skills are worth. There are many people running Linux (and possibly more saliently FreeBSD) servers today who learned and polished their skills on this stuff. There are multiple forms of value in keeping old machines running: educational value, in seeing how things were done. Lessons in performance optimization, resource usage, scalability, and so on. In the 1990s it was not unknown for high end corporate email servers to support tens of thousands of users, in as little memory as a first-gen smartwatch (for instance the first Apple Watch had 512MB). Knowing how to do that is useful knowledge, even now.

If someone wants to restore such machines and keep them running, you would think it is in vendors’ interests to help them. Not just for goodwill, but to help develop the skills of future BOFHs and PFYs who will be running the kit they presumably hope to sell. But as OSnews details, you can’t get even old versions of its own OSes from HP. Nor old Solaris versions from Oracle, not that that is a new issue… But it’s getting worse with time.

OSnews editor Thom Holwerda did get his HP PA-RISC box up and running in the end, and he reports on his pleased surprise at how well some things run, notably including the CDE desktop. That is still very much around and the Reg FOSS desk had a look at it earlier this year. We discovered, to our surprise, that it takes a lot more resources than its own modern recreation NsCDE. To work out why, it would probably help to be able to boot up some of the original OSes this stuff ran on.

Cooperation, it’s a thing

Another lesson from that era is that it’s in everyone’s interest to cooperate. If half a dozen bitterly opposed vendors could cooperate to create CDE, how come now each major Linux distro has a dozen very similar desktops? Especially since most of them are, to say the least, visibly inspired by Windows.

It’s no coincidence that in the waning days of commercial UNIX, most of these proprietary OSes acquired FOSS porting projects, which brought across some of the more pragmatic and handy tools from the new wave of upstart free Unix-like OSes. Indeed, Holwerda bemoans that the HP-UX Porting and Archive Centre lacks the resources to support anything but the final versions of HP-UX. Solaris had something similar. Such tools went both ways: they enabled proprietary-Unix veterans to have niceties like a tar command that could unpack anything you threw at it, but also, they helped newbies who knew Linux to find their way around these unfamiliar Unixes from a different era.

The contemporary equivalents of such projects, of course, are those that bring Linux tools to Apple macOS. This vulture runs Homebrew on his aging iMac, but there are also MacPorts and the also-aging Fink.

As we noted recently when looking at OpenIndiana, once you open a terminal window, the comforting resemblance fades fast. There was some hope that Nexenta would do this, as it did very well for a while – but its momentum faltered.

As Holwerda says: It would be wonderful if some of this now-obsolete enterprise software were made open source, but for the most part, it’s never likely to happen. At least they could let us have the compiled versions, though. A few of us would very much like to arrange a demo of Sun NeWS to the Wayland developers, for instance.

And the same goes for Apple: as the interest in emulating MacOS 7, 8 and 9 shows, at the very least, it could make these OSes freely downloable. The last machine it sold that could boot classic MacOS was twenty years ago, and it’s switched CPU families twice since then.


Please, never ever throw away working kit. Someone will always take it, and if you are concerned about any data it might contain, they’ll help you check and remove it. Don’t be like the eBay vendor who sold your author a DEC VAXstation a decade ago, and not only removed its SCSI hard disk (a generic part) but also the near-irreplaceable mounting bracket and cable to the motherboard, rendering a rare machine inoperable.

By way of a disclaimer, this vulture has written a couple of pieces for OSnews, years ago – although not, we hasten to add, for money. ®

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