Introduction to The UNIX operating system

UNIX Introduction

This session concerns UNIX, which is a common operating system. By operating
system, we mean the suite of programs which make the computer work. UNIX is
used by the workstations and multi-user servers within the school.

On X terminals and the workstations, X Windows provide a graphical interface
between the user and UNIX. However, knowledge of UNIX is required for operations
which aren’t covered by a graphical program, or for when there is no X windows
system, for example, in a telnet session.

The UNIX operating system

The UNIX operating system is made up of three parts; the kernel, the shell
and the programs.

The kernel

The kernel of UNIX is the hub of the operating system: it allocates time and
memory to programs and handles the filestore and communications in response
to system calls.

As an illustration of the way that the shell and the kernel work together,
suppose a user types rm myfile (which has the effect of removing
the file myfile). The shell searches the filestore for the
file containing the program rm, and then requests the kernel, through
system calls, to execute the program rm on myfile. When the process
rm myfile has finished running, the shell then returns the UNIX
prompt % to the user, indicating that it is waiting for further commands.

The shell

The shell acts as an interface between the user and the kernel. When a user
logs in, the login program checks the username and password, and then starts
another program called the shell. The shell is a command line interpreter (CLI).
It interprets the commands the user types in and arranges for them to be carried
out. The commands are themselves programs: when they terminate, the shell gives
the user another prompt (% on our systems).

The adept user can customise his/her own shell, and users can use different
shells on the same machine. Staff and students in the school have the tcsh shell
by default.

The tcsh shell has certain features to help the user inputting commands.

Filename Completion – By typing part of the name of a command, filename or
directory and pressing the [Tab] key, the tcsh shell will complete the rest
of the name automatically. If the shell finds more than one name beginning with
those letters you have typed, it will beep, prompting you to type a few more
letters before pressing the tab key again.

History – The shell keeps a list of the commands you have typed in. If you
need to repeat a command, use the cursor keys to scroll up and down the list
or type history for a list of previous commands.

Files and processes

Everything in UNIX is either a file or a process.

A process is an executing program identified by a unique PID (process identifier).

A file is a collection of data. They are created by users using text editors,
running compilers etc.

Examples of files:

  • a document (report, essay etc.)
  • the text of a program written in some high-level programming language
  • instructions comprehensible directly to the machine and incomprehensible
    to a casual user, for example, a collection of binary digits (an executable
    or binary file);
  • a directory, containing information about its contents, which may be a
    mixture of other directories (subdirectories) and ordinary files.

The Directory Structure

All the files are grouped together in the directory structure. The file-system
is arranged in a hierarchical structure, like an inverted tree. The top of the
hierarchy is traditionally called root.


In the diagram above, we see that the directory ee51ab contains the subdirectory
unixstuff and a file proj.txt

Starting an Xterminal session

To start an Xterm session, click on the Unix Terminal icon on your desktop, or from the drop-down menus


An Xterminal window will appear with a Unix prompt, waiting for
you to start entering commands.

gterm, © 9th October 2000

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