The jump to Unix: It's not as bad as you think.

Presented 9-12-2001 by Paul "Froggy" Schneider at an ACM SIGUNIX meeting

Many people might say they'd rather jump out of a plane than move from their favorite operating system to Unix. However, the anology works on many levels.

At first thought moving to Unix from something familiar and comfortable like Windows is a frightening experience for most users. Will they be able to do everything they were able to do? Will they be able to be as productive as they previously were? What if a problem arises?

Well, let me tell you this. It is safe to move to Unix just as it is safe to jump out of a plane... provided that you have the right tools at your disposal, the right people guiding you along the way as well as the minimal background necessary to actually get work done.

Plus, just as jumping out of a plane is exhilirating, a similar feeling can be had once you realize that by using Unix you:

However, the point of this talk is to give you the background you might find useful before joining the worldwide community of Unix experts.

One major assumption in this talk is that you are primarily either a Windows or MacOS user. I will also assume that you at least have a passing interest in finding out what the heck is so special about Unix that would make computer geeks, scientists, business folk and, yes, even your mother, use Unix.

The one thing Unix users will have to concede is that, in order to learn how to do all of this, you will need to read. Read what you ask? Well, there are many sources of information for help with Unix. As well as online help (using 'man', info, help and a host of other Unix help sysems), there are also numerous books out there intended for novice and semi-novice users get their feet wet. Learning something new isn't always easy, but it doesn't make things easier if you don't put forth the effort to set aside an hour to put your nose in a book and read up on the tool or application you'd like to use. Thankfully, most authors of Unix books tend to be relatively amusing and humorous, which should only help you actually *learn* from the book easier.

First of all, let's look at some functionality common on more popular operating systems and look at some equivalents under Unix.

Operating System Brand X

Word Processing/Spreadsheets/Office Suite Star office, Applix, OpenOffice, KOffice, Corel
Windows customizations Numerous highly customizable window managers.
Games Many ported to Unix (esp. Linux), some games unique to Unix
IIS (Internet Information Server) WWW Apache
Notepad More text editors than you can shake a stick at, and with a lot more power and flexibility.
Visual Studio gcc / gdb / etc.

Things you can download today for your Windows machine that will help you get started and that won't cost you a penny:

Stuff that you can do TONIGHT to get into Unix!

L-nix: Interactive Unix Tutorial

A DOS based tutorial to some of the more common aspects of Unix. It does get into some advanced topics, but you can safely skip those (for now). Not a great program, but still, it is interactive and may be helpful to someone who prefers step by step instruction


PuTTY is a client you can use to connect securely (i.e., with encryption, such that some unscrupulous person cannot easily use your password without your permission) to Unix machines. Upon logging on with your username and password, you will be given a Unix shell prompt, upon which you can run text applications that are present on the Unix machine. You can think of this as being somewhat equivalent to a DOS or Windows "command prompt". Functionally they are about the same, but advanced users can attest to how much more powerful they can be for people that know you to use them correctly.


Cygwin is a set of programs that runs under Windows that provides a Unix style command prompt as well as a complete environment for Windows users to create Unix style applications and tools. Basically speaking, you can simulate the look and basic feel of Unix right on your Windows machine! Included with it are some simple and standard tools (text editors, shells, etc.). If you are brave, you can even try to compile other Unix applications from other sources under Cygwin and have them run in it as if they were running on your own personal Unix workstation! Or, if you so desire, you can even try to compile some of your own programs. Cygwin, though, is by no means a complete Unix environment. Not everything will compile natively under Cygwin and may require some modifications. However, it is a great way to put forth some minimal effort and time and receive in return a "sort of" Unix interface that you can at least get your feet wet with. Likewise, if you don't want it anymore, it's as easy as using "Add/Remove Programs" to get rid of it.

Smith Computer Lab Unix Accounts

Want a Unix account on campus that you can use to get started? Apply for a free Smith Computer Lab Unix account! These accounts will get you access to Smith Lab's 8 UltraSparc machines running the Solaris operating system (Solaris is a version of Unix, of course). Many popular applications and most common tools are available to users.

CWRU's Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Server

Want to ask a question about Unix to someone here at CWRU? Perhaps you want to just want to meet and greet other Unix users on campus? Simply go to the web page, load up the provided Java IRC client and away you go. If you don't know anything about IRC, just click "Push to Start". You will then be taken to the main channel (AOL users might call them "chat rooms"). The only request I'm going to make is that you are polite, pleasant and don't TYPE IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. And, yes, there are numerous IRC clients available in Unix, the most popular of which is ircii, which can be loaded from many (but not all) Unix systems but typing "irc" and hitting enter at the shell prompt.

Other "advanced" Unix stuff you might want to look into:


A Windows X Server. Basically, a program that permits the use ofa remote Unix machine's graphical interface from a Windows machine! This program is available to CWRU users through the campus software library.

You have a Unix account, now what?

Some quick, fun and useful commands for new Unix users

Some neat things you may want to try out on a Unix machine you may have access to. In order to run the program, type in the command in bold and hit enter your Unix shell prompt. Please use all lowercase letters, as Unix makes a distinction between upper case and lower case letters in the names of commands. Windows does not have this feature.


Prints out the current calendar for this month. For kicks, also try typing "cal 2001". This will print out the calendar for the year 2001.

List (in this case, files in a directory)

ls by itself simply lists the files in the current directory you are in. "ls -la" will list all of the files in the directory as well as their sizes and a plethora of additional information.

Clears the screen

Clears the screen. Simple as that.

Less isn't more... sort of (witty Unix humor)

Say you have a large text file in your directory. How are you going to read it without having the whole thing scroll down in front of your eyes? Well, by typing "less " where is the name of the file, you can quickly and easily page through the file.


Allows you to copy files from one location to another. Similar to the DOS/Windows command line version of "copy". A lot of the same wildcards and conventions are used.

Manual pages

A command used to load manual pages, or help files, for particular command. Usage is 'man <command>' where is the name of the Unix command which you need help with. Sometimes they're cryptic, sometimes they're helpful. Almost always the first and best place to look for some help.