Unix vs. Linux Comparison Guide

Written by Jessica Schulze • Updated on

Compare and contrast Unix vs. Linux in this guide covering use cases, components, features, and more.

[Featured Image] Two people examine a laptop screen together in an office environment.

Unix and Linux are popular operating systems (OS) with similar purposes. You may have even heard Linux referred to as a “Unix clone” or a Unix-like operating system. Despite the similarities in their architecture and the fact that they both serve as platforms for running software programs, they have some major differences. You can use the following guide to compare and contrast their use cases, components, and costs. 

What is a Unix-like operating system?

The term “Unix-like” is used to describe a wide range of operating systems that share a common structure and behave similarly to Unix. 



Unix vs. Linux

Developed in the late 1960s by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie of AT&T Bell Labs; modified over time by nonprofit organizations and commercial vendors.Developed by Linus Torvalds in the 1990s and continues to be developed by the Linux community of developers.
Core assembly language: CCore assembly language: C
Versions include but are not limited to AIS, BSD, Iris, and HP-UX.Versions include but are not limited to Ubuntu, Debian, Solaris, and Redhat.
Smaller user community that focuses heavily on enterprise computingLarge, active, open-source community of users and contributors
Includes a graphical user interface (GUI) similar to Windows, but is compatible with other GUIs such as Gnome.Many graphical user interface (GUI) options, including Gnome, KDE, Unity, and Mate.
Default shell is Bourne Shell.Supports multiple command interpreters, but BASH is the default shell for Linux. Initially designed to support Intel’s X86 hardware processors, but evolved to be compatible with other software.
Historically used for academic and enterprise applications.Created to be an alternative, free version of the MINIX operating system.

Unix use cases

Typically, Unix is used for enterprise-level servers and workstations. Although it can be used on personal computers, this use case is far less common. Large organizations tend to use Unix because of its high-performance, multi-tasking-oriented design. Unix can support multiple users on the same machine, whether they’re logging into it directly or accessing it remotely. The internet and the world wide web (WWW) were both built with Unix servers. 

Linux use cases

Like Unix, Linux is a popular platform among organizations that need to host data, applications, or services on high-volume servers. Linux is also a popular operating system choice for personal computers. Linux OS versions are the primary option for users worldwide who prefer to use open-source software (behind Microsoft Windows and Apple iOS versions) [1]. 

Read more: What is Linux? Commands Glossary and FAQ

Linux vs. Ubuntu vs. Unix

Ubuntu is an open-source, ad-free, Linux-based operating system. It was designed for computers, network servers, and smartphones as a more user-friendly alternative to Debian. Debian is also a Linux-based operating system, however, it was known for being challenging to install. Compared to Linux and Unix, it’s a beginner-friendly OS that is well-suited for personal computing.


Unix vs. Linux cost and distribution

Linux is a free, open-source operating system. In other words, its source code can be viewed and modified by any user. Unix has the opposite distribution model, requiring a license for use. This type of distribution method is also known as proprietary or closed source. Licensing costs depend on the Unix variant. 

Unix vs. Linux components

Both Unix and Linux have three primary components:

  • Kernel. The kernel is the central component of an operating system. It’s the interface where requests for processes take place. 

  • Shell. The shell interprets command line input and triggers action from the necessary programs. You can think of it as a translator that manages communication between the user and the kernel since the kernel cannot understand direct user input. 

  • Application programs. Unix systems include a core set of utility programs that enable users to carry out actions like file management. 

Unix kernel vs. Linux kernel

The kernel is the central component of both Unix and Linux operating systems. Both Unix and Linux kernels are monolithic, meaning that the entirety of the OS is virtually working in the kernel space. Monolithic kernels handle all hardware and driver operations. However, the Unix kernel is larger and more complex than its counterpart. 

Unix vs. Linux servers

Unix is generally utilized for high-end server operations and other back-end tasks requiring specialized hardware architecture. In contrast, Linux is easily downloadable and operable. Linux device drivers can come built into the kernel. Part of Linux’s popularity in the web server space can be attributed to its low installation costs. 

Unix vs. Linux commands

Linux developers aimed to keep its commands as similar as possible to Unix commands by adhering to the portable operating system interface (POSIX) standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Many core commands are identical in syntax and functionality, including tar and lpr. Small differences still exist, not only between Unix and Linux but among different Unix variants as well. 

Learn more about Unix and Linux with Coursera 

You can build a functional knowledge of Unix in about 19 hours with John Hopkins University’s online course, the Unix Workbench. In this beginner-friendly program, you’ll familiarize yourself with a command line interface and learn to write software in the programming language Bash. Or, focus on building your Linux expertise with IBM’s Hands-on Introduction to Linux Commands and Shell Scripting. You’ll learn to perform common filing, navigational, informational, and networking commands in Bash shell.  

Article sources

  1. Statista. “Market share held by the leading computer (desktop/tablet/console) operating systems worldwide from January 2012 to January 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/268237/global-market-share-held-by-operating-systems-since-2009/.” Accessed July 25, 2023. 

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:


Jessica is a technical writer who specializes in computer science and information technology. Equipp...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.