Evolution of the Unix System Architecture: An Exploratory Case Study

Diomidis Spinellis, Paris Avgeriou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
97 Downloads (Pure)


Unix has evolved for almost five decades, shaping modern operating systems, key software technologies, and development practices. Studying the evolution of this remarkable system from an architectural perspective can provide insights on how to manage the growth of large, complex, and long-lived software systems. Along main Unix releases leading to the FreeBSD lineage we examine core architectural design decisions, the number of features, and code complexity, based on the analysis of source code, reference documentation, and related publications. We report that the growth in size has been uniform, with some notable outliers, while cyclomatic complexity has been religiously safeguarded. A large number of Unix-defining design decisions were implemented right from the very early beginning, with most of them still playing a major role. Unix continues to evolve from an architectural perspective, but the rate of architectural innovation has slowed down over the system's lifetime. Architectural technical debt has accrued in the forms of functionality duplication and unused facilities, but in terms of cyclomatic complexity it is systematically being paid back through what appears to be a self-correcting process. Some unsung architectural forces that shaped Unix are the emphasis on conventions over rigid enforcement, the drive for portability, a sophisticated ecosystem of other operating systems and development organizations, and the emergence of a federated architecture, often through the adoption of third-party subsystems. These findings have led us to form an initial theory on the architecture evolution of large, complex operating system software.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8704965
Pages (from-to)1134-1163
Number of pages30
JournalIEEE Transactions on Software Engineering
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • architecture design decisions
  • operating systems
  • software architecture
  • software evolution
  • Unix


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