There are many different versions of UNIX, although they share common similarities. The most popular varieties of UNIX are Sun Solaris, GNU/Linux, and MacOS X.

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.


pwd (print working directory)

Pathnames enable you to work out where you are in relation to the whole file-system. For example, to find out the absolute pathname of your home-directory, type cd to get back to your home-directory and then type

% pwd

The full pathname will look something like this –



% ls unixstuff/backups


~ (your home directory)

Home directories can also be referred to by the tilde ~ character. It can be used to specify paths starting at your home directory. So typing

% ls ~/unixstuff

will list the contents of your unixstuff directory, no matter where you currently are in the file system.

What do you think

% ls ~

would list?

What do you think

% ls ~/..


Command Meaning
ls list files and directories
ls -a list all files and directories
mkdir make a directory
cd directory change to named directory
cd change to home-directory
cd ~ change to home-directory
cd .. change to parent directory
pwd display the path of the current directory


cp location/file1  location/file2

with the file type

mv file1 file2

To move a file from one place to another, use the mv command. This has the effect of moving rather than copying the file, so you end up with only one file rather than two.

It can also be used to rename a file, by moving the file to the same directory, but giving it a different name.