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When SCO Was Cool

The headline sounds like heresy, I know, but put down those pitchforks and torches and hear me out. By now, you’ve probably all heard the news that the zombie lawsuit brought about by SCO against IBM has reared its ugly head and has started bellowing “braaaaaaains” once again.

But the fact of the matter is this: At one time, SCO was cool.

SCO logoSCO started out here in my neighborhood, essentially, in Santa Cruz, California. It was called The Santa Cruz Operation (hence, SCO). That manifestation of SCO was founded in 1979 by Larry and Doug Michels, a father and son, as a Unix porting and consulting company which, over time, developed its own brand of Unix. In his book “The Art of Unix Programming,” Eric Raymond calls SCO the “first Unix company.”

As the story goes, the first SCO was sold to Caldera, a Linux company, in 2001 and rebranded The SCO Group, which moved it to Utah and made it a litigation company, and we pretty much know the rest of the story from there.

However, at its peak, and before its imminent downfall post-sale, the company employed about 1,500 employees across the globe, and just over 1,000 in Santa Cruz, making it the largest employer in Santa Cruz at the time.

The reason I bring this up is because there are a lot of folks in these parts – some of them still teaching Linux and Unix at Cabrillo College (the local community college) and many of whom are involved in their own tech endeavors (like Cruzio, the largest ISP in the area) –- who started or advanced their digital careers with SCO and will attest to the fact that the then-SCO was a pretty advanced company which cared a lot more about software than lawsuits.

So much of the tech on “this side of the hill” – that is, the side of the hill by the water, as opposed to “the other side of the hill,” which is the Silicon Valley – was borne of the experiences garnered at this one hallowed Camelot by Monterey Bay.

So pre-sale SCO –- the original SCO –- wasn’t the evil entity it is now, and by no means is this recollection an endorsement of what the current manifestation is doing in the courts. It just serves as a reminder that sometimes things –- good things –- can go south very quickly and become the complete opposite of what the original folks had in mind.


  1. Uncle Ed Uncle Ed March 25, 2015

    Thank you for the history lesson, Larry. I lived through it and at one time had a box with SCO printed on the cover. I think I got it at a garage or distress sale, rather than retail, though.

    I think we have seen several instances where the sale of an organization we liked led to something we didn’t like. It’s a shame for the people who were responsible for the earlier condition–and us, sometimes.

  2. Mj Mj March 26, 2015

    Had over 300 SCO boxes running in 300 auto parts stores all over the country. One unix guy. uucp/ppp updates. Then y2k happened.
    Found that Linux could run the un-recompiled binaries with just a kernel module addon, and it ran 2.5x faster on the same hardware than with Native SCO. Never looked back…

  3. Jordi Jordi March 26, 2015

    Thanks for this article. I’m agree with you, there was a good SCO company doing good products before all went bad.

    My first UNIX steps were done on an IBM PC AT with an SCO Xenix 286, and from there to the Pentium I used almost all SCO products with no more problems than today.

    Then, Linux came and changed it all … and also improved it all.

  4. xchris xchris March 26, 2015

    SCO was so cool, they gave free on mid-90’s (they charged only p&p for the CD’s) the OpenServer/Unixware.
    The license was ‘personal’ just a user IIRC, but fully functional incl Dev kit and Internet services.

  5. Matthew Berg Matthew Berg March 26, 2015

    I would say “less uncool”.

    Customers who had bought the “Host” edition of OpenServer didn’t think it was “cool” when they were told they had to pony up another $500 to upgrade to “Enterprise” if they wanted a network stack.

    Customers who accidentally put the wrong SCSI target in when trying to add a tape drive didn’t think it was “cool” having to manually edit a half dozen files (including C code and headers) before relinking their kernel.

    Customers who had experience with Linux didn’t think it was “cool” to pay hundreds of dollars to add Windows file sharing (VisionFS), or Netware services (AFPS), or a C/C++ compiler, or SMP support, or more than five simultaneous logins, or a web server (FastTrack).

    SCO was a dinosaur long before Caldera entered the picture. They clung to an outdated pricing model far too long, and unlike the other traditional Unix vendors had no real fallback for their stagnating product lines. That they lasted so long as more to do with the burst of sales spurred by Y2K upgrades than with the “coolness” of the company or the product.

    (For the record, I hold SCO Ace certifications in OpenServer, UnixWare and Tarantella, and SCO Master Ace certifications in UnixWare Non-Stop Clustering and shell scripting.)

  6. DannyB DannyB March 26, 2015

    Please don’t fall for the very confusion that Caldera wants you to fall for.

    SCO (The Santa Cruz Operation) is NOT the same organization as Caldera who purchased certain assets from SCO, and then deliberately confusingly renamed themselves to SCO to perpetuate this confusion.

    In the mid 2000s the CEO of SCO even talked about abandoning their damaged brand and renaming themselves to USL (Unix System Labratories) in order ‘to get back to the USL side of the business’ in the CEO’s own words. Again, an attempt to ride on someone else’s past credibility and name recognition.

  7. Dan the Man Dan the Man March 26, 2015

    You have to distinguish between the old Santa Cruz Organisation (later Tarantella), the old Caldera International (later SCO Group), and the SCO Unix / Open Server product.

    Now remember that the old Santa Cruz Organization purchased Xenix from Microsoft and kept close ties with Redmond ever after.

    I agree with Matthew. By the year 2000, SCO Unix had fallen behind other Unices technically and the company was trying to convert its declining customer base to UnixWare, which they had bought from Novell, and it was overpriced. Linux really stole their market share, so the old SCO sold a product with doubtful future to Caldera, who were selling the most expensive Linux distribution at the time.

    COOL was the name of a product of the French Chorus Sytèmes, later acquired by SUN:-)

  8. Larry Cafiero Larry Cafiero Post author | March 26, 2015

    Danny B – Of course, Caldera renamed the entity The SCO Group to create confusion and, unfortunately, tie its litigation-company wagon to the original company. I think that’s pretty clear in the article.

  9. Curt Wuollet Curt Wuollet March 26, 2015

    I ported a hospital system from TI UNIX to SCO to have a product for small hospitals and clinics and installed quite a few. It was still “Someone Elses UNIX” meaning it was too spendy to own yourself, but it was a stepping stone to Linux and fun while it lasted. People don’t realize how much it means to be able to own your OS. It really levels the playing field when you don’t have to be employed in the business to enjoy the *NIX experience.

  10. Sam Taylor Sam Taylor March 29, 2015

    Even caldera started out Fine in it’s ogden Days & Free DOS, and DR DOS, days, it was Moving to Provo days, it sort of went Nuts trying to sell what it didn’t Own, then trying to get Linux, with the Help of M/S

  11. Sam Taylor Sam Taylor March 29, 2015

    the old Caldera was sold to another utah group, that changed from Caldera to SCO, Mc Bride & co. had nothing to do with the Original caldera, which was into BSD, not Linux, it’s early Operating System was a branded form of BSD, but it’s Dos distro’s would work Linux, out of the Box, as the Primitive Linux, & BSD, were much Closer than first Cousins. They moved south of Ogden to Provo, Made the Novell deal, and the rest is legal history.

  12. gus3 gus3 March 29, 2015

    The Santa Cruz Operation was founded with the intention to deceive, starting with the name itself. When their salespeople would cold-call potential customers… uh, clients… uh, licensees, they would introduce themselves as “Hi, this is so-and-so from the Santa Cruz Operation.” Of course, the first thing the callee would think is, “We have an operation in Santa Cruz?”

  13. Steven Rosenberg Steven Rosenberg March 30, 2015

    Thanks for the article, Larry. Being a UC Santa Cruz graduate who got my feet wet in Unix while studying there in the 1980s (Unix at UCSC … that’s a whole other article), I had heard of the Santa Cruz Operation, and at that time they were going like gangbusters in bringing Unix to i386.

    I’m not sure when it all went wrong with SCO (and it went very, very wrong), but back in the day, the idea of running Unix on your own computer, and not big iron stuck in a server room, was very much pie in the sky.

    Re: Unix at UCSC, if either of us could find Scott Brookie (writer of the great “Unix for Luddites”, the photocopied book on which I cut my shell/vi/nroff teeth), that would be a great place to start.

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