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Modern legacy: daemons

Modern legacy: daemons

Although modern technology keeps moving forward at full speed, there are still plenty of legacy solutions and symbols that are resilient enough to stand the test of time. Like digital equivalents of living fossils, they have managed to survive the disruptive effect of technological innovation and still thrive in highly modern IT-environments.

In this series, we will take a closer look at the origins of some legacy icons that are still present in our modern times. This article will focus on daemons, sinister-sounding computer programs that run background processes in Unix and Unix-like systems.

Divinities and spirits

The words “daimon” and “daemon” come from the Greek language and refer to lesser deities and spirits that inhabited the wondrous world of ancient and classical Greek mythology, but also later Hellenistic religion and philosophy. Daemons are divided into two categories: benevolent ones and more malevolent beings that are out to trick, hurt or possess humans. Traditional daemons were often associated with forces of nature or the higher deities (for example the Olympic gods). The beings have even earlier origins and are already present in ancient Mesopotamian and early Egyptian mythology.

Personifications of evil

In Christian theology and modern popular culture, demons (the English version of the original Greek word) have a more sinister rep and are usually portrayed as supernatural evil beings and harbingers of doom and misery. In popular horror movies like ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘Insidious’ these nasty paranormal entities use different kinds of evils to satisfy their ravenous hunger for human souls.

Daemons in IT

The word daemon found its way into the world of IT through programmers of the University of Massachusetts. They coined the term in 1963 and thought it would be an appropriate name for a background process that worked tirelessly to perform system chores. Just like the traditional demon preferably operates in darkness and the realm of the unseen, IT daemons perform their tasks in the background and are barely noticeable to most users.

They are started on the Unix command line or in a startup file. These files contain scripts that are executed when the system is booted or on some other event, such as user login or when a new shell script is spawned. Daemons run in the background and wait for a signal from the OS to wake up and shoot into action. Common daemon processes include print spoolers, email handlers and other programs that manage administrative tasks. They are therefore valuable components of modern IT systems with ancient etymological roots.

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