The Stack Archive

Twenty-five years of Linux: A quiet revolution

Thu 25 Aug 2016

Penguin birthday

martin-percivalTwenty-five years ago, a quiet revolution began that now shapes much of our modern world: Linux was born. Martin Percival, senior solutions architect at Red Hat, looks at what’s to come…

On the 25th of August, 1991, Linus Torvalds sent out a simple message to a Usenet newsgroup which asked for some feedback on a new operating system (OS) which he was writing. At the time, even he had no idea where this work would end up, telling everyone it was “just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu”. How little he knew.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds was looking for a way to make a free “Minix” system (created as a Unix-like OS by Andrew Tanenbaum for his university teaching course) and with 20/20 hindsight we can see his choice of the PC with its 386 chipset as a target system was prescient, because of the future growth in popularity of that chip family.

So what were the drivers that led to the huge rise of Linux? It’s clear that from the start, Torvalds’ openness to community-driven development made a huge difference to a project that could so easily have been too big for one man. When he published his mail it was already obvious that he was happy for others to get involved.

The idea that others should be able to see all the code for the OS brings the power of a whole world of developers

Those others were themselves just starting to explore how open source could help them. The big hope on the horizon was that massive growth in the x86 market. This brought cheap(er) compute power that was easier to get hold of at home and that was starting to have many of the features of the mainframes and minicomputers from only a few years earlier.

Open source development lies at the heart of Linux. The idea that others should be able to see all the code for the OS brings the power of a whole world of developers; both when code is first released, but more crucially when bugs are discovered. This openness was originally viewed with suspicion and as a security risk by commercial organizations, but it is now widely viewed as the fastest way to ensure fixes are created and applied to known bugs or exploits. It is also the easiest way for security conscious companies to ensure that no back-doors exist in their compiled apps, as they have full visibility of all elements of their system.

After the creation of that first version of Linux, Red Hat released its own first version of Linux only a few years later, in 1994. From the beginning, Red Hat concentrated on producing the kind of stable base OS platform that could meet the needs of the business market.   

Linux has evolved considerably over the years, as hardware and software needs have changed. Among the big additions were support for other processor architectures and for virtualization. Throughout these changes, Red Hat worked on and contributed features which helped to harden the OS for business users. In particular, contributing to the creation of SE Linux, helped to introduce Linux to customers in both government and the private sector who need the highest levels of security in their operating system.

The Red Hat attitude to working first with communities on open source projects, helps the company to extend its engagement with the open source world. Red Hat no longer contributes just to Linux, but also to projects in virtualization, middleware, cloud and mobile and this broader product set has recently driven the company past the $2Bn revenue mark for the first time.

The solid foundation of Linux as a trusted operating system is going to drive software evolution

Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Linux undoubtedly could be said to have stood on the shoulder of the pioneers of OS design (and in particular Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thomson, who created Unix), but it’s also true that it performs the same role for so much software that exists today.   

Linux, at 25 years old, now forms the foundation of much of what we think of as our modern world. The largest companies on the planet rely on it, systems from supercomputers to mobile phones and the Raspberry Pi run it, and the size of the Linux market has forced even traditional, proprietary software organizations to re-evaluate the place of Linux and other open source in their business. No-one would have thought a few years back, that even Microsoft would be working with Red Hat to bring .Net core to Red Hat Enterprise Linux and to its Openshift cloud platform.

Looking to the future, the solid foundation of Linux as a trusted operating system is going to drive software evolution as much as it has already for the world in which we live today. Linux will be honed to match the needs of next-generation computing, whether it is in forming the backbone OS for the cloud, handling the latency and throughput needs of the Internet of Things or in more modern approaches to software runtime environments like containers.

Happy 25th Anniversary, Linux – we are so glad you weren’t called Freax all those years ago!


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