Looking back on 20 years of Linux

“Linux is important as a technology, but what it does transcends technology,” — Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat CEO @ LinuxCon 2011 Keynote

September marks the 20th anniversary of the initial 0.01 release of the Linux kernel to the world, by self-proclaimed hobbyist Linus Torvalds, as an unportable and unprofessional free operating system.  Little did Linus know that he was starting a project that would become one of the leading choices in the operating system space.

Perhaps a bit of a cliché, I first experimented with Linux in college.  At that time, CS homework involved coding on a Windows platform then porting and re-debugging on the RS6000s, where assignments were graded.  While I was lucky to have access to Borland on Windows, the porting process was painful enough that waiting in line for UNIX lab systems still made sense.  Then we got remote access to a Linux system at a nearby community college.  The POSIX-based environment made the porting process much simpler and faster overall, meaning I could spend more time on other classes.

The technological advances and changes that have happened within Linux are a remarkable achievement based on those humble origins.  Today, Linux is the basis for a market leading enterprise operating system, a suite of mobile phone operating systems, and powers many embedded devices.  Linux can be found in many different applications, from many of the world’s supercomputers to real time financial exchanges to DVRs and set-top boxes.

While the advances in features, scalability, performance and stability are impressive, the true wonder comes from the source of this market leading platform.  Linux is not the product of a massive R&D budget.  Linux is not the loss leader to run proprietary hardware systems.  Linux is a volunteer driven, collaboratively developed solution that is free to run and modify.  And as such, has managed to secure a $1 billion slice of the world wide server market for several companies who provide quality assurance and support for Linux-based distributions.

The collaborative process is fairly simple: find the code, solve a problem, then post it back to the community at large for review and inclusion.  Eric S. Raymond proposed “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” as “Linus’ Law” after looking at the way Linux leveraged the Internet to release code widely and often to an interested participant group.  But this is not just the enlightened self-interest of philanthropic coders from around the world.  The National Security Agency developed and released code known as SELinux that added enhanced mandatory access control architecture to the kernel which is now widely adopted by distributions.  The US Navy was key in the initial development of real time deterministic kernel patches.  SELinux is a now key technology in ensuring security on many fronts and real time kernels are what keep Wall Street ticking.  Collaborative development benefits all of the participants, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Without the basis in free and open source software (FOSS), Linux would likely never have existed.   In 2002, David Wheeler estimated the development cost of Red Hat 7.1 by conventional proprietary methods at over $1 billion at ~8000 person-years of labor.  In 2008, the Linux Foundation used David’s methods to analyze Fedora 9 and found the Linux kernel alone would cost $1.4 billion and the entire distribution over $10 billion. That barrier to enter the established operating system market would have discouraged even most optimistic entrepreneurial spirits.  The principles of FOSS enabled the collaboration of a wide contributor base to share, modify, and redistribute the source code of Linux; each set of eyes and hands shaping the kernel, according to skill and desire, to fix a bug or add a missing feature for their particular needs.

Linux now stands among the poster children of the free and open source software community.  The FOSS communities have driven quality software into the very backbone of the Internet; Apache serves 65% of web pages, BIND serves most of the DNS infrastructure, sendmail backs up much of the email traffic, GNU provides many of the most used UNIX-like operating system utilities.  We should applaud Linus and the community for 20 years of remarkable work and advances.  But we also must recognize how many doors Linux has opened for education and business with FOSS alternatives to proprietary software.

Matt Micene