It is 1995 – a sunny June day in Boston, USA. I enter an apartment, the space is limited, the furnishings would also look good for a squatters’ community. Small groups of young men are always to be found between the mountains of the normal breakdown products of everyday life. On the kitchen table, a 15-inch tube screen spreads, which was married to an open PC case. The back is dominated by a network cable that leads to a hub in the living room. On the screen there is a mass of data, remains of log files and on the edge of the screen a bash root message decorated in shimmering red and blue.
I knew Unix and had also spent some time with various commercial Unix systems such as OSF / 1, HP-UX, SunOS and Sun Solaris. But this is something completely different: the system on the kitchen table is a server – including file storage, DNS and web serving via a dial-up connection. Of course, the server is also connected to half a dozen systems that are distributed all over the apartment. In front of most of these systems are teenagers and young adults – completely taken with the virtual activity surrounding the operating system that comes from the kitchen.
If you are now wondering what the youngsters are doing, they are writing code for the Linux kernel and the GNU user space applications around it. At that time, the scene was active all over the world, because computer science students and computing nerds discovered an exciting new toy for themselves: a free Unix operating system. It is just a few years old at the time and is growing continuously. It will only become clear years later that the juvenile coding nerds are changing the world with their actions.
The 1990s are a fairly historic time for the IT industry: In 1993, Bell Labs Unix System Laboratories and Berkeley Software Design Inc. settled a lawsuit over copyright infringement – paving the way for open source versions of the Operating system BSD. This should significantly shape and inspire the tech community in the following years.
The timing of the out-of-court settlement couldn’t have been better: a Finnish university student named Linus Torvalds had already started developing his own personal kernel in 1991. Torvalds himself will later say that if the BSD-OS had already been available free of charge at that time, he would probably never have dedicated himself to this project. When the legal dispute about BSD is resolved, Linux is already in the birth canal and is greeted by brilliant minds who will ensure that this operating system drives a large part of our world today.
The speed of development then increased rapidly: The user space applications that were built around the GNU kernel ultimately formed what most people nowadays call “Linux” – much to the dismay of GNU inventor Richard Stallman. First Linux is the domain of hobbyists and idealists, then the supercomputer industry becomes interested in the open source software and carries it into the “IT mainstream”.
In 1999 the “Hobby-OS” was already used in numerous large companies – for example from the financial sector – and was digging the water out of the established players. Until then, many companies had invested excessively in hardware and software from providers such as Sun Microsystems, IBM or DEC and are now starting to hire talented developers and system architects who have dedicated the last few years of their lives to free Linux distributions.
After the evidence in terms of performance and cost reduction has been provided to the management, the “digging water” develops into an ax attack: Within a few years Linux can manage to snatch thousands of regular customers from commercial Unix dealers. It is the beginning of an open source frenzy that continues to this day.
The misconception about Linux that this is a complete operating system persists to this day. Because in the strict sense, the term Linux only refers to the Linux kernel. The providers of a specific Linux distribution such as Red Hat or Ubuntu define which parts of the operating system are preserved around the kernel and thus complete the OS. Each distribution has its own peculiarities and uses specific methods for everyday tasks such as service management, file paths or configuration tools.
It is this elasticity that allows Linux to penetrate various IT facets with such force: A Linux system can be as big – or small – as it should be. Adaptations of the Linux kernel can drive a supercomputer as well as a smartwatch or a network switch. This is one of the reasons why Linux is now THE operating system for mobile and embedded devices and also forms the basis for the majority of Internet services and platforms.
In order to grow in this way, Linux had to maintain the interest of the best software developers and to develop an ecosystem based on the principle of mutual code sharing. The Linux kernel was released in mid-1991 under the GNU Public License Version 2. At the time, the license agreement stated that the code may be freely used, but any changes (or the use of the source code in other projects) must also be made freely available.
The result is a thriving developer ecosystem that keeps Linux growing and thriving. The initially loosely connected developers begin to adapt Linux to their needs and habits and share the fruits of their work with one another. For example, if the kernel does not support a particular device, a developer can easily write a device driver and share it with the community, so everyone benefits. The same procedure is used for performance problems or bugs. The Linux project is thus (further) developed by thousands of networked volunteers.
- A shine in the eye
The history of Linux begins when 20-year-old Linus Torvalds, a computer science student at the University of Helsinki in the early 1990s, becomes interested in the Minix operating system. Torvalds started doing technology experiments at the age of 11 – back then with the help of a Commodore VIC-20.
- Modest beginnings
Torvald’s interest in Minix appears to be accompanied by frustration with the licensing model, which leads the student to design his own operating system. That day in August 1991, Torvalds wrote this, now legendary, email that started it all. The resulting discussion can still be read on Google Groups.
- First major distribution?
It is not the very first Linux distribution, but it is the first to be widely distributed. The Softlanding Linux System (SLS) was launched in May 1992. The advertising slogan: “Gentle Touchdowns for DOS Bailouts”. Today SLS is considered the forerunner of Slackware.
- The birth of Slackware
Patrick Volkerding (pictured about 1994), a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, helps his professor install SLS. This creates the currently oldest, active Linux distribution, Slackware. This is still maintained by Volkerding today.
- Red Hat is coming
Red Hat is probably the best-known name in connection with Linux these days – at least as far as the enterprise world is concerned. Red Hat’s first Linux distribution was released in 1994 – on CD-ROM. The company logo comes fro
m the habit of Marc Ewing, who is responsible for Red Hat Linux, when he was a student wearing his grandfather’s red hat.
- “Linux is a cancer”
Linux grew in popularity in the early years. The increasing dissatisfaction with this development prompted Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to make the following statement: “Linux sticks like a cancer to any intellectual property it comes into contact with.” It’s official evidence that the open source software is a little more than angry with established players.
- The wave of success
In 2001, the Swiss company Rösch launched a new laundry detergent called Linux. The product is still on sale today, because Linus Torvalds owns the trademark rights for the Linux name, but only in connection with computer software.
- Enter the Big Game
Nowadays there is hardly any TV advertising for Linux. In 2003, however, IBM created a 90-second Super Bowl commercial for the open source software. Slogan: “The future is open”.
- Big and professional
Actually, Torvalds did not plan to make something really big and professional out of his hobby operating system. But that’s exactly what happens. In 2005 Torvalds even made it onto the cover of the renowned “Business Week”: the related article deals with the Linux success story.
- A billion dollars
Success can be measured in many ways, but the bottom line is difficult to contest. In 2012, Red Hat was the first open source company to raise more than $ 1 billion.
- Microsoft loves Linux?
What can happen in a decade: In 2001 another cancer, the Windows giant publicly declared its love for open source software in 2014. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is setting the new direction for the first time at an event in October 2014 and does not tire of repeating it over and over again.
- Spoiled for choice
Even if Linux and Microsoft are now something like “friends”: Many users value choices. And they get enough in the Linux world. There is now a suitable Linux distribution and platform for almost every taste.
- Linux-driven world
It cannot be denied that Linux dominates parts of our tech world: 95 percent of the servers in the top domains run with Linux, as do most of the world’s financial markets. Oh yes: 98 percent of the 500 fastest supercomputers also rely on open source software and for 75 percent of the companies that have ventured into the cloud, Linux is the operating system of choice.