The Soul of the Movement: 30 Years of Linux (Part 1)

On August 19, 1991, Linus Torvalds, humbly conducted his own poll, querying interest in a Usenet posting to the comp.os.minix group at the University of Helsinki:

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since April and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system due to practical reasons among other things).

Just a hobby? In the middle of the “free software movement” and years ahead of the launch of “open source,” a month later the first Linux kernel occupied 65 KB and had about 10,000 lines of Torvalds’ code. 

Linux’s Rise as a Cornerstone of IT

Linux thrived and today, Linux 5.14 contains over 3.3 million lines of code. The core of its superpower? It’s versatile. It can be parsed and customized to fit most strategic and specialized scenarios, from tiny embedded devices to powering the world’s top 500 supercomputers. In fact, many of the biggest internet properties such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and eBay are built on Linux. 

What’s more? Linux drives edge computing, combining the power of cloud data centers with decentralized nodes for quick response. Two members of the Linux community recently attested, “Linux is the fundamental lead role in setting up critical platforms necessary for SDN, NFV and Cloud” and Linux embodies “30 years of silent service for the betterment of Telco.”

What other long standing technology can stand up to that?

“Decentralized Innovation, Built with Trust”

One of the many reasons why Linux continues to thrive today is that many of the key companies in the industry decided to create a vendor agnostic foundation to support the broader development of Linux and the technologies around it in its first decade of its existence. First started as the Open Source Development Lab in 2000, it soon became the Linux Foundation, which today is seen as “a neutral, trusted hub for developers to code, manage and scale open tech projects,” which has helped ensure Linux’s ability to evolve and grow with the times, free from undue vendor influence.

“Having the Linux Foundation as the long standing center of the broader open source community has been incredibly helpful for the growth of Linux from a hobby project into one of the most essential pieces of software infrastructure used all over the world,” says VMware’s Dirk Hohndel, VP, Chief Open Source Officer. “The Linux Foundation doesn’t direct the development of Linux. But the Foundation has facilitated a lot of collaboration between major industry players over the years that has turned Linux into the indispensable center of that open source revolution.”

And, then, well, there was the burgeoning onslaught of Linux kernel developers who came together as a community, along with thousands of programmers around the world who too climbed on the Linux bandwagon and began sending their suggested improvements to the maintainers. 

VMware Open Source Engineer and present day Kernel Maintainer and developer of ftrace and KernelShark, Steven Rostedt, bumped into Linux in 1996 while writing code on a Microsoft product. He hit a bug on their “debugger.” Finding frustration with how awful the code was, threw up his hands and cried, “Can’t they make a Unix for Windows?”

That’s when the intern sitting next to him said, “Haven’t you heard of Linux?” 

“Eureka. I downloaded the OS and fell in love with it,” says Rostedt. “Linux, truly, was awesome and I’ve been programming and developing on it ever since.”

Rostedt mentioned when he first started using Linux, everyone said it was a Unix and it would fork, become incompatible, and die. “Forks only kill closed source code, it can only make open source code better.” 

The UNIX Wars and More on Linux Forks

In the 80’s, there were several different Unix offerings—AT&T, Microsoft, SCO, Sun Unix, IBM, HP, to name a few—competing in the marketplace. Each entity was taking the code base and extending it, vying to be the number one game changer. Customers chose the Unix features they needed most to fulfill its objectives, but when their requirements changed and found Unix problematic, they switched to Windows. 

Unix machines, too, happened to be ten times more expensive than a normal PC loaded with Windows, which had no compatibility issues. 

Rostedt says, “The flexibility and quality of Unix was still much better than Windows. But people went with Windows due to the cost savings. Linux, being free and running on PCs, gave both the cost benefits of Windows, with the quality of Unix.”

Rostedt worked at Lockheed Martin in the 90s, where he pushed hard for the use of Linux: 

“I used Linux to run all these tiny little servers and gave talks about Linux, but I kept hearing that it would fork. Under the GPL (the General Public License of free software licenses that guarantee end users the freedom to run, study, share and modify the software), whatever you distribute, you have to give the source code and the rights for anyone else to take that source code and do whatever they want with it, as long as they give the rights to anyone to which they distribute. Its evolution is based in forks, which is good for Open Source. It determines the features that are best for you and can be merged back into your program, making it into a more powerful product.”

Concerning Linux’s longevity, Rostedt adds, “From the beginning, Torvalds held fast to one rule—you don’t break user space. Meaning, if you have an application running on one kernel, it should run on all kernels after that and that’s another reason why Linux is so successful. You don’t have to worry about porting your applications to the next version of the kernel. They may prove to be buggy and you should update them, but they will always work as they did in the past.”

Standing the Test of Time

Linux has survived for decades, unlike other technologies that all too quickly ended up in the tech graveyard, plagued by a myriad of issues such as underfunding, executing on an undefined blueprint and being incapable of keeping pace with tech advancement and the ever-changing user needs. 

Today, a breakthrough technology is invented and tomorrow’s innovationists transform into something bigger, more efficient. But all too often, yesterday’s code is as valuable as yesterday’s news. 

But, wait a minute.

What other 30-plus year old technology do we still rely on and find fundamental to getting our jobs done, like Linux? 

Tune in for part two of this blog series where we’ll continue our conversation with Steven Rostedt and a handful of other Open Source engineers at VMware to find out just what those things might be, and loop back for a final word on Linux and Open Source! 


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