The Birth of Linux

On August 25, 1991, a Finn computer science student named Linus Torvalds made the following announcement to the Usenet group comp.os.minux:

“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).”

The “Minix” Torvalds referred to is a variant of the UNIX operating system, used as a guideline for his the free operating system he wanted to run on the x86-based consumer PCs of the day. “gnu” refers to the set of GNU (GNU Is Not Unix) tools first put together by Richard Stallman in 1983. UNIX, the operating system that started it all, had its origins in the old Bell Labs back in the early 60s.

Torvalds built the core of the Linux operating system, known as the kernel. A kernel alone does not make an operating system, but Stallman’s GNU tools were from a project to create an operating system as well–a project that was missing a kernel to make Stallman’s operating system complete. Torvalds’ matching of GNU tools with the Linux kernel marked the beginning of the Linux operating system as it is known today.

Linux is in many ways still only at the beginning of its potential, even though it has enjoyed tremendous success since Torvalds’ first request for help in 1991.

Linux has gained strong popularity amongst UNIX developers, who like it for its portability to many platforms, its similarity to UNIX, and its free software license. Around the turn of the century, several commercial developers began to distribute Linux, including VA Linux, TurboLinux, Mandrakelinux, Red Hat, and SuSE GMbH. IBM’s 2000 decision to invest $2 billion in Linux development and sales was a significant positive event to the growth of Linux.

Today, Linux is a multi-billion dollar industry, with companies and governments around the world taking advantage of the operating system’s security and flexibility. Thousands of companies use Linux for day-to-day use, attracted by the lower licensing and support costs. Governments around the world are deploying Linux to save money and time, with some governments commissioning their own versions of Linux.

The analyst group IDC has projected Linux will be a $49 billion business by 2011, and there are many indications in the market that this figure will be achieved.

The Code

Linux is also unique from other operating systems in that it has no single owner. Torvalds still manages the development of the Linux kernel, but commercial and private developers contribute other software to make the whole Linux operating system.

In this section, the parts of the Linux operating system will be examined.

The Kernel

All operating systems have kernels, built around the architectural metaphor that there must be a central set of instructions to direct device hardware, surrounded by various modular layers of functionality. The Linux kernel is unique and flexible because it is also modular in nature.

The kernel of the Window operating system (which few people outside of Microsoft are allowed to look at without paying for the privilege) is a solidly connected piece of code, unable to be easily broken up into pieces. It is difficult (if not impossible) to pare down the Windows kernel to fit on a phone.

This modularity is significant to the success of Linux. The ability to scale down (or up) to meet the needs of a specific platform is a big advantage over other operating systems constrained to just a few possible platforms.

Modularity also effects stability and security as well. If one piece of the kernel code happens to fail, the rest of the kernel will not crash. Similarly, an illicit attack on one part of the kernel (or the rest of the operating system) might hamper that part of the code, but should not compromise the security of the whole device.