Three events that moved Linux forward

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Friday evening can be a very busy time in Citibank’s Changi Business Park office in Singapore. Hundreds of mission-critical applications hit the production servers, security patches are applied, hundreds of professionals including developers, systems engineers, Linux gurus, and management professionals spend the whole night on the conference calls ensuring the smooth functioning of servers at this financial giant. The applications that get life over the weekend have monetary value and therefore require robust servers to host them. These servers need to maximize the utilization of the applications and should have the stability to run for a longer period of time without a reboot. These servers should also have the capability to be scaled up as the infrastructure grows. The bottom line: these enterprise level boxes need to be tough.

We should thank people like Richard Stallman, Bob Young, and Linus Torvalds; companies like Red Hat and Canonical; and organizations like the Linux Foundation for creating and supporting the Linux operating system. The muscle that is today’s data center is built on Linux. The operating system has taken the whole computing world by storm. I would actually go a bit further and say (and it could be statistically and logically proved as well) that the rate at which the information is growing, enterprises would not have survived without the power of Linux. Microsoft Windows server cannot support large scale enterprises with the same efficiency, accurately, and reliability relative to the Linux-based servers.

What made Linux the backbone of data centers? What increased its adoption among enterprises? What made an operating system that was "made by engineers for the engineers" incredibly powerful and brought it to desktops and data centers and everything in between? I have an active interest in business and technology history and drawing from this interest, I think three vital events played an important role in scaling up Linux and can answer the aforementioned questions:

Helsinki and Boston cross pathes on the internet in 1991. Linux, as an operating system evolved from a kernel created by Linus Torvalds, a student at that time at University of Helsinki. Linus was using an operating system called Minix and suggested changes to Andrew Tanenbaum, the creater of Minix. Andrew rejected the suggestions and as a result, Linus created his own kernel. The takeaway here was that Linus took into account the suggestions of users for improvement of the kernel. Years before, the idea of involving users to improve the software was being pioneered by Richard Stallman, one of the top software philosophers in the world. Stallman left MIT where he was working at that time and founded GNU with a goal of producing free software. Free, here, was in terms of freedom and not cost. In the year 1991, the conducive conditions existed that would create Linux and start its spread. Linus in Helsinki had the kernel but no shell, libraries, or compiler. Stallman, in Boston had necessary programs that could be wrapped around an operating system. With the distance involved, the only way to get the Linux program together with the GNU programs was internet. The growth of internet from that point played a major role in adoption of Linux. In the words of Richard Stallman: “The Internet would also be crucial in Linux’s subsequent development as the means of coordinating the work of all the developers that have made Linux into what it is today.”

IBM and Linux become friends in 1998. When Linux was still within hacker fringes of the Internet, IBM had no interest in investing in a new operating system. Although it was a risky proposition for the king of proprietary software offerings, Linux had one attraction. It could prove competitive for Microsoft. Around 1998, IBM started researching Linux and got involved with the open source community. A successful stint with Apache project was encouraging enough for the company to put their dollars in Linux. Big Blue knew that Linux was gaining popularity not only among the computer science students but also for a lot of businesses. From getting involved in the community to helping improve the operating system security through code testing, defect management, community nurturing and even open sourcing some of its own code, the software giant recently announced its commitment of $1 billion to promote Linux. This adoption and involvement of IBM in Linux encouraged a lot of big businesses to formulate their Linux strategies.

Red Hat disrupts technology industry in 2001. Red Hat Linux, at one point, was primarily a desktop application until Red Hat forked into Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora. Paul Cormier, in 2001, re-examined the business model to pitch Red Hat Linux to big businesses. The task at hand was to adhere to the open source principles and at the same time scale up to compete with Microsofts and Oracles of the world. The solution was keep the source code free but compile the bits and bytes to enterprise class. The result was RHEL. Red Hat’s enterprise offerings have now diversified, including Red Hat Satellite, adding immense value to large enterprises in terms of speed, reliability, and scalability.


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Aseem is a graduate of Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Center, Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo, Canada. He also holds a masters in computers application from Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab, India. On, he serves as an author. He also blogs at


Those events were quite some time ago.
I would really lobe to see the article with description of newer events of the same category.
Google using Linux as base for Android, Valve pushing games on Linux, most supercomputers running Linux, stuff like that.

Anyway, total world domination is proceeding as planned.

Thanks for your feedback Jest. I think the events articulated in the article played an important role in triggering off the recent events. The post takes an historical perspective on the Linux in enterprises.
I do agree with you. The recent events that you specified are worth study and analysis to have a better understanding of trends and patterns that made Linux a hit in organizations.

I would love that too.

I wouldn't say its any of what you mentioned. I think what really brought Linux to the Datacenter is a combination of things. I suspect OS X had a role in it, it was Linux/Unix with training wheels. Think about it, the 10 or 15 year old boy or girl in 2001 who saw OS X for the first time because of its Aqua UI probably bought a Mac just for that, but eventually, the novelty of it wore off. Thus leading to further exploration.

Taking into consideration, OS X had the same tools and facilities built in as UNIX/Linux, this ultimately exposed a new generation of users who were primarily GUI users to a new world. Once they realized that they could have this power for free through Linux, they eventually switched back to cheaper x86 hardware and started using a free distro instead. Do take into account, this happened over a 13 year period. Some of these kids are now 23 or 30 years old. They are now using skills they first discovered on OS X through its initial draw which was the eye candy Aqua UI. Now System Engineers, Administrators, Developers, DB Admins, Security specialist.

I believe a new generation again discovered Linux through the iPhone. It simply killed the dependency of Windows, some switched to a Mac after buying an iPhone, some switched to Linux because the iPhone freed them from their x86 desktop or laptop running Windows. Coupled with bandwidth, Internet, wireless networks, Apple has helped in away comodotized and democratized computing. Is it necessarily for the better or worst?

The iPad is doing that again. The interesting thing is, it works so good that it ends up backfiring on Apple. Even though Apple won users over from Windows with OS X, it eventually lost them to Linux when they discovered the same power could be had for free through Linux.

They won again with iPhone, but eventually lost over to Android and the Internet. Its happening again with the iPad. As much as Linux had its own merits from a technical stand point, I don't think its current popularity was a result of its own journey.

It's a truism that most people only think events are significant if they personally observed those events; they require validation of their own observations. I'd agree with the author's take on crucial events in the development of Linux. Without the events the author lists, there would have been no Linux for other apps/OS/hardware to piggyback onto. Get a sense of history, guys.

Graham, you are correct in general, but don't go back far enough. Torvalds has himself said that if Berkeley Unix were unencumbered as it became after the great UCB/ATT lawsuit, he would not have started Linux. And if Unix were not there to copy, there would have been no Linux as we know it today. Simply put, once again, Ken Thompson and Dennis RItchie are the most important things that ever happened in the genesis of Linux, followed shortly by the distribution of Unix in source form to universities which seeded the world with a lot of systems hackers who understood how Unix works and why it works that way.

I like this site . events such as these are important

Linux is huge also in the embedded market. You can't buy, for example, a TV, Blu-ray player, ADSL modem or WiFi connected printer-scanner anymore without buying a Linux powered embedded computer at the same time.

The key moment for embedded Linux was the formation of CELF (Consumer Embedded Linux Forum) back in 2003 by Matsushita (Panasonic), Sony, Hitachi, NEC, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, and Toshiba. After that date, if you have bought consumer electronic devices from those and some other smaller manufacturers, you have most likely bought embedded Linux devices.

Hey Aseem,
Nice post! I thought you chose some nice events to highlight that are interesting moments in the history of Linux. I thought my readers would enjoy this, so I included your post in my roundup of the best recent Open Source/Linux and web hosting content. Appreciate the nice work. Thanks.


Thank you Matthew.

The three things you mentioned were indeed important in the development of GNU/Linux, but there were many other things that were important also, and some of the things you mentioned were a result of that, instead of a driving force.

For example, the use of GNU/Linux on servers was a natural given the explosion of the Internet in the late 1990s. ISPs that had been using Sun Microsystem's SPARC and Solaris combination were now switching to Intel and GNU/Linux for the cost savings (approximately 30%), plus the ability to get patches quicker (necessary for something facing the Internet) than were available from closed-source companies.

Also driving this was a lack of native applications for the desktop that people were used to using, and that GNU/Linux could make a very good and stable file and print server, mail gateway, webserver (with Apache) and other types of utilitarian servers without these native applications.

Along those lines, it was also using packages that were NOT GNU software, such as sendmail, bind, Apache, PostgreSQL, MySQL, and others. Ignoring the contributions of these (and other) open source packages (which still deliver today), is not good.

Add to that the decision of large database companies like Informix, Oracle, Sybase and others to support GNU/Linux with ports in 1998, and Red Hat's decision in 2001 was a "no brainer".

Another MAJOR factor in the spread of GNU/Linux was the creation of the "Beowulf" system, the creation of High Performance Computing that was spearheaded by Donald Becker and Dr. Thomas Sterling of NASA which lead to GNU/Linux being the leading operating system on the world's fastest supercomputers. This, in turn, helped to drive ETHERNET drivers and work on the networking stacks to make these machines more efficient.

Another early use of GNU/Linux was in re-using older machines for various tasks, which led systems administrators to use GNU/Linux as a took inside large enterprises. Many times I would visit large companies whose CIO would swear that they had no "Linux" there, but whose systems administrators were secretly using GNU/Linux to do jobs inside the data center. This is what caused a step-function in reported GNU/Linux usage in the era of 2000...when the analyst firms stopped talking to the CIOs and started talking to the systems administrators.

I believe your analysis of "three events that moved Linux forward" was correct as far as it goes, but is a bit insulting to those who also worked hard to start "GNU/Linux" down its path to glory, and continue to do so.

Warmest regards,

Jon "maddog" Hall

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