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.