The computing world is never a dull place, and sometimes the most innocuous-seeming things turn into monsters. Consider, for example, the Linux operating system.
Twenty-five years ago, a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds sent out an innocuous email telling the community that, as a hobby, he was writing a new, free operating system compliant with the POSIX standard – the standard that governs UNIX systems – to run on x86 processors rather than expensive minicomputers. At the time, he was running a commercial UNIX variant known as minix, and his first version still required minix to run. However, by December 1991, he had a functional standalone version of his new OS, dubbed Linux, that he released under a license of his own creation. The January 1992 version was released under the GNU General Public License, which grants end users the right to run, study, modify, and redistribute software, but under the same terms as the original license. It was an open invitation for others to jump in and play.
Two years after Torvalds’ initial post in July 1991, Linux had 12,000 users, and over 100 developers were contributing to the project. That year, two projects that resulted in Linux distributions (you can think of a distribution, or “distro”, as a version of Linux produced by an organization. At the core they’re the same, but each distro has some unique features.); Slackware and Debian were established, and both are still in existence. In 1994, Torvalds released version 1.0 of the Linux kernel, and two commercial distributions, Red Hat and SuSE (now spelled SUSE) hit the market.
And so it began.
Today, the most popular distribution, Ubuntu (an offshoot of Debian) alone has over 22 million users; Linux runs nearly all of the top 500 fastest supercomputers on the planet; and Android, the mobile operating system based on Linux, runs over 60 percent of mobile phones according to Kantar Worldwide, almost twice Apple’s market share. Not bad for what started as a student project.
A lot has changed since those hundreds of hobbyists put their programming expertise to work on the operating system though. A quarter century later, most Linux development is done by developers whose companies allow, even encourage them to contribute. According to a report by the Linux Foundation, a non-profit organization that oversees and coordinates kernel development, in 2012, 14.7 percent of developers contributing to the Linux kernel were unpaid volunteers. The 2016 count has fallen to 7.7 percent.
Why? The Linux Foundation suggests that it’s because programmers with the skills to program the heart of an operating system are in short supply, and so are snapped up by corporations. And Linux is important enough to those companies that they don’t mind their developers putting in time to improving it. In fact, the Linux Foundation’s funding comes in large part from corporate contributions.
Who contributes to the OS? Since December 2014, the largest contributors to the code were Intel and Red Hat, with others like Samsung, SUSE, IBM, Google, AMD, ARM, Oracle, Cisco, and even Facebook doing their bit. In all, over 400 companies made significant changes.
Torvalds no longer shows up on the list of contributors, since he and other senior kernel developers spend their time reviewing other developers’ work before it lands in the kernel. That’s a full-time job, as there’s a new version released every nine or ten weeks.
Even Microsoft has gotten into the game, releasing the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) in its Windows 10 Anniversary Update. It allows Windows 10 users to natively load Linux executables and libraries, and is aimed primarily at developers who are building software for Linux. At the recent LinuxCon open source conference in Toronto, Microsoft also demonstrated its PowerShell scripting tools running on both Windows and Linux systems, and its ability to manage either from both platforms.
The biggest driver behind Linux’s success was one thing: cost. UNIX workstations, including the operating system itself and operation and maintenance, weren’t cheap. When Torvalds provided basic functionality in an OS that was free and that ran on inexpensive x86 hardware, he addressed a huge need. Granted, Linux at first wasn’t something corporations wanted to touch – no one wants to bet their business on something that receives no support, and that is updated and patched as and when people have time. It took the birth of commercial distros, and support offerings from trusted vendors like IBM and HP to get the corporate world to do more than dabble.
The Internet also drove Linux’s growth, for many of the same reasons. Most people couldn’t afford to buy and operate big UNIX systems, but they could toss together some x86 machines running Linux. And based on the same open source model, software developers created Web servers and browsers that ran on the new OS, using free open source tools from groups like the Eclipse Project (founded by IBM).
And that’s what happens when a project meets a need, and captures the imagination of a community. From student project, Linux has become a major force in the industry. All because a student wanted to have a cheaper alternative to an expensive OS on expensive hardware.