Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

In 2011, you may not “see” Linux, but it’s everywhere. Do you use Google, Facebook or Twitter? If so, you’re using Linux. That Android phone in your pocket? Linux. DVRs? Your network attached storage (NAS) device? Your stock-exchange? Linux, Linux, Linux.

And, to think it all started with an e-mail from a smart graduate student, Linus Torvalds, to the comp.os.minix Usenet newsgroup:

Who knew what it would turn into? No one did. I certainly didn’t. I came to Linux later, although I was already using Minix and a host of other Unix systems including AIX, SCO Unix System V/386, Solaris, and BSD Unix. These Unix operating system variants continue to live on in one form or another, but Linux outshines them all.

The only real challenger in popularity to Linux from the Unix family already existed in 1991 as well, but I’ll bet most of you won’t be able to guess what it was.

Remember this now folks, I may use it another Linux quiz down the road. The answer is NeXTStep. You should know it as the direct ancestor of the Mac OS X family.

The real question isn’t how Linux got its start. That’s easy enough to find out. The real question has always been why did Linux flourish so, while all the others moved into niches?

It’s not, despite what former Sun CEO Scott McNealy has said, that Solaris ever had a realistic chance of making sure that “Linux never would have happened.” Dream on, dream on.

Linux overcame Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, and the rest of the non-Intel Unix systems because it was far less expensive to run Linux on Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) x86 hardware then it was to run them on POWER, SPARC or other specialized hardware. Yes, Sun played with putting Solaris on Intel, three times, but only as a price-teaser to try to sell customers Solaris on SPARC.

In addition, historically Unix’s Achilles heel has been its incompatibility between platforms. Unlike Linux, where any program will run on any version of Linux, a program that will run on say SCO OpenServer won’t run on Solaris and a Solaris program won’t run on AIX and so on. That always hurt Unix, and it was one of the wedges that Linux used to force the various Unix operating systems into permanent niches.

There were other x86 Unix distributions–Interactive Unix, Dell SVR4 Unix (Yes, Dell), and SCO OpenServer-but none of them were able to keep up with Linux. That’s why SCO briefly turned into a Linux company with its purchase of Caldera, before killing itself in an insane legal fire against Linux that was doomed to fail from the start .

It was also to Linux’s advantage that its license, the Gnu General Public License version 2 (GPLv2) made it possible both to share the efforts of many programmers without letting their work disappear into proprietary projects. That, as I see it, was one of the problems with the BSD Unix family–FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc.–and its BSD License.

Another plus in Linux’s favor was that as it turned out, Linux Torvalds wasn’t just a great programmer; he was a great project manager. Oh, Torvalds can be grumpy, very grumpy, but at the end of the day, after almost twenty-years in charge, he still manages to get thousands of developers to work together on an outstanding operating system. Not bad for an obscure graduate student out of Finland eh?

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