How was Linux developed

Linux and open source

The year is 1995 - a sunny June day in Boston, USA. I enter an apartment, the space is limited, and the facility would also suit a squatter community. Between the mountains of the normal breakdown products of everyday life, there are always small groups of young men. A 15-inch tube screen, which has been married to an open PC case, spreads out on the kitchen table. The rear is dominated by a network cable strand that leads to a hub in the living room. On the screen a mass of data, log file remains and on the edge of the screen a bash root message decorated in shimmering red and blue.

I knew Unix and had also spent some time with various commercial Unix systems such as OSF / 1, HP-UX, SunOS, and Sun Solaris. But this is something completely different: The system on the kitchen table is a server - including file storage, DNS and web serving via a dial-up connection. Of course, the server is also connected to half a dozen systems that are distributed throughout said apartment. Adolescents and young adults sit in front of most of these systems - completely moved and absorbed by the virtual activity around the operating system that comes out of the kitchen.

If you are now wondering what the youngsters are actually up to: They write code for the Linux kernel and the GNU userspace applications around it. At that time, the scene was active all over the world, as computer science students and computing nerds discovered an exciting new toy for themselves: a free Unix operating system. It is just a couple of years old at the time and is ceaselessly growing. That the juvenile coding nerds are changing the world with their actions should only become clear years later.

From hobby OS to open source frenzy

The 1990s are quite a historic time for the IT industry: In 1993, Bell Labs Unix System Laboratories and Berkeley Software Design Inc. settled a lawsuit out of court for copyright infringement - thus clearing the way for open source variants of the Operating system BSD. This should significantly shape and inspire the tech community in the years to come.

The timing of the out-of-court settlement couldn't have been better: A Finnish university student named Linus Torvalds had already started developing his own personal kernel in 1991. Torvalds himself will later say that he would probably never have dedicated himself to this project if the BSD-OS had already been available free of charge at that time. When the legal battle over BSD is resolved, Linux is already in the birth canal and is welcomed by brilliant minds who will ensure that this operating system powers a large part of our world today.

The speed of development then increased rapidly: The userspace applications that are built around the GNU kernel ultimately form what most people today colloquially refer to as "Linux" - much to the chagrin of GNU inventor Richard Stallman. First Linux is the domain of hobbyists and idealists, then the supercomputer industry begins to take an interest in open source software and carries it into the "IT mainstream".

In 1999, the "Hobby OS" was already being used in numerous large companies - for example in the financial sector - and was digging the water out of the established players. Up until then, many companies had invested excessively in hardware and software from providers such as Sun Microsystems, IBM or DEC and are now starting to hire talented developers and system architects who have dedicated the last few years of their lives to free Linux distributions.

After the proof of performance and cost reduction has been provided to management, the "digging up the water" develops into an ax attack: Within a few years, Linux manages to steal thousands of regular customers from the commercial Unix dealers. It is the beginning of an open source frenzy that continues to this day.

A breakthrough with elasticity and code sharing

The misconception about Linux that this is a complete operating system persists to this day. Because in the real sense the term Linux only refers to the Linux kernel. The providers of a particular Linux distribution such as Red Hat or Ubuntu define which parts of the operating system are retained around the kernel and thus complete the OS. Each distribution has its own peculiarities and uses specific methods for everyday tasks such as service management, file paths or configuration tools.

It is this elasticity that allows Linux to penetrate various IT facets with such emphasis: A Linux system can be just as big - or small - as it should be. Adaptations of the Linux kernel can drive a supercomputer as well as a smartwatch or a network switch. This is one of the reasons why Linux is now THE operating system for mobile and embedded devices and also forms the basis for the majority of Internet services and platforms.

In order to grow in this way, Linux had to both maintain the interest of the best software developers and encourage the development of an ecosystem based on the principle of mutual code sharing. The Linux kernel was released under the GNU Public License Version 2 in mid-1991. At the time, the license agreement states that the code can be used freely, but that any changes (or the use of the source code in other projects) must also be made freely available.

The result is a thriving developer ecosystem that keeps Linux growing and thriving. The initially loosely affiliated developers begin to adapt Linux to their needs and habits and share the fruits of their labor with each other. For example, if the kernel doesn't support a particular device, a developer can simply write a device driver and share it with the community so that everyone can benefit. The same procedure is used for performance problems or bugs. The Linux project is being (further) developed by thousands of networked volunteers.

  1. A shine in the eye
    The Linux story begins when 20-year-old Linus Torvalds, a computer science student at the University of Helsinki in the early 1990s, became interested in the Minix operating system. At the age of 11, Torvalds began experimenting with technology - at that time with the help of a Commodore VIC-20.
  2. Humble beginnings
    Torvald's interest in Minix appears to be accompanied by frustration with the licensing model, which leads the student to design their own operating system. On this day in August 1991, Torvalds wrote this now legendary e-mail that started it all. The resulting discussion can still be read today on Google Groups.
  3. First major distribution?
    Although it is not the very first Linux distribution, it is the first to be widely used. The Softlanding Linux System (SLS) comes onto the market in May 1992. The advertising slogan: "Gentle Touchdowns for DOS Bailouts". Today, SLS is considered the forerunner of Slackware.
  4. The birth of Slackware
    Patrick Volkerding (pictured circa 1994), a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, helps his professor install SLS. The result is the currently oldest, active Linux distribution Slackware. It is still looked after by Volkerding today.
  5. Red Hat is coming
    Red Hat is probably the best-known name in connection with Linux these days - at least when it comes to the enterprise world. The first Linux distribution from Red Hat was released in 1994 - on CD-ROM. Incidentally, the company logo comes from the habit of Marc Ewing, who is responsible for Red Hat Linux, to wear his grandfather's red hat when he was a student.
  6. "Linux is a cancer"
    Linux continued to grow in popularity in the early years. The growing dissatisfaction with this development moves the then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to the following statement: "Linux sticks like a cancer to all intellectual property with which it comes into contact." It is the official proof that the open source software is a little more than angry at the established players.
  7. The wave of success
    In 2001, the Swiss company Rösch launched a new laundry detergent called Linux. The product is still on sale today, because Linus Torvalds owns the trademark rights for the name Linux, but only in connection with computer software.
  8. Enter the big game
    Nowadays you hardly ever see any TV commercials for Linux. In 2003, however, IBM created a 90-second Super Bowl commercial for the open source software. Slogan: "The future is open".
  9. Big and professional
    Actually, Torvalds hadn't planned to turn his hobby operating system into something really big and professional. But that's exactly what happens. In 2005, Torvalds even made it onto the cover of the renowned "Business Week": The associated article deals with the Linux success story.
  10. A billion dollars
    Success can be measured in many ways, but bottom line numbers are difficult to contest. In 2012, Red Hat became the first open source company to raise more than a billion dollars.
  11. Microsoft loves Linux?
    What can happen in a decade: Another cancer in 2001, the Windows giant publicly declared its love for open source software in 2014. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella set the new direction for the first time at an event in October 2014 and never tires of repeating it over and over again.
  12. Spoiled for choice
    Even if Linux and Microsoft have become something like "friends": Many users value options. And they get enough of that in the Linux world. There is now a suitable Linux distribution and platform for just about every taste.
  13. Linux-driven world
    It cannot be denied that Linux dominates parts of our tech world: 95 percent of the servers in the top domains run on Linux, as do most of the world's financial markets. Oh yes: 98 percent of the 500 fastest supercomputers also rely on open source software and for 75 percent of companies that have ventured into the cloud, Linux is the operating system of choice.