​Linus on Linux's 25th birthday

Linus Torvalds describes Linux's secret origins.

TORONTO -- It's been twenty-five years since Linux began. Today, we're living in a world where Microsoft has embraced Linux and everything -- and I mean everything -- depends on Linux. It didn't start that way. It began as a small project without any great ambitions.

Linus Toravlds LinuxCon Toronto

Linus Torvalds celebrated Linux's 25th birthday at LinuxCon in Toronto. (Image: The Linux Foundation)

In a series of interviews, Linus Torvalds, Linux's creator, and I talked about Linux's origins.

SJVN: What's Linux real birthday? You're the proud papa, when do you think it was? When you sent out the newsgroup post to the Minix newsgroup on August 25, 1991? When you sent out the 0.01 release to a few friends?

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LT: I think both of them are valid birthdays.

The first newsgroup post is more public (August 25), and you can find it with headers giving date and time and everything. In contrast, I don't think the 0.01 release was ever announced in any public setting (only in private to a few people who had shown interest, and I don't think any of those emails survive). These days the way to find the 0.01 date (September 17) is to go and look at the dates of the files in the tar-file that still remains.

So, both of them work for me. Or either.

And, by the way, some people will argue for yet other days. For example, the earliest public semi-mention of Linux was July 3: that was the first time I asked for some POSIX docs publicly on the minix newsgroup and mentioned I was working on a project (but didn't name it). And at the other end, October 5 was the first time I actually publicly announced a Linux version: "version 0.02 (+1 (very small) patch already)".

So you might have to buy four cakes if you want to cover all the eventualities.

SJVN: You were a graduate student then, Were you encouraged by the professors at the University of Helsinki?

LT: Oh yes. Most of the time, Linux was very much under the radar -- it's not like it was ever a university project and I didn't want it to be -- but Helsinki University (at least the CS department) was very open to unofficial "extra-curricular" activities.

I don't think Linux was necessarily all that special in that way either. It just happened to grow to be something big. I never got the feeling that you had to work a special way, or that only the sanctioned official university projects were given resources.

For example, the CS department ended up trying out (and then using fairly widely) Linux machines running X as thin clients, but also a DEC Alpha machine running Linux in the server room. Sure, Linux use in universities wasn't exactly unusual, but I think they were particularly open to it because it was a local, cool project.

SJVN: When did you realize that Linux was going to be bigger than GNU or Minix [Andrew Tannenbaum's ground-breaking free software Unix-like operating system for students]?

LT: Oh, that happened early. I started doing some paging to disk around Christmas 1991, and at that point, Linux was doing things that Minix didn't. It was one of the reasons why the release numbering jumped from 0.03 (perhaps November 1991) to 0.12 (January 1992).

That wasn't exactly radical (people had made Minix extensions that did paging etc), but it was a sign that Linux was starting to do things that I wasn't used to Minix doing.

By summer 1992, we had X running and Linux just looked like a completely different animal from the Minix I had grown used to (but I don't even know what Minix did afterward).

The rest happened pretty gradually and never really hit me as being as exceptional as the early 1992 realization that there were actually people I didn't know who were using and tinkering with Linux.

SJVN: Looking back at it all, what do you think the really significant releases were?

LT: For me, personally, 0.03 was a big step, which is when Linux became self-hosting for the first time, I think. And 0.12 was when suddenly it was almost useful to some people, and you could actually do some limited real work with it (and when the aforementioned "hey, people I don't know are using it" happened). Admittedly you had to be pretty hardcore to play around with it, but there are still active kernel developers around from that timeframe.

But, realistically, "significant" for anybody else would come much later. 1.0 is obviously always a milestone (and took years to reach), and in many ways, the really significant events ended up being not so much about releases, but about all the companies that started supporting it. And I'm not just talking the big Oracle and IBM announcements, but the much earlier events like the first (very small-scale) commercial distributions of floppies in 1992 etc were even bigger events, and only indirectly related to my releases.

SJVN: I always thought the release of Linux 2.4 in 2001 was a big deal. That's because it was the one that added serious support for clustering, multiple processors, and vast amounts of RAM.

Along the way, who do you think helped you the most in turning Linux from being a way to get your hands dirty with operating system theory and practice to where it is today?

LT: I don't think there is a single "who". There were all the people just testing and asking for features -- and keeping me motivated. There were the actual early developers who started jumping in and sending me patches. And there were the people who did the first distributions -- MCC, TAMU, SLS, Slackware, yadda, yadda. And then all the big companies.

It's really been a lot of people.

SJVN: Looking ahead, any thoughts on where Linux will be at 50?

Bah. I don't plan that far ahead. I can barely keep my calendar for the next week in mind. I really have no idea.

SJVN: Looking back, do you have any especially proud Linux moments? Any real regrets?

LT: Uhh. Umm. No?

I don't know. There are several odd moments that still stand out to me -- when people started using Linux in consumer electronics (Tivo comes to mind) was really interesting. But there's really no one thing that stands out. I'm proud that I kept at it. As evidenced by -- Christ -- a quarter-century celebration.

Now I feel old.

SJVN: But, successful!

LT: Yes.

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