20 years of Linux: Looking back, forging ahead

Linux has left quite a legacy over the past 20 years: powering the fastest supercomputers, running businesses, assisting soldiers in battle, and producing Oscar-winning movies among many other uses.
Written by Nils Brauckmann, SUSE, Contributor
Commentary -To the average PC user, Linux technology probably doesn’t seem very revolutionary. In a market dominated by Windows, even the most bullish reports estimate that only one in 20 desktop computers runs the free and open operating system.

In the larger scheme, however, Linux is arguably one of the most influential technologies of our time. It’s providing the backbone for tech applications that are changing the way the world works and plays. The most powerful computers in the world use it to crunch complicated algorythms. Linux has paved the way for companies’ move of information into “the cloud” and for the general spirit of collaboration that has fueled everything from social networking to Wikipedia.

This year, Linux turns 20. The computing community is celebrating the anniversary of the date when Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds released Linux to the world, looking back at Torvalds’ vision for modern computing and looking ahead at some of the ways Linux might change business in the future.

Linux’s uses are all around us. The Android phone you’re using to chat, cruise the web and send photos to friends was built on Linux. The TiVO system that records “Glee” episodes? Linux. Linksys wireless routers that let you fire off emails from any corner of your apartment? Linux, too.

For years Linux has been the dominant platform in the film industry. “Titanic” was the first major film produced on Linux servers, in 1997. Since then, Dreamworks Animation, Pixar and several other major studios have migrated to Linux. According to the Linux Movies Group, more than 95 percent of the servers and desktops at large animation and visual effects companies use Linux.

Linux is no lightweight. The 10 fastest supercomputers, led by the K Computer in Kobe, Japan, all run Linux. Of the top 500 supercomputers, 91 percent run Linux and only a little more than 1 percent run Windows. Perhaps the world’s most famous supercomputer, IBM’s Watson, skunked Jeopardy!’s top performers in a TV showdown earlier this year. Watson runs on Linux.

The public sector is a big fan of the technology. Across the world, local and federal governments are tapping the flexibility it offers to customize applications – especially in Brazil, Russia, Portugal, France, China and India, where the state of Kerala mandates that all high schools run Linux on their computers.

The U.S. Army trusted the security of Linux enough to weave it into the command and control system to provide timely and accurate information to soldiers in Iraq. “When we rolled into Baghdad, we did it using open source,” Brigadier General Nick Justice, deputy program officer for the Army’s Program Executive Office, said in April 2007.

The rise of Linux is a reminder of the power that a revolutionary idea can have in a capitalistic economy. Its rapid ascent -- and the creative destruction that accompanied it -- should alert complacent business people that their core assumptions can be upended. Linux was revolutionary because it ran on any computer. And it was free.

In some ways, Linux made cloud computing possible, and cloud-computing cemented its dominance. Today, Linux is such a basic foundation of the computing landscape that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it seemed at the time. To computer-industry strategists in the 1990s, it sounded nuts. They made money by getting businesses to buy their computers. Then the buyers had to keep paying more each year for software and updates that ran only on their systems.

Proprietary operating systems were the trap they used to lock the customers to their computers and get them to buy more costly software. Linux unlocked the trap. After the first kernal release in 1994, Linux spread like wildfire in computer science and engineering programs at universities around the world. Teachers loved it because the source code was fully accessible, making it ideal for helping students understand the intricacies of programming. And the students loved it because it was free.

As the students graduated into jobs at computer companies and in corporate data centers, they continued to use Linux for their own projects. Frequently they would bring it into the businesses when they needed to get something done quickly. They could simply download a copy to run on any computer, and they didn’t need to bother with a purchase order. If there was a bug, they would fix it and tell the rest of the Linux community what they had done. If they needed a driver to make it work with a printer, they sometimes wrote it themselves.

Whatever any programmer did with Linux, they had to share freely, because Linux was released under a General Public License. The GPL, created by Richard Stallman, required that any programs that incorporated Linux had to be freely shared. To Stallman, that was akin to free speech. To software companies that sounded like communism.

As it happened, the proprietary operating systems ended up in the dustbin of history, along with the companies that created them. Digital Equipment Corp. Ultrix, Wang Unix, Silicon Graphics’ Irix and Data General’s DG-UX exist today mostly in legacy systems that are too deeply rooted to be replaced.

The momentum to Linux shifted strongly at the turn of the century as the dot.com bubble burst and the economy started to falter. Early in the decade, Red Hat and Caldera launched the first Linux IPOs. In 2001 IBM announced it would support Linux and committed $1 billion to the effort, giving big business and big government assurance that Linux was reliable. In 2003 SUSE gmbh and Red Hat announced the first commercial support for Linux, and later that year, Novell, which my company recently acquired, agreed to buy SUSE. Our organization, along with Red Hat and others, make money with Linux because corporate users pay us a fee to make sure it is running correctly and fix anything that goes wrong.

Linux’s momentum continued to build in the 2000s with the release of Firefox 1.0 in 2004 and the first adoption of Linux by a big independent service provider, Oracle, in 2006. In 2008 Microsoft made its first foray into Linux, further validating the technology’s credentials in the enterprise market. Along with way, other major technology names – from IBM to HP to SAP – integrated Linux technology into their platforms.

In August 2010, Forrester Research Principal Analyst declared what we all had come to believe: That “Linux has crossed the chasm to mainstream adoption.” Its next target: The movement of data to the cloud. Making clouds efficient requires that CIOs be able to run software applications on many different computers, and only the Linux operating system makes that easy to do.

Linux has clearly infiltrated everyday technologies and will leave its mark on future applications. But, in some ways, its biggest impact could be seen as societal. As Ken Mickos, CEO of cloud provider Eucalyptus Systems, recently told Linux.com: “Linus showed all people on this planet that open collaboration leads to superior results. We need more openness, more transparency and more collaboration in this world. Thanks to Linux, it is happening.”

Nils Brauckmann is general manager of SUSE.

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