Happy Birthday, Linux!

It was twenty years ago today, on August 25, 1991, that Linux, the open-source operating system, a “work alike” of UNIX, first saw the light of day, in the form of a USENET post from Linus Torvalds, a Finnish computer science student.

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minixTux, the Linux mascot
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki

Hello everybody out there using minix –

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them 🙂

Linus (torvalds@kruuna.helsinki.fi)

PS. Yes – it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(.

That hobby project, twenty years later, has grown into something a bit bigger than Linus Torvalds imagined.  The DistroWatch site, which collects news about Linux distributions, now tracks more than 300 distributions (a distribution packages the Linux kernel with, typically, utilities, user interface components, and a selection of applications), ranging from the very popular Ubuntu Linux to specialized distributions (“distros”) like Suriyan, a distro whose goal is ” to develop an easy-to-use alternative operating system with complete support for the Thai language”.  Google’s popular Android operating system for mobile devices is based on Linux, as is its Chrome OS; Google’s own operations are very heavily dependent on open source in general, and Linux in particular.  Versions of Linux are used as the OS in the TiVo digital video recorders, as well as in routers from vendors like Cisco and Linksys.   Linux is the operating system used by 455 of the top 500 supercomputers worldwide, representing 91% of the top 500 capacity; it is also the OS of choice in many server rooms, including those of Amazon, Yahoo!, and Facebook.

Despite Linus’s reservation about portability — the earliest versions of the kernel were very Intel 80386 specific — Linux has been successfully ported to many different processor architectures.  The “Ports” page for Debian Linux, for example, lists “official” ports for the following architectures:

  • Intel x86
  • ARM
  • SPARC
  • IA-64 (Itanium)
  • MIPS
  • AMD-64
  • PowerPC
  • System/390

Other architectures are supported by other distributions, or “unofficial” ports.

I first began experimenting with Linux in 2002; I was used to using a UNIX workstation at work, so Linux was a comfortable choice, and I was finding the restrictions and unreliability of Windows more and more annoying.  I switched to Debian Linux as my primary OS in 2003, and have never looked back.  (I did switch to the Ubuntu distro in 2008.)   I’ve also recommended and installed Linux for others, and they have been very happy with the results.

Linus Torvalds still manages the overall development process for the Linux kernel, as the “benevolent dictator” and owner of the Linux trademark, though there are hundreds of companies and individual contributors involved.  Here’s hoping for another twenty enjoyable and productive years.

Ars Technica also has an article reviewing the history of Linux development.

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