The history of Linux

linux admin

This article is about operating systems that use the Linux kernel. For the kernel itself, see Linux kernel. For other uses, see Linux (disambiguation).
Linux
Tux, the penguin, mascot of Linux
Tux, the penguin, mascot of the Linux kernel
OS family Unix-like
Latest stable release 2.6.23.12 (Linux kernel) / 18 December 2007
Kernel type Monolithic kernel
License GNU General Public License and others
Working state Current

Linux (pronunciation: IPA: /?l?n?ks/, lin-uks) is a Unix-like computer operating system. Linux is one of the most prominent examples of free software and open source development; typically all underlying source code can be freely modified, used, and redistributed by anyone.

The Linux kernel was first released to the public on 17 September 1991, for the Intel x86 PC architecture. The kernel was augmented with system utilities and libraries from the GNU project to create a usable operating system, which led to an alternative term, GNU/Linux. Linux is packaged for different uses in Linux distributions, which contain the sometimes modified kernel along with a variety of other software packages tailored to different requirements.

Predominantly known for its use in servers, Linux is supported by corporations such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Novell, Oracle Corporation, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems. It is used as an operating system for a wide variety of computer hardware, including desktop computers, supercomputers, video game systems, such as PlayStation 2, 3, several arcade games, and embedded devices, such as mobile phones and routers.

In 1992, Linus Torvalds explained that he pronounces Linux as /?l?n?ks/, though other variations are common.

The Unix operating system was conceived and implemented in the 1960s and first released in 1970. Its wide availability and portability meant that it was widely adopted, copied and modified by academic institutions and businesses, with its design being influential on authors of other systems.

he GNU Project, started in 1984, had the goal of creating a “complete Unix-compatible software system” made entirely of free software. In 1985, Richard Stallman created the Free Software Foundation and developed the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), in order to spread software freely. Many of the programs required in an OS (such as libraries, compilers, text editors, a Unix shell, and a windowing system) were completed by the early 1990s, although low level elements such as device drivers, daemons, and the kernel were stalled and incomplete. Linus Torvalds has said that if the GNU kernel had been available at the time (1991), he would not have decided to write his own.

MINIX, a Unix-like system intended for academic use, was released by Andrew S. Tanenbaum in 1987. While source code for the system was available, modification and redistribution were restricted. In addition, MINIX’s 16-bit design was not well adapted to the 32-bit design of the increasingly cheap and popular Intel 386 architecture for personal computers.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds began to work on a non-commercial replacement for MINIX while he was attending the University of Helsinki. This eventually became the Linux kernel.

Linux was dependent on the MINIX userspace at first. With code from the GNU system freely available, it was advantageous if this could be used with the fledgling OS. Code licensed under the GNU GPL can be used in other projects, so long as they also are released under the same or a compatible license. In order to make the Linux kernel compatible with the components from the GNU Project, Torvalds initiated a switch from his original license (which prohibited commercial redistribution) to the GNU GPL. Linux and GNU developers worked to integrate GNU components with Linux to make a fully functional and free operating system.

Commercial and popular uptake

Today Linux is used in numerous domains, from embedded systems to supercomputers, and has secured a place in server installations with the popular LAMP application stack. Torvalds continues to direct the development of the kernel. Stallman heads the Free Software Foundation, which in turn supports the GNU components. Finally, individuals and corporations develop third-party non-GNU components. These third-party components comprise a vast body of work and may include both kernel modules and user applications and libraries. Linux vendors and communities combine and distribute the kernel, GNU components, and non-GNU components, with additional package management software in the form of Linux distributions.

The primary difference between Linux and many other popular contemporary operating systems is that the Linux kernel and other components are free and open source software. Linux is not the only such operating system, although it is the best-known and most widely used. Some free and open source software licences are based on the principle of copyleft, a kind of reciprocity: any work derived from a copyleft piece of software must also be copyleft itself. The most common free software license, the GNU GPL, is used for the Linux kernel and many of the components from the GNU project.

As an operating system underdog competing with mainstream operating systems, Linux cannot rely on a monopoly advantage; in order for Linux to be convenient for users, Linux aims for interoperability with other operating systems and established computing standards. Linux systems adhere to POSIX, SUS, ISO, and ANSI standards where possible, although to date only one Linux distribution has been POSIX.1 certified, Linux-FT.

Free software projects, although developed in a collaborative fashion, are often produced independently of each other. However, given that the software licenses explicitly permit redistribution, this provides a basis for larger scale projects that collect the software produced by stand-alone projects and make it available all at once in the form of a Linux distribution.

A Linux distribution, commonly called a “distro”, is a project that manages a remote collection of Linux-based software, and facilitates installation of a Linux operating system. Distributions are maintained by individuals, loose-knit teams, volunteer organizations, and commercial entities. They include system software and application software in the form of packages, and distribution-specific software for initial system installation and configuration as well as later package upgrades and installs. A distribution is responsible for the default configuration of installed Linux systems, system security, and more generally integration of the different software packages into a coherent whole.

Linux is largely driven by its developer and user communities. Some vendors develop and fund their distributions on a volunteer basis, Debian being a well-known example. Others maintain a community version of their commercial distributions, as Red Hat does with Fedora.

In many cities and regions, local associations known as Linux Users Groups (LUGs) seek to promote Linux and by extension free software. They hold meetings and provide free demonstrations, training, technical support, and operating system installation to new users. There are also many Internet communities that seek to provide support to Linux users and developers. Most distributions and open source projects have IRC chatrooms or newsgroups. Online forums are another means for support, with notable examples being LinuxQuestions.org and the Gentoo forums. Linux distributions host mailing lists; commonly there will be a specific topic such as usage or development for a given list.

There are several technology websites with a Linux focus. Linux Weekly News is a weekly digest of Linux-related news; the Linux Journal is an online magazine of Linux articles published monthly; Slashdot is a technology-related news website with many stories on Linux and open source software; Groklaw has written in depth about Linux-related legal proceedings; and there are many articles relevant to the Linux kernel and its relationship with the GNU on the project’s website.

Although Linux is generally available free of charge, several large corporations have established business models that involve selling, supporting, and contributing to Linux and free software. These include Dell, IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Red Hat. The free software licenses on which Linux is based explicitly accommodate and encourage commercialization; the relationship between Linux as a whole and individual vendors may be seen as symbiotic. One common business model of commercial suppliers is charging for support, especially for business users. A number of companies also offer a specialized business version of their distribution, which adds proprietary support packages and tools to administer higher numbers of installations or to simplify administrative tasks. Another business model is to give away the software in order to sell hardware.

Programming on Linux

Most Linux distributions support dozens of programming languages. The most common collection of utilities for building both Linux applications and operating system programs is found within the GNU toolchain, which includes the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) and the GNU build system. Amongst others, GCC provides compilers for C, C++, Java, Ada and Fortran. The Linux kernel itself is written to be compiled with GCC.

Most also include support for Perl, Ruby, Python and other dynamic languages. Examples of languages that are less common, but still well-supported, are C# via the Mono project, and Scheme. A number of Java Virtual Machines and development kits run on Linux, including the original Sun Microsystems JVM (HotSpot), and IBM’s J2SE RE, as well as many open-source projects like Kaffe. The two main frameworks for developing graphical applications are those of GNOME and KDE. These projects are based on the GTK+ and Qt widget toolkits, respectively, which can also be used independently of the larger framework. Both support a wide variety of languages. There are a number of Integrated development environments available including Anjuta, Code::Blocks, Eclipse, KDevelop, MonoDevelop, NetBeans, and Omnis Studio while the traditional editors Vim and Emacs remain popular.

Although free and open source compilers and tools are widely used under Linux, there are also proprietary solutions available from a range of companies, including the Intel C++ Compiler, PathScale, Micro Focus COBOL, Franz Inc and the Portland Group.

Design

Linux is a modular Unix-like operating system. It derives much of its basic design from principles established in Unix during the 1970s and 1980s. Linux uses a monolithic kernel, the Linux kernel, which handles process control, networking, and peripheral and file system access. Device drivers are integrated directly with the kernel.

Much of Linux’s higher-level functionality is provided by separate projects which interface with the kernel. The GNU userland is an important part of most Linux systems, providing the shell and Unix tools which carry out many basic operating system tasks. Atop these tools graphical user interfaces can be placed, usually running via the X Window System.

User interface

See also: User interface

Linux can be controlled by one or more of a text-based command line interface (CLI), graphical user interface (GUI) (usually the default for desktop), through controls on the device itself (common on embedded machines).

On desktop machines, KDE, GNOME and Xfce are the most popular user interfaces., though a variety of other user interfaces exist. Most popular user interfaces run on top of the X Window System (X), which provides network transparency, enabling graphical apps running on one machine to be displayed and controlled from another.

Other GUIs include X window managers such as FVWM, Enlightenment and Window Maker. The window manager provides a means to control the placement and appearance of individual application windows, and interacts with the X window system.

As with most platforms there are a number of toolkits. These tend to be themed similarly in order to maintain desktop continuity. For example, although Evolution is based on GTK, Firefox is based on XUL, OpenOffice.org is based on its own toolkit and Azureus is a Java app, each uses the same GTK theme and is similar in appearance.

Linux systems usually provide a CLI of some sort through a shell, which is the traditional way of interacting with Unix systems. Linux distributions specialized for servers may use the CLI as their only interface. “Headless systems” run without even a monitor can be controlled by command line via a protocol such as SSH or telnet.

Most low-level Linux components, including the GNU Userland, use the CLI exclusively. The CLI is particularly suited for automation of repetitive or delayed tasks, and provides very simple inter-process communication. Graphical terminal emulator programs are often used to access the CLI from a Linux desktop.

Uses

As well as those designed for general purpose use on desktops and servers, distributions may be specialized for different purposes including: computer architecture support, embedded systems, stability, security, localization to a specific region or language, targeting of specific user groups, support for real-time applications, or commitment to a given desktop environment. Furthermore, some distributions deliberately include only free software. Currently, over three hundred distributions are actively developed, with about a dozen distributions being most popular for general-purpose use.

Linux is a widely ported operating system. While the Linux kernel was originally designed only for Intel 80386 microprocessors, it now runs on a more diverse range of computer architectures than any other operating system—from the hand-held ARM-based iPAQ to the mainframe IBM System z9, in devices ranging from supercomputers to mobile phones. Specialized distributions exist for less mainstream architectures. The ELKS kernel fork can run on Intel 8086 or Intel 80286 16-bit microprocessors, while the µClinux kernel may run on systems without a memory management unit. The kernel also runs on architectures that were only ever intended to use a manufacturer-created operating system, such as Macintosh computers, PDAs, Video game consoles, portable music players, and Mobile phones.

Although in specialized application domains such as desktop publishing and professional audio there may be a lack of commercial quality software, users migrating from Mac OS X and Windows can find equivalent applications for most tasks.

Many free software titles that are popular on Windows are also available, such as Pidgin, Mozilla Firefox, Openoffice.org, and GIMP, amongst others. A growing amount of proprietary desktop software is also supported under Linux, examples being Adobe Flash Player, Acrobat Reader, Matlab, Nero Burning ROM, Opera, RealPlayer, and Skype. In the field of animation and visual effects, most high end software, such as AutoDesk Maya, Softimage XSI and Apple Shake are available both for Linux, Windows and/or MacOS X. Additionally, CrossOver is a commercial solution based on the open source Wine project that supports running Windows versions of Microsoft Office and Photoshop.

Linux’s open nature offers the ability for distributed teams to localize Linux distributions for use in locales where doing so to proprietary systems would not be cost-effective. For example, the Sinhalese language version of the Knoppix distribution was available for a long time before the initiation of translation of Microsoft Windows XP to Sinhalese. In this case, The Lanka Linux User Group played a major part in developing the localized system by combining the knowledge of university professors, linguists and local developers.

Servers and supercomputers

Historically, Linux has mainly been used as a server operating system, and has risen to prominence in that area; Netcraft reported in September 2006 that eight of the ten most reliable internet hosting companies run Linux on their web servers. This is due to its relative stability and long uptime, and the fact that desktop software with a graphical user interface is often unneeded. Enterprise and non-enterprise Linux distributions may be found running on servers. Linux is the cornerstone of the LAMP server-software combination (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl/PHP/Python) which has achieved popularity among developers, and which is one of the more common platforms for website hosting.

Linux is commonly used as an operating system for supercomputers. As of November 2007, out of the top 500 systems, 426 (85.2%) run Linux.

Embedded devices

Main article: embedded Linux

Due to its low cost and ability to be easily modified, an embedded Linux is often used in embedded systems. Linux has become a major competitor to the proprietary Symbian OS found in many mobile phones — 16.7% of smartphones sold worldwide during 2006 were using Linux — and it is an alternative to the dominant Windows CE and Palm OS operating systems on handheld devices. The popular TiVo digital video recorder uses a customized version of Linux. Several network firewall and router standalone products, including several from Linksys, use Linux internally, using its advanced firewall and routing capabilities. The Korg OASYS and the Yamaha Motif XS music workstations also run Linux.

Many quantitative studies of open source software focus on topics including market share and reliability, with numerous studies specifically examining Linux. The Linux market is growing rapidly, and the revenue of servers, desktops, and packaged software running Linux is expected to exceed $35.7 billion by 2008.

IDC’s report for Q1 2007 says that Linux now holds 12.7% of the overall server market. This estimate was based on the number of Linux servers sold by various companies.

Desktop adoption of Linux is approximately 1%. In comparison, Microsoft operating systems hold more than 90%.

The frictional cost of switching operating systems and lack of support for certain hardware and application programs designed for Microsoft Windows have been two factors that have inhibited adoption. Proponents and analysts attribute the relative success of Linux to its security, reliability, low cost, and freedom from vendor lock-in.

The XO laptop project of One Laptop Per Child is creating a new and potentially much larger Linux community, planned to reach several hundred million schoolchildren and their families and communities in developing countries. Six countries have ordered a million or more units each for delivery in 2007 to distribute to schoolchildren at no charge. Google, Red Hat, and eBay are major supporters of the project.

GNU/Linux

Main article: GNU/Linux naming controversy

The Free Software Foundation views Linux distributions which use GNU software as “GNU variants” and they ask that such operating systems be referred to as GNU/Linux or a Linux-based GNU system. However, the media and population at large refers to this family of operating systems simply as Linux. While some distributors make a point of using the aggregate form, most notably Debian with the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, the term’s use outside of the enthusiast community is limited. The distinction between the Linux kernel and distributions based on it plus the GNU system is a source of confusion to many newcomers, and the naming remains controversial.