Linus Launches Linux

Sometimes, the most remarkable events in life are unintentional. Such is the case with Linux, which started out as a student's hobby but has quietly become in the past eight years one of the world's fastest-growing operating systems.

Linux was started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, then a student at Finland's University of Helsinki. Since then, tens of thousands of volunteer coders have debugged, fixed and enhanced Linux.

But the story of Linux really begins in June 1979 at the Usenix meeting in Toronto, according to Peter Salus, editorial director at Specialized Systems Consultants Inc. in Seattle, which publishes Linux Journal. "The lawyer from AT&T Corp. got up and announced the new pricing structure for AT&T Unix System V," Salus says. "The discounted educational fee was $7,500, and the full commercial fee was $40,000 per CPU. You can imagine what the feeling among the guys there was."

One of those guys was Andrew Tanenbaum, a professor at a university in Amsterdam. "He couldn't ask a free university to pay that kind of money, but he wanted his students to work with Unix," Salus says. So Tanenbaum wrote Minix, a small version of Unix that would run on a minimally configured desktop system.

Torvalds began using Minix after becoming frustrated with getting computer time on the university's Digital Equipment Corp. MicroVAX. But while it was a great teaching tool, Minix really wasn't a fully functioning operating system.

It's what Torvalds did in response that, in Salus' eyes, was extraordinary. "He was interested in trying to see how an operating system worked by writing one, just as one would learn to ride a bicycle by falling off one," Salus says.

The result was a kernel that contained the basic Unix components - task-switching, a file system and device drivers. In other words, Linux Version 0.02.

Spreading the Word

Linux may have remained in that early state if it weren't for the Internet, because it was the Internet that got the word out so quickly. Soon after Torvalds mentioned his development to the Minix newsgroup, it was arranged that Linux would be available to anyone who wanted to download it, for free, over the Internet. Linux was licensed under the Free Software Foundation's General Public License, meaning that anyone could sell, copy and change the source code, as long as they allowed others to do the same.

Since any programmer in the world can access the original source code, Linux has undergone more scrutiny and improvements than probably any other software in the world.

In 1994, Linux 1.0 was released as a full-fledged operating system that included the Linux kernel, networking support, hundreds of utility programs, development software and more. Today, Version 2.0 offers 64-bit processing, symmetric multiprocessing and advanced networking capabilities.

According to Dataquest, a market research firm in San Jose, the number of companies using Linux grew 27% in 1998, and a well-reasoned count of users is 7 million. In a recent survey of 788 large, small and medium-size organizations in the U.S. and Canada by International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Mass., 13% of respondents said they use Linux.

"Linux is emerging as a potential competitor to Windows and Unix for some server applications," says Dan Kusnetzky, program director for IDC's Operating Environments and Serverware research programs.

Major vendors like Oracle Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. have announced their support, and commercial applications are on the increase. Vendors like Red Hat Software Inc. and Caldera Systems Inc. sell versions of Linux that include support.

Still in Charge

But no matter what activity swirls around Linux, the person in charge of the kernel is still, to this day, Linus Torvalds. Although he's got a "real job" at Transmeta Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., he continues to devote a lot of time each day to Linux. "He's very devout about keeping that kernel as small and compact and utilitarian as possible and not putting in bells and whistles," Salus says.

(Brandel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld. Contact her at

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