A humble open source software project from Finland has thrived for 25 years despite decades of competition from rival proprietary operating systems
The Linux open source operating system this week celebrates its 25th birthday, after it was created by a Finnish programmer way back in 1991.
This particular student wanted to create an operating system that was free to use and modify. The source code started off small, but grew dramatically over the years. 4.2.3 version for example has than 18 million lines of source code.
Linus Torvalds of course was the creator of Linux and for many years he was the principal developer of the Linux kernel, which became the kernel for other operating systems including Chrome OS and Android.
Linus Torvalds had long been fascinated by computer science, specifically the clear structure of the Unix operating system. He attended the University of Helsinki between 1988 and 1996 but had to take time off to join the Finnish army as part of mandatory military service of Finland. He graduated with a master’s degree in computer science.
Whilst studying in Helsinki, he began a project in April 1991 that later became the Linux kernel. On 25 August 1991 at the age of just 21, announced his system in a Usenet posting, and requested feedback on it, but warned that it was just a hobby OS and said it “won’t be big and professional”.
And he never named it Linux. Indeed, Torvalds wanted to call it Freax, a portmanteau of “free”, “freak”, and “x” (for Unix), but a co-worker at the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT) who controlled access to the FTP server at the time didn’t think that was a good name, so he instead named the project “Linux” on the server without consulting Torvalds.
From those early days Linux grew dramatically thanks to a large community of programmers worldwide. A number of companies (Red Hat, SUSE etc) are also involved in the development of the kernel and software. The rights to use it are managed by licences such as GPL (the GNU General Public Licence), and despite Linux being freely available, some companies make their money from Linux.
In the late 1990s, tension between the Linux community and Microsoft grew after Redmond claimed that business use of Linux on servers was lacking in terms of reliability, security, and total cost of ownership, when compared to Windows.
After a while though this frosty relationship thawed, and Microsoft even submitted 22,000 lines of source code to the Linux kernel back in 2009.
There was a brief period of concern back in 2003 when SCO claimed it had the Unix copyright and it sued IBM. At that time SCO began selling Linux licenses to users who did not want to risk a possible complaint on the part of SCO.
However the SCO move was considered by many as the last roll of the dice for a financially troubled company and SCO eventually filed for bankruptcy.
Linux of course has been associated with its penguin mascot (Tux) ever since 1996. This is because Torvalds mentioned when they choosing the mascot that he had been bitten by a penguin on a visit to a zoo in Australia.
Torvalds meanwhile is currently sponsored by the Linux Foundation so he can work full-time on improving Linux and is known to use the Fedora distribution of Linux. He hardly codes any more however and instead helps manage the process of how its built.
Nowadays, Linux now dominates many sections of the market. The rights to use it are managed by licences such as GPL (the GNU General Public Licence), and a host of companies make a solid business in distributing and supporting the Linux operating system.
It’s available in various distributions, that run on everything from a tiny Raspberry Pi, to China’s Tianhe supercomputers. It’s been used everywhere, including in space. And it powers the majority of the world’s smartphones thanks to Android’s popularity.
Linux’s 25th birthday has seen some of its greatest supporters, including Canonical and Red Hat, pay tribute and even these days Microsoft is on board. Earlier this year it launched the Linux Bash shell command line on Windows 10, partnering with Canonical to bring ‘Ubuntu on Windows’ to its operating system
And of course, there has been plenty of reflection from Torvalds and others at the annual LinuxCon.
So, happy birthday Linux!
Think you know all about Linux? Try our quiz!