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Linux turns 20

A student project has secretly taken over the world.

Muggie van Staden, MD of local Linux provider Obsidian Systems, Obsidian. Photo: Karolina Komendera

In August 1991, a Finnish student announced on Usenet that he was developing a free operating system for Intel's 386 processor. That same month, Tim Berners-Lee released the first code for what he called the World Wide Web, also on Usenet. Twenty years later and both projects have taken over the world: one very visibly ā€“ the Web ā€“ and one almost invisibly: Linux.

The Linux kernel, the low-level core of the free operating system, now drives over 90% of the world's fastest supercomputers, nearly all of the world's stock exchanges, most of the world's embedded devices, and is switched on in 60 000 to 70 000 new Android mobile phones every day.

It powers game consoles, routers, air traffic control systems and thousands of the largest IBM mainframe installations in the world. The movie CGI industry uses Linux-based systems almost exclusively to render special effects.

Linux distributor Red Hat is close to $1 billion in value. Google's massive backend runs on customised Linux hardware, as does Facebook's. For Muggie van Staden, MD of local Linux provider Obsidian Systems, it's been a wild ride.

"Obsidian has been around for over 16 of those 20 years so it's been a big chunk," he says. "We've seen it grow in leaps and bounds from the kind of thing you don't tell your friends about, to the kind of thing that top CIOs are ashamed not to run."

Author Linus Torvalds' creation has gone from being a hobbyist operating system kernel laughed at by the large vendors in the 1990s, to one that has become the de facto standard for portable enterprise applications.

"There's nothing else like it: it runs watches to mainframes," says Van Staden. "No other OS can make that claim. Here you have a piece of technology developed by thousands of people all over the world. Yes, it's taken 20 years to become the most prolific technology out there, but if you look at Google or Facebook, neither would exist without Linux. It has truly changed the world in that way."

Free as in freedom

Powering the honchos

Neither Google nor Facebook would exist without Linux.

The second most subversive thing about Linux, and the rest of the free software that sits on top of it, is that it's always been free to use, copy, modify and distribute under the terms of its licence: the GNU General Public Licence.

The most subversive thing is that the GPL guarantees that recipients get those same terms, including the source code for them to study, make their own changes and distribute them if they wish.

Millions of developers have contributed to GPL-licensed code, including many thousands on the Linux kernel itself, transforming it from the hobbyist project it was in 1991 to the enterprise powerhouse it is today. Companies like Red Hat make their money selling subscriptions, not site licences. Others have contributed code and money because Linux is a level playing field for innovation ā€“ no one company can take the contributions of others and run. It has to be share and share alike. Not all open code is GPLed, but it remains the most popular method of licensing share and share-alike software.

Naturally, this attitude has attracted the attention of the powerful over the last two decades. IBM decided in 1999 that Linux was its friend. It correctly deduced that Linux would help it sell more hardware and services. Microsoft, unsurprisingly, decided it was an enemy and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting it, to little avail, except perhaps on the desktop. But as Van Staden points out, success on the desktop is a moot point.

"Who cares about the desktop today? You should care about the mobile devices, the cloud and the data centre, and that is where Linux is being used the most."

The Internet was one of the early poster children for the reliability and scalability of code written by volunteer collaborators and a powerful argument in Linux's favour. But other projects have also become widely accepted: the Firefox and Chrome Web browsers together now account for more than half of all browsers. Linux has also made a big dent in SA.

"Locally, more and more people are using it," says Van Staden. "There isn't a major bank in SA that doesn't. There isn't a telco that doesn't. People are getting more and more used to the fact that it's a Tier-1 OS. The one thing I find sad is that the whole private sector has gone this route but the government hasn't, despite having a mandate to do so."

Exactly why is still somewhat of a mystery, although Brainstorm is on the case. For Van Staden, the future is exciting.

"It's really mind-boggling and humbling to have been involved with it for so long. It just shows what's possible if people are willing to work together. Imagine what will be achieved in the next 20 years."

First published in the November 2011 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.


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