Linux at 30: Early Converts Share Memories of Their Journey
I’ll admit I take Linux’s ubiquity for granted. Like many of you, I know it as the Swiss Army knife operating system it is today, running on everything from refrigerators to cloud-scale architectures to helicopters on mars.
But it didn’t start that way, of course. There was no glitzy product launch, no sales team, no social media blitz. There was just a programmer at a desk in Finland who put his kernel code out on a bulletin board in 1991, with a few rules around how anyone could add or change the software for the better. A writeup of that programmer, Linus Torvalds, recently ran here in The New Stack.
But even though I know the legend, I didn’t really appreciate how the people involved in the early days of Linux and open source little suspected they were changing the world.
Then I stopped into an online celebration of the kernel/OS’s 30th birthday happening at Oracle, where people shared stories from Linux’s salad days. What comes through is that Linux was grown by people who found it a worthy outlet for their technical curiosity and, ultimately, a platform to build not just software, but friendships. Many of them share Torvalds’ astonishment at how far the kernel/OS has come. As I heard their stories, I too grew amazed by the improbable journey of Linux. Here are a few of the stories they told:
‘It Was a Hobby Project’
Wim Coekaerts, vice chairman of the Linux Foundation and current senior vice president of Oracle Linux and other technologies:
“In the early ’90s it was a hobby project for most of us. What Linus released wasn’t a full-blown operating system like Windows. He released an operating system kernel. And it took many years to evolve an operating system that was usable. I don’t think anyone at that time assumed that this would be so big. I certainly didn’t.
“Not until the early 2000s, when Linux was ported away from just the x86 server platform. Until then, to me, it was like ‘Oh, it’s interesting, but it’s unclear what the future is.’”
‘It Made Me Feel Welcome and Appreciated’
Vegard Nossum, consulting developer, Oracle Linux Development:
“When I was just starting out with kernel stuff, I found a security issue, and I identified it and sent a patch for it to the mailing list. Linus replied with a patch of his own, saying, ‘This code is crap.’ As somebody who was just starting out, I was quite disappointed by that response, and I sent him a short private email saying that.
“He sent me back this really long, thoughtful and actually very friendly email where he explained why he said the things that he said, and he encouraged me to try out his patch, build it and see if I could find any other bugs with it. Turns out there was another bug, which I found and fixed. I sent another patch, and Linus committed it, and I got full credit. And that just made me feel really welcome and appreciated in [the] Linux kernel community.”
‘If Your Soil is Fertile, You Can Grow Anything in It.’
Ashish Nadkarni, group vice president of infrastructure systems and platform and technology at IDC:
“I think people should look at Linux not as a software or an operating environment or something that just came into being overnight. They should look at Linux as a movement. They should look at this movement in the context of what it did to the industry. It changed how companies could embrace newer software.
“Ultimately, the only reason why these open source stacks can thrive today is because the foundation is Linux-based. If that foundation was closed and proprietary, you wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it. But because that foundation was open source, it was malleable, and you could customize it. That ultimately led to [the growth of open source]. If your soil is fertile, you can grow anything in it. That fertile soil is Linux today.”
‘It Was About Breaking Preconceived Notions’
Todd Vierling, principal engineer, Oracle Linux Development:
“Working on Linux at a major company has shown me how much it’s helped to democratize computing. The Golden Age of traditional computer hacking was about breaking preconceived notions and letting users run their computers however they want. [The] Linux ecosystem helps different users experiment with whatever works best for them. There’s more diversity of vendor systems and software to choose from. After all, there’s a version of Linux for just about everything now, from big data warehouses to laptops, wireless routers, baby monitor cameras, doorbells, even the Android phone in your pocket. Chances are some of your gadgets run a variation of Linux, and you don’t even know it.”
‘…Then in August the Email Came Out from Linus ‘
“My earliest memory of Linux is an email from Linus in 1991. But first some context around that: A few months before the email, I and a couple of friends put together some money to send to the U.S. to get the BSDI source code [from the University of California at Berkeley], because we wanted the source code for an operating system. We were using SunOS and AIX and operating systems were interesting to us. So you could send money to the university, and they would send you a big tape with the BSDI source code on it.
“That was maybe in June of ‘91, when we sent our money, then in August the email came out from Linus, and so we jumped on that, and game over.
“It took almost a year for the [BSDI source code] to arrive, and we never looked at it.”
‘There Were Sharks and Foxes’
“When you are in a plane and your video system has to reboot, the first logo you see on that screen is a penguin. That tells you that the whole system is based on Linux. But early on, developers thought of all kinds of other animals to represent Linux. They were sharks, there were foxes and other kinds of mascots. There wasn’t really a consensus until Linus comes along and says, ‘Hey, why not a penguin?’ and it just stuck.”
‘A Turning Point for Me’
“When people started porting Linux over to different types of hardware, and it went from being a single-platform operating environment to multiplatform, it unleashed what we know of today. Prior to that, it was always associated with x86 or Intel, or it was meant to be run on PCs.
“The first time I saw a version of Linux that had been specifically ported over to run on SPARC, I was amazed to see how stable it was and how complete it was. It just ran.
“Later we were working on SPARC systems with 4,000 cores, and then Linux boots up on it and runs, and it actually scaled quite well with just a little bit of work. And then you take that exact same source code, and you make it run on a little Raspberry Pi. And that just surprises me that one code base can be nimble on something really small and can equally scale out on something really massively big. It’s magic. Really cool. It’s incredible.”
‘We Won’t Even be Aware That it’s There’
“Linux will definitely be around in 30 years. It will be everywhere, but I think crucially, people will stop talking about it as a stand-alone product. I think ultimately it will go to the point where everything runs on Linux, all the way from endpoints to edge devices to data centers to the cloud. And it’s getting there, but we still have this concept of Linux as a stand-alone operating environment. But more and more, it is becoming the engine that powers something else. And I think what will happen in 30 years [is that] people will always consume Linux as a function of something else. We won’t even be aware that it’s there.”
If you’re interested in charting your own Linux journey, check out Oracle Linux. It’s 100% application binary-compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux.