History of Linux

History of Linux 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 later led to the alternate term GNU/LinuxLinux is now 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.
Beginning of Linux
It was 1991, and the ruthless agonies of the cold war were gradually coming to an end. There was an air of peace and tranquility that prevailed in the horizon. In the field of computing, a great future seemed to be in the offing, as powerful hardware pushed the limits of the computers beyond what anyone expected.
But still, something was missing. And it was the none other than the Operating Systems, where a great void seemed to have appeared. For one thing, DOS was still reigning supreme in its vast empire of personal computers.
Bought by Bill Gates from a Seattle hacker for $50,000, the bare bones operating system had sneaked into every corner of the world by virtue of a clever marketing strategy. PC users had no other choice. Apple Macs were better, but with astronomical prices that nobody could afford, they remained a horizon away from the eager millions.
The other dedicated camp of computing was the Unix world. But Unix itself was far more expensive. In quest of big money, the Unix vendors priced it high enough to ensure small PC users stayed away from it. The source code of Unix, once taught in universities courtesy of Bell Labs, was now cautiously guarded and not published publicly. To add to the frustration of PC users worldwide, the big players in the software market failed to provide an efficient solution to this problem.
A solution seemed to appear in form of MINIX. It was written from scratch by Andrew S. Tanenbaum, a US-born Dutch professor who wanted to teach his students the inner workings of a real operating system. It was designed to run on the Intel 8086 microprocessors that had flooded the world market.
As an operating system, MINIX was not a superb one. But it had the advantage that the source code was available. Anyone who happened to get the book ‘Operating Systems: Design and Implementation’ by Tanenbaum could get hold of the 12,000 lines of code, written in C and assembly language. For the first time, an aspiring programmer or hacker could read the source codes of the operating system, which to that time the software vendors had guarded vigorously.
A superb author, Tanenbaum captivated the brightest minds of computer science with the elaborate and immaculately lively discussion of the art of creating a working operating system. Students of Computer Science all over the world pored over the book, reading through the codes to understand the very system that runs their computer.
And one of them was Linus Torvalds.
Linux in the Horizon
In 1991, Linus Benedict Torvalds was a second year student of Computer Science at the University of Helsinki and a self-taught hacker. The 21 year old sandy haired soft-spoken Finn loved to tinker with the power of the computers and the limits to which the system can be pushed. But all that was lacking was an operating system that could meet the demands of the professionals. MINIX was good, but still it was simply an operating system for the students, designed as a teaching tool rather than an industry strength one.
At that time, programmers worldwide were greatly inspired by the GNU project by Richard Stallman, a software movement to provide free and quality software. Revered as a cult hero in the realm of computing, Stallman started his awesome career in the famous Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, and during the mid and late seventies, created the Emacs editor.
In the early eighties, commercial software companies lured away much of the brilliant programmers of the AI lab, and negotiated stringent nondisclosure agreements to protect their secrets. But Stallman had a different vision. His idea was that unlike other products, software should be free from restrictions against copying or modification in order to make better and efficient computer programs.
With his famous 1983 manifesto that declared the beginnings of the GNU project, he started a movement to create and distribute softwares that conveyed his philosophy (Incidentally, the name GNU is a recursive acronym which actually stands for ‘GNU is Not Unix’). But to achieve this dream of ultimately creating a free operating system, he needed to create the tools first.
So, beginning in 1984Stallman started writing the GNU C Compiler(GCC), an amazing feat for an individual programmer. With his legendary technical wizardry, he alone outclassed entire groups of programmers from commercial software vendors in creating GCC, considered as one of the most efficient and robust compilers ever created.
By 1991, the GNU project created a lot of the tools. The much awaited Gnu C compiler was available by then, but there was still no operating system. Even MINIX had to be licensed.(Later, in April 2000, Tanenbaum released Minix under the BSD License.) Work was going the GNU kernel HURD, but that was not supposed to come out within a few years.
That was too much of a delay for Linus.
There are reams and reams written about the history of Linux umpteen times by many. So why another post on the history of Linux? I felt that I wouldn’t be doing justice if this site dedicated to Linuxdidn’t have atleast one post telling how Linux evolved from a project started by a university student to the robust OS it is now. But as the title indicates, I have kept it really short so that any one can come up-to-date by just glancing through it. To actually know the whole history, you have to go all the way back to 1971.
• In June 1971, Richard Matthew Stallman joined MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory as a programmer where he gained popularity with the hacker community and came to be known by his now popular name RMS. At that time, all the programmers used to share their code freely among each other cutting across various institutions.
• In 1980, with the advent of portable software – ie software that can be compiled to run on different computers, a business model emerged where in, the companies developing the code refused to share the code with their clients and began restricting copying and redistribution of their software by copyrighting it.
• In response to this trend, Stallman, who believed in the principle that software has to be free always, founded the Free Software Foundation and in 1985, published the GNU Manifesto. This manifesto outlined his motivation for creating a free OS called GNU, which would be compatible with Unix.
By the way, GNU is a recursive acronym for GNU is Not Unix. He along with a group of like minded programmers started work in developing the tools needed to make a complete OS – like an editor (Emacs), a C compiler (GCC), libraries and all associated generic Unix tools like cat,ls, chmod etc.
• In the same year (1985), a professor by name Andy Tanenbaum wrote a Unix like Operating system from scratch based on System V standards POSIX and IEEE for the Intel i386 platform. He named it Minix.
• In 1989, Stallman released the first program independent GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) now popularly known as GPL or copyleft. Not only that, he published all his work under this licence. Now the only thing that GNU lacked was a completely free OS kernel. Even though work was going on in developing HURD which was to fill that gap, the progress was slow.
• In 1990, A finnish student by name Linus Benedict Torvalds studying in the University of Helsinki came into contact with Andy Tanenbaum’s OS, Minix. Linus wanted to upgrade Minix by putting in more features and improvements. But he was prohibited by Tanenbaum to do so. Then Linus decided to write his own kernel and released it under GPL. This kernel is now popularly known as Linux.
• After 1997, a programming model other than the GPLed model emerged which is now popularly known as the Open Source Initiative. Bruce Perens is credited for creating the Open Source definition – the manifesto of the Open Source movement in software.
Eric.S.Raymond another hacker became one of the prominent voice in this movement. But he is more known for his very popular essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” which has since been published as a hard cover book by O’Reilly.