Linux at 20: New Challenges, New Opportunities

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Twenty years ago, when Linus Torvalds first announced his new operating system project to a Usenet discussion group, he had no way of knowing that his creation would one day conquer the world.

"Just a hobby, [it] won't be big and professional," Torvalds wrote on Aug. 25, 1991. In a follow-up post, he added, "Simply, I'd say that porting [the OS to a different CPU] is impossible." Torvalds had begun the project as a fun way to teach himself about the Intel 80386 processor and nothing more. His greatest ambition was merely to see it work.

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It has done far better than that. Today, Linux -- as Torvalds's OS came to be called -- is available for just about every modern processor architecture and many archaic ones. It can power every kind of computing device, from PCs, netbooks, and smartphones to mainframes, supercomputing clusters, and beyond.

Linux is definitely "big and professional," having won the support of industry heavyweights such as Dell, IBM, HP, Novell, and Oracle. Red Hat, one of the first commercial Linux vendors, is now an S&P 500 company with a market capitalization of $7.3 billion.

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The last 20 years haven't always been easy. Linux has made a few enemies, Microsoft foremost among them. It has faced its share of challenges, too, both technical and legal, and there are more hurdles ahead.

Nonetheless, as Linux enters its third decade, its opportunities have never been greater. Computing is changing, and Linux is not only benefiting from this change but is enabling it. Thanks to a shift beyond the PC, Linux is poised to become more than just an OS, but one of the most transformative forces in computing history -- and it's happening right under everyone's nose.

The OS the Internet built

That Linux is helping usher in a new computing age might come as a surprise to some. Linux has often been accused of following, rather than leading. Since 2003, the SCO Group has alleged that the open source OS violates intellectual property relating to Unix, and it's true that much of Linux's early market share came at the expense of costly commercial Unix variants, such as AIX, HP-UX, Solaris, and Tru64. Similarly, Microsoft has repeatedly claimed that Linux violates over 200 patents.

Linux has been innovative from its inception, however, in important ways. First, while the commercial Unix flavors ran on high-end systems based on RISC processors, Torvalds designed his OS for commodity Intel hardware, anticipating the trend toward low-cost x86 servers. Second, and even more crucial, while Microsoft was famously slow to adapt to the Internet, Linux has had the Internet at its core from the very beginning.

It's doubtful that Linux could even exist in its present form were it not for the Internet. Torvalds has played a pivotal role throughout its storied life and still personally coordinates each new kernel release -- for example, it was he who dubbed a recent stable kernel Linux 3.0, despite its having "no landmark features or incompatibilities." He's hardly alone; as one of the world's most successful open source projects, Linux represents the contributions of countless programmers worldwide. Anyone who chooses may download it, inspect it, learn from it, modify it, or use it, free of charge and with no obligation other than to allow others to do the same -- all thanks to the Internet.

Some contributors have been individuals, and many have hailed from educational institutions -- at least at the beginning. In recent years, however, the game has changed. Commercial interests are now the most prominent actors in the Linux development process. Of the top 20 contributors to the Linux 3.0 kernel, more than half were acting on behalf of their employers.

Other contributors represented prominent commercial Linux vendors, such as Canonical, Red Hat, and Suse. But arguably the most noteworthy contributors were those who represented hardware manufacturers, including Atheros, Broadcom, Intel, Marvell, and RealTek, among others. Where once component and chip set manufacturers were reluctant to assist open source developers for fear of disclosing trade secrets, today a whole range of vendors are actively contributing driver code to the Linux kernel. That's a clear testament to the project's reach and its growing importance to the overall IT industry.

Linux is everywhere

The relationship between Linux and the Internet has been mutually beneficial. Just as Linux development has benefited from the rise of the Internet, so too has the Internet prospered from Linux's evolution. Today, the open source OS is everywhere. It powers Web servers, email servers, file servers, databases, and more. In fact, according to Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin, you use Linux "literally every time you surf the Internet."

For example, search engines have become the de facto home pages for most Web users. Google leads the pack with 66 percent market share, and Google's servers all run on Linux. So do most of Yahoo's, according to the Netcraft site survey. Even Microsoft Bing uses the Akamai content delivery network, which also runs on Linux. It's likely that none of these companies or their services would even exist if it weren't for the massive scalability provided by low-cost Linux servers.

Gauging Linux's share of the overall OS market, however, is an inexact science. Only public servers can be empirically measured; anything behind a firewall is a black box. Most analysts rely on sales figures from vendors and retailers. But this method ignores the many popular Linux flavors -- including CentOS, Debian, Fedora, and Ubuntu, among others -- that can be downloaded and installed for free. There is no accurate way to measure how many servers are deployed using these distros, yet informal download stats alone suggest that Linux enjoys a far greater share of the server OS market than is reflected in the commercial Linux vendors' sales figures. Given the trend toward cloud computing, its role in everyday computing is only likely to grow.

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