Thursday, July 31, 2008

A crash course in Linux history and politics — Ubuntu Kung Fu

Linux is more than just software. It’s an entire community of users, and as such, there’s a detailed social history behind it. Below I take a look at the origins of Linux, both in terms of where it came from and the people who make it.

Your instinct might be to skip information like this. But it’s important that you understand it at some stage, because it’s what being a Linux user is all about. Linux is more than simply the sum of its parts. It’s far more than simply a set of computer programs.

If nothing else, what’s below explains the fundamental philosophies behind Linux and attempts to answer some of the often-baffling questions that arise when Linux is considered as a whole.

In the Beginning

Linux was created 17 years ago, in 1991. A period of 17 years is considered a lifetime in the world of computing, but the origin of Linux actually harks back even further, into the early days of modern computing in the mid-1970s.

Linux was created by a Finnish national named Linus Torvalds. At the time, he was studying in Helsinki and had bought a desktop PC. His new computer needed an operating system.

Torvalds’s operating system choices were limited: there were various versions of DOS and something called Minix. It was the latter that Torvalds decided to use. Minix was a clone of the popular Unix operating system. Unix was used on huge computers in businesses and universities, including those at Torvalds’s university.

Unix was created in the early 1970s and has evolved since then to become what many considered the cutting edge of computing. Unix brought to fruition a large number of computing concepts in use today and, many agree, got almost everything just right in terms of features and usability. Versions of Unix were available for smaller computers like Torvalds’s PC, but they were considered professional tools and were very expensive. This was in the early days of the home computer craze, and the only people who used IBM PCs were businesspeople and hobbyists.

Sidenote: Linux is a pretty faithful clone of Unix. If you were to travel back in time 20 or 30 years, you would find that using Unix on those old mainframe computers, complete with their teletype interfaces, would be similar to using Linux on your home PC. Many of the fundamental concepts of Linux, such as the file system hierarchy and user permissions, are taken directly from Unix.

Torvalds liked Unix because of its power, and he liked Minix because it ran on his computer. Minix was created by Andrew Tanenbaum, a professor of computing, to demonstrate the principles of operating system design to his students. Because Minix was also a learning tool, people could also view the source code of the program—the original listings that Tanenbaum had entered to create the software. But Torvalds had a number of issues with Minix. Although it’s now available free of charge, at the time Minix was only available for a fee, although in many universities it was possible to obtain copies free of charge from professors who paid a group licensing fee. Nevertheless, the copyright issue meant that using Minix in the wider world was difficult, and this, along with a handful of technical issues, inspired Torvalds to create from scratch his own version of Unix, just as Tanenbaum had done with Minix.

A crash course in Linux history and politics — Ubuntu Kung Fu

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