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Linux's ability to run on almost anything that can distinguish between zeros and ones – on embedded devices from routers to smartphones as well as mainframe computers – has its roots in Linux kernel version 1.2. In March 1995, this kernel introduced numerous new drivers and improvements in the networking area (IP forwarding, firewalls, additional network protocols such as NFS) as well as the major advancement of offering first ports to non-x86 processor architectures: Alpha, MIPS and SPARC.

This also meant that Linux 1.2 became the foundation for the porting of the Linux kernel to several dozen platforms since its introduction. Improved networking capabilities and applications such as Apache, Samba and Sendmail meant that a market for Linux was beginning to develop, covered by commercial Linux distributors such as Caldera, Red Hat and Suse. Caldera has since disappeared (more on that later), Suse was bought by Novell in late 2003 and regained its independence last year after Novell was taken over by Attachmate, and Red Hat's revenue is expected to surpass $1 billion for the first time this year.

But let's come back to the Linux kernel. In June 1996, Linux 2.0 introduced the first components to provide multi-processor support – and the Tux mascot designed by Larry Ewing. Kernel.org, which is still the home of the official kernel sources and that of the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) that the kernel hackers use for their discussions, was started in March 1997. During the development of Linux 2.1 in September 1998, a big row broke out among the developers: Torvalds was no longer able to integrate all of the submitted patches into the kernel sources, many programmers were frustrated, and development was in danger of being split.

However, the situation was defused by seasoned developers including Alan Cox and Ted Y. Ts'o, who began to "prefilter" submissions and relieve Torvalds of having to test every patch himself; this setup is still in operation today. In 2002, the "Linus does not scale" story repeated itself. This time, the developers found a technical solution in the more powerful Bitkeeper source code management system that was replaced by the Git version control system three years later; written by Torvalds himself, Git has since become a standard in the open source world.

Linux 2.2 was released in January 1999. By then, the kernel performed decently on SMP machines with up to four processors, offered more efficient memory management, supported IPv6 and included high performance firewall code – the distance between it and the commercial Unix competitors had shrunk. The developers had also improved the kernel's audio and video hardware support.

In the two and a half years it had taken to develop Linux 2.2, much had also changed in userland: KDE and GNOME offered graphical desktop interfaces whose capabilities were superior to those of the traditional X11 window manager. The Linux versions of StarOffice 3 and Netscape Navigator were the precursors to OpenOffice and the Mozilla programs. Oracle and Informix ported their databases to Linux in 1998. The first Beowulf cluster consisting of 68 Alpha computers made it into the Top 500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers in 1998 – now, Linux is used on more than 80 per cent of all supercomputers.

In August 1998, Linus Torvalds smiled down from the cover of US business magazine Forbes: Linux and open source had officially become viable business propositions. Hardware vendors such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard announced Linux servers. These developments stirred up a commotion at Microsoft: in the Halloween documents, Microsoft discussed the new competitors and their quality and tried to define its strategic answer to Linux; in April 1999, the infamous Mindcraft report was designed to confirm the technological inferiority of Linux. In 2001, Microsoft adopted the fundamental opposition approach, claiming that Linux is "a cancer", and that open source destroys intellectual property.

Of course, this couldn't stop the Unix for PCs, which had long outgrown its roots in the x86 architecture. IBM announced a large-scale Linux initiative and, at CeBIT 1999, SAP ennobled the free operating system by presenting a Linux version of its R/3 ERP suite. The Linux port for IBM's S/390 mainframe computer (now the z series) in late 1999 further demonstrated the free operating system's incredible flexibility – quite a few analysts believe that Linux was the IBM mainframe's salvation.

However, Linux was also gaining popularity at the other end of the hardware scale: back in 1998, Compaq had already presented a handheld computer called Itsy that ran under Linux – in a sense, this was the precursor of modern Android smartphones and tablets. The Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC) was founded in March 2000 to design an Embedded Linux specification.

Next: Millenial Linux

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