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Running Linux, Fourth Edition by Lar Kaufman, Terry Dawson, Matthias Kalle Dalheimer, Matt Welsh

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A Brief History of Linux

Unix is one of the most popular operating systems worldwide because of its large support base and distribution. It was originally developed as a multitasking system for minicomputers and mainframes in the mid-1970s. It has since grown to become one of the most widely used operating systems anywhere, despite its sometimes confusing interface and lack of central standardization. There is no single implementation of Unix. Originally developed by Bell Labs, Unix eventually forked into several versions, including a popular distribution from the University of California at Berkeley, called BSD. Over the years, many vendors have developed their own implementations of Unix, either from scratch or starting with another version. Linux was built from the ground up, although earlier versions included some code from BSD as well.

While Unix underwent a dip in market strength during the early 1990s, under the onslaught of the new Windows NT system, it came back strong and has become the mainstay of large computers.

Unix has quite a cult following in the operating systems community. Many hackers feel that Unix is the Right Thing — the One True Operating System. Hence, the development of Linux by an expanding group of Unix hackers who want to get their hands dirty with their own system. Moreover, Linux is not a “product” that ties you to a particular vendor or software developer. Because Linux is free, and all the source code is available (more on that later), anyone can modify the system to fit their own needs. Rather than waiting for some large company to release the latest features and service packs, the Linux user community is empowered to improve, adapt, and fix the system themselves. It’s this empowerment that has helped Linux become so powerful.

Linux is a freely distributable version of Unix, originally developed by Linus Torvalds, who began work on Linux in 1991 as a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Linus now works for Transmeta Corporation, a company in Santa Clara, California, and continues to maintain the Linux kernel, that is, the lowest-level core component of the operating system.

Linus released the initial version of Linux for free on the Internet, inadvertently spawning one of the largest software development phenomena of all time. Today, Linux is authored and maintained by thousands of developers loosely collaborating across the Internet. Companies have sprung up to provide Linux support, to package it into easy-to-install distributions, and to sell workstations preinstalled with the Linux software. In March 1999, the first Linux World Expo trade show was held in San Jose, California, with reportedly well over 12,000 people in attendance. These days, most estimates place the number of Linux users in the millions.

Inspired by Andrew Tanenbaum’s Minix operating system (one of the original Unix systems for PCs, intended for teaching operating system design), Linux began as a class project in which Linus wanted to build a simple Unix system that could run on a ’386-based PC. The first discussions about Linux were on the Usenet newsgroup, comp.os.minix. These discussions were concerned mostly with the development of a small, academic Unix system for Minix users who wanted more.

The very early development of Linux dealt mostly with the task-switching features of the 80386 protected-mode interface, all written in assembly code. Linus writes:

After that it was plain sailing: hairy coding still, but I had some devices, and debugging was easier. I started using C at this stage, and it certainly speeds up development. This is also when I start to get serious about my megalomaniac ideas to make “a better Minix than Minix.” I was hoping I’d be able to recompile gcc under Linux some day ...

Two months for basic setup, but then only slightly longer until I had a disk driver (seriously buggy, but it happened to work on my machine) and a small filesystem. That was about when I made 0.01 available [around late August of 1991]: it wasn’t pretty, it had no floppy driver, and it couldn’t do much anything. I don’t think anybody ever compiled that version. But by then I was hooked, and didn’t want to stop until I could chuck out Minix.

No announcement was ever made for Linux Version 0.01. The 0.01 release wasn’t even executable: it contained only the bare rudiments of the kernel source and assumed that you had access to a Minix machine to compile and play with them.

On October 5, 1991, Linus announced the first “official” version of Linux, Version 0.02. At this point, Linus was able to run bash (the GNU Bourne Again Shell) and gcc (the GNU C compiler), but not much else was working. Again, this was intended as a hacker’s system. The primary focus was kernel development; none of the issues of user support, documentation, distribution, and so on had even been addressed. Today, the situation is quite different — the real excitement in the Linux world deals with graphical user environments, easy-to-install distribution packages, and high-level applications such as graphics utilities and productivity suites.

Linus wrote in comp.os.minix :

Do you pine for the nice days of Minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? Are you without a nice project and just dying to cut your teeth on an OS you can try to modify for your needs? Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on Minix? No more all-nighters to get a nifty program working? Then this post might be just for you.

As I mentioned a month ago, I’m working on a free version of a Minix-lookalike for AT-386 computers. It has finally reached the stage where it’s even usable (though may not be depending on what you want), and I am willing to put out the sources for wider distribution. It’s just version 0.02 ... but I’ve successfully run bash, gcc, GNU make, GNU sed, compress, etc. under it.

After Version 0.03, Linus bumped the version number up to 0.10, as more people started to work on the system. After several further revisions, Linus increased the version number to 0.95, to reflect his expectation that the system was ready for an “official” release very soon. (Generally, software is not assigned the version number 1.0 until it’s theoretically complete or bug-free.) This was in March 1992. It wasn’t until two years later, in March 1994, that Version 1.0 finally appeared. As of the time of this writing (September 2002), the current kernel version is 2.4.19, while the 2.5 kernel versions are being concurrently developed. (We’ll explain the Linux versioning conventions in detail later.)

Linux could not have come into being without the GNU tools created by the Free Software Foundation. The Free Software Foundation is a group formed in 1984 by Richard Stallman to promote the development of software that can be developed, redistributed, and modified by anyone — here, “free” refers to freedom, not just cost. Underlying the Free Software Foundation’s philosophy is a deep-rooted moral conviction that all software should be free (again, in the sense of freedom); this philosophy is shared by many in the Linux community. This ideal is embodied in the GNU General Public License (or GPL), the copyright license under which Linux is released. We’ll discuss this in more detail later in the chapter.

The GNU Project, which is the main result of the Free Software Foundation’s efforts, has produced many invaluable tools and applications that Linux has depended upon, including the Emacs text editor, gcc compiler suite, and many others. GNU tools have been intertwined with the development of Linux from the beginning. Because of the critical contributions of the GNU Project, the Free Software Foundation even requests that distributions of Linux with accompanying utilities be called GNU/Linux.

Berkeley Unix (BSD) has also played an important role in Linux — not so much in its creation, but in providing the tools that make it popular. The so-called Berkeley Software Distribution was developed at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1970s by a group of developers working from the original AT&T Unix sources. The BSD group made a number of enhancements to the core Unix design, and soon, BSD took on a life of its own. These days, many variants of the BSD system are available for a range of hardware platforms, and the BSD community rivals that of Linux in terms of popularity. The Mac OS X operating system is even based on a variant of BSD! Some of the networking utilities and daemons used by Linux are derived from original BSD sources.

Today, Linux is a full-featured, complete implementation of Unix, with a vast array of applications, programming languages, tools, and hardware support. Linux supports the X Window System GUI, TCP/IP networking, multiprocessor machines, advanced hardware and software for scientific and parallel computing, and much more. Nearly every major free software package has been ported to Linux, and a great deal of commercial software is available. In fact, many developers start by writing applications for Linux, and port them to other Unix systems later. More hardware is supported than in original versions of the kernel. Many people have executed benchmarks on Linux systems and found them to be faster than expensive workstations, and Linux performs better than or as well as Windows NT/2000/XP on a wide range of benchmarks. Who would have ever guessed that this “little” Unix clone would have grown up to take on the entire world of personal and server computing?

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