How did the 30-year-old Linux conquer the world?

The Linux operating system, which is turning 30 this year, has become the undisputed centre of the open-source code revolution. Devices from Android phones to the world's leading supercomputers are based on the system.

On 19th August, 1991, Linus Torvalds sent a humble message to the Usenet group comp.os.minix at the University of Helsinki:

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since April and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system due to practical reasons among other things).

The hobby-based tinkering that was born out of a frustration with the shortcomings of the Minix system had generated the first version of the Linux operating system by 17th September. It was only 65 kilobytes and comprised some 10,000 lines of Torvalds' code. Linux is based on open source code that can be modified by anyone.

In comparison, the current Linux 5.14 contains over 3.3 million lines of code.

Torvalds, then 21 years old, was studying computer science at the university. In 1997, he graduated after finishing his Master's thesis Linux: A Portable Operating System. Linux was already released in 1994 for general use.

– Linux develops quickly and the latest development relates to containers and their management. Through container technology, Linux enables industrial solutions and 5G, as well as the following generations of mobile network infrastructures, says Sasu Tarkoma, professor in computer science.

Decentralized innovation, built with trust

At that time, there was demand for a Unix-compatible kernel. Kernel means the core in software developing, around which programming is built. Thanks to the open source code, this one could be deployed quickly and modified to suit various uses.

The timing was also just right, since the internet was taking off and the servers needed a lot of flexible, safe, and stable server software. Linux could be installed without worries about licenses or license management. The largest web sites of today, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and eBay are built on Linux. Linux is also at the core of the Android operating systems in mobile phones.

– At the beginning of the 2000s, we were developing a prototype of a smartphone, where Linux enabled the use of both GSM Data and Wi-Fi, and Java-based applications. I was working on this prototype myself. This was some 6-7 years before Google released Android, Tarkoma says.

Principal software developers started to develop the operating system. The Open Source Development Lab was launched in 2000, and it soon became the Linux Foundation that is now, according to its own definition, "a neutral, dependable centre for developers to write code, manage, and scale open technology projects."

This has ensured the ability of Linux to develop and grow with time, without the impediment of unreasonable commercial demands. The system works in everything from small, integrated devices to the world's leading supercomputers. The Linux-based Red Hat operating system is used at the New York stock market, and the Large Hadron Collider of CERN is also based on Linux.

Linux' rise to IT cornerstone

– Linux has supported our research and been a topic of our research from the beginning. Today, Linux runs the university's computing infrastructure, enables the smart campus environment, and is at the core of experimental research in computer science. You could say that Linux is everywhere.

Besides Earth, Linux has invaded Planet Mars, as NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, which delivered the Perseverance rover to the red planet, has a Linux-based operating system. There are already dozens of Linux-based satellites in space, especially those manufactured by SpaceX, and it is used on the ISS space station.

The computer science research at the university also maintains its lead in Linux development.

– We were among the first to develop MOOCs (massive open online coursers) on containers and the Kubernetes system. Today, containers and Kubernetes are commonplace, Tarkoma says.

Torvalds recently sent a message to Linux developers, acknowledging the 30th anniversary, where he said we can look forward to the next 30 years eagerly. The university will celebrate the 30 years of Linux at a jubilee seminar on 8th October.


Why a penguin?

Tux the penguin has been the logo of Linux since 1996. Torvalds has had a close relationship with penguins since the early 1990s; legend has it that he was pecked by one of these birds while visiting Australia to meet a group of Unix users. The name 'Tux' means (T) orvalds (U) ni (X), but naturally it is also short for tuxedo, the outfit that penguins seem to wear.