Linux: Coming of Age at 25

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-15-40-25It’s quite hard to imagine a world without Linux in it, but in reality one of the industry de-facto standard operating environments has just reached its quarter century anniversary. It’s been some journey!

In the IT world of 1991, the desktop market was just blossoming, the personal computer was becoming more powerful, Intel and others were breaking Moore’s law with reckless abandon, and Microsoft were just about to launch a new innovation they called Windows. The server market was also expanding. A seemingly interminable list of organizations including HP, Sun, TI, Siemens, ICL, Sequent, DEC, SCO, SGI, Olivetti – plus IBM of course (AIX debuted in 1986) – built proprietary chips, machinery and UNIX variants, all based on the pioneering work undertaken by Bell Labs more than a decade previously.

Faced with such a crowded market, how did Linux take off? The phenomenon that was the Linux revolution has been ascribed to a number of factors, including the market desire for choice, technical freedom, and value for money.

The nature of the products on the market at the time was that they were more or less exclusively proprietary, and cost a lot of money. A vendor lock-in and an expensive contract was not all that appealing to CIOs looking to derive value from their investments in what was sometimes referred to as “open systems”.

Linux plugged the gap in the market of true openness. Because the ownership was in the hands of the community, there were no proprietary elements. And the open source nature of the kernel meant that provided you had a piece of suitable hardware, Linux was basically free to use. Linux Torvalds set about improving on other Unix kernels available at the time, but took the stance that the project should be entirely open. While the idea was his, he merely wanted to invite others to help the idea take root. Indeed Torvalds’ own view of the name was that it sounded too egotistical, and for the first 6 months of the project, the acronym FREAX (an amalgam of “free”, “freak” and “x”) was used as the working title. Only later did he accept that Linux might work better.

Whether such altruism would yield any fruit is easy enough to quantify. Recently, the Linux Foundation released the Linux Kernel Development report stats showing that more than 13,500 developers from 1,300 companies have contributed to the Linux kernel since 2005. Moreover, it isn’t just hobbyist techies in academic labs. The same report indicates that among the top organizations sponsoring Linux kernel development since the last report (which was published in March 2015) included industry giants such as Intel, Red Hat, Samsung, SUSE, IBM, Google, AMD and ARM.

And the result? Well – the rest is history, as they say. Consider just a few of the details of Linux implementations:

  • Thousands of major commercial, academic and governmental organizations are now Linux devotees
  • The number of users of Linux is estimated at 86 million, according to
  • Android, the de-facto mobile device environment, is Linux-based
  • The world’s most powerful supercomputers are Linux-based
  • Some of the world’s largest companies, including Amazon and Google, rely heavily on Linux-based servers

Little wonder then that in 2013, Linux overtook the market share of all other proprietary UNIX systems.

A question mark about whether an open source (read: free) environment could be commercial sustainable must also be answered. Arguably the best way to do this might be to look at the health of the organizations who seek to make Linux a commercially viable product. These are the vendors of the various Linux distributions, such as SUSE, Red Hat and Oracle. And looking at the health of the Linux line of business in each case, we see highly profitable organizations with trend-beating revenue growth in a tough market sector.

Furthermore, consider also other players in the sector and their attitudes to Linux. Look at the IBM focus on Linux as a great illustration. An investment of millions of dollars in Linux, significant partnerships with key Linux distros, and the creation of a brand-new range of ground-breaking Linux-only high end systems, branded as LinuxONE.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the industry, in what might have been seen as unthinkable a few years ago, Windows vendor Microsoft has launched partnerships with Linux vendors including SUSE and Red Hat to provide a collaborative cloud hosting solution.

But after 25 years, aren’t we overdue a new idea? After all – the industry moves fast and innovation is all around us! Well we’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? “It’s a bit old, so we need to replace it”.

But like mainframes, like COBOL, like CICS, like Java, Linux is a technology that stays young, stays current. All these technologies have enjoyed significant anniversaries recently. And in not one single case can you justifiably argue that the age of the technology means it warrants discontinuing. Many of the ideas might have been formed some time ago, but in each case the community and vendors responsible have continued to enhance, improve and augment the technology to keep it relevant, up to date, and viable for the modern era.  In technology, the myth that age implies a lack of value is diametrically incorrect. In IT, age demonstrates value.

In support of Linux, the likes of SUSE, IBM and Micro Focus have long since advocated the use of innovative technology to help support existing value IT investments. Systems and applications that run businesses should be supported, enhanced, innovated, and modernized. At a low cost, without any risk. Whether it’s with the applications themselves or with the underlying operating environment, building and operating today’s and tomorrow’s digital infrastructure is what these vendors do best.

Speaking of birthdays, Micro Focus is 40 this year. Enduring value is no stranger to us. Happy Birthday.

Editors Note: Derek Britton works at software partners Micro Focus and is a regular contributor to he is also a thoroughly nice chap which is unrelated to him being a fellow brit, but doesn’t harm either… A version of this blog first appeared on

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