Linux at 25: An ecosystem, not only an OS

InfoWorld celebrates the 25th birthday of Linux -- and the new generation of open source projects Linux enabled

Linux at 25: An ecosystem, not only an OS

I discovered Linux the way most people did, through word of mouth in the 1990s, when rumors spread of a free "hobbyist" OS designed to run on x86 PCs. For the first decade of Linux's 25 years, Linux was largely a curiosity outside of its core community.

I'm proud to say InfoWorld was among the first publications to take Linux seriously, culminating in a January 2004 review entitled "Linux 2.6 scales the enterprise." In it, InfoWorld contributing editor Paul Venezia issued a fateful warning: "If commercial Unix vendors weren’t already worried about Linux, they should be now."

Today Linux has expanded far beyond its conquest of the server market. If you include Android, which is built around the Linux kernel, not to mention embedded Linux devices from TVs to network switches, you're talking billions of instances.

This week on InfoWorld, you'll see a string of articles celebrating Linux, including a feature article from Paul, plus his interview with Linux creator Linus Torvalds. Those two stories will run on Aug. 25 -- the same date on which Torvalds first announced Linux in 1991.

Over the years, Linux has grown in another way: The sheer scale of its community development operation. Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, recently offered me some awe-inspiring stats:

There are 53,000 source files in the Linux kernel, 21 million lines of code. There are 3,900 developers from all around the globe, 10,800 lines of code are added, 5300 lines of code are removed and 1,800 lines of code are modified every single day in the Linux kernel. It changes seven, eight times an hour on average, every day, 365 days a year. That is a prolific, tremendous scale that is just unparalleled in the history of software development.

That's the kernel alone. Zemlin reminds us that the versioning and repository system Git, on which GitHub is based, was created by Torvalds to help manage this massive development effort. Each rev of the kernel, offered under the GPLv2 license, flows to the multitude of Linux distributions, the providers of which are responsible for the customer experience.

Given that Linux providers pay nothing for the kernel, how does Torvalds earn a living? He's an employee of the Linux Foundation, as is a coterie of core contributors and administrators, but they're far outnumbered by a much larger group of dedicated developers employed by familiar names: Intel, Red Hat, Samsung, Suse, IBM, Google, AMD, and many more. This consortium supplies both monetary support to the Foundation and millions of lines of code to the Linux project.

Although Torvalds technically reports to Zemlin, the latter invokes his daughter to describe their relationship: "Like my daughter, who shares a lot in common with Linus, they’re both adorable, they both are brilliant, and neither of them listens to anything I say."

As you can tell, Zemlin likes to minimize his own role, going as far as to say, "I'm just the janitor keeping the wheels turning." But it's impossible to ignore the growing importance of the Foundation itself -- and its 50 open source projects beyond the Linux kernel, a number of them vital to the future of enterprise computing.

Take the Linux Foundation's Open Container Initiative (OCI). It's fair to say that no new enterprise technology over the past couple of years has had a greater impact than Docker packaging for Linux containers, and the OCI is the cauldron where those specs are being hashed out. Alongside the OCI, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation promises to harmonize container management and orchestration solutions for the next-gen enterprise cloud, with Google's red-hot Kubernetes at the core.

Zemlin is particularly excited by the Foundation's new, fast-growing Hyperledger project, a blockchain-based initiative to create an open, enterprise-grade distributed ledger system for all sorts of transactions. "Blockchain has the potential to change the nature of trusted transactions on the internet," he says. "Beyond that, it’s a security modality for connected devices where you have a trusted, immutable record of cryptographically secure trust on the internet. It’s a huge project."

The sheer breadth of open networking projects also demands attention. Together you can view them as circumscribing the future of networking: OpenDaylight, Open Network Operating System, Open Orchestrator Project, Open Platform for NFVOpen vSwitch, and OpenSwitch.

As Linux turns 25, it's worth pondering not only the impact of the endlessly morphing, proliferating OS itself, but its role in legitimizing open source and elevating it to the point where, today, it has become ground zero for technology development.

Linux has its rich ecosystem of contributors, providers, and users of all stripes. But around that, supported by the Linux and Apache Foundations and others, a vast constellation of auspicious open source projects has arisen, each with its own potential to shake up enterprise computing. Rather than wandering in the wilderness for a decade, the best of them are already being taken seriously.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.