Linux: 30 Years Old

Today, Linux is 30 years old, unless it is 51, 44, 38, 35, 34 or 29 years old. Some might even say 25, just to be difficult.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine start dates. Take the average person. The exact time of conception may be difficult to know. Thus, it may be easier to use some other event as a proxy for the start of life, such as a person’s birth. Even if a child has no recollection of her/ his own birth, this is an event most mothers will remember.

Something similar has happened with Linux. There have been a lot of different start dates proposed. In part, this is because an operating system is complex, consisting of many different but integrated parts. Linux has a tendency to borrow these components from other projects, including/ especially Unix. Thus, the very first start could have been a day in 1970 when Ken Thompson (1943 – ) and Dennis Ritchie (1941 – 2011) started their Unix project. It could have been a day in 1977, when the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) was developed by the Computer Systems Research Group (CSRG) at the University of California, at Berkeley.

If you prefer the 1980s, there are several more dates to choose from. In 1983, Richard Stallman (1953 – ) started the GNU project to make a free Unix-like operating system. He wants Linux to be called GNU, but is willing to compromise on GNU-Linux. Others might prefer 1986, when Maurice J. Bach (1952 – ) published The Design of the UNIX Operating System, a basic source of Unix information. Many computer science students at the time would recognize 1987, and MINIX, a Unix-like system released by Andrew S. Tanenbaum (1944 – ) based on principles found in, Operating Systems: Design and Implementation (1987) by Tanenbaum and Albert Woodhull.

Appropriately, people have concentrated on 1991-08-25, and an announcement by Linus Torvalds (1969 – ), about an operating system kernel, based on Minix principles, but free of Minix code. The launch date of Linux was 1991-09-17. However, even Torvalds refers to 1992 when the X Window System (not to be confused with the Microsoft Windows operating system) was ported to Linux by Orest Zborowski, which allowed Linux to support a graphical user interface (GUI) for the first time. By 1996, Linux came of age, having its own brand identity in the form of the penguin, Tux. The term mascot is discouraged because, while there were three competitions to find a mascot, Tux won none of them!

Linux is not an entire operating system. Rather, it is just the kernel, as developed by Torvalds. Some corporations and communities build their own operating systems directly on top of the kernel. This applies to Red Hat, Debian, Suse, Arch and other distributions who have each independently chosen the software that is to make up their operating system, above the kernel. Other companies/ groups build distributions, such as Fedora, Ubuntu, openSuse Tumbleweed and EndevourOS, on top of these, respectively. Several iterations of building can take place. Linus Mint is built on top of Ubuntu, which is built on top of Debian, for example. In the Linux world it is easier to modify something that exists, rather than to start from scratch. This is allowed, because of the Linux licencing conditions, that permit development forks, that is development branches. This also means that most Linux operating system distributions resemble one another, but in many different ways. Most of these distributions comes bundled with a variety of open-source applications, although the number and specific applications included vary.

BSD is organized differently. BSD is both a kernel and a complete operating system. Both are maintained as a single project. That said, much of the software on top of the Linux kernel by the many distributions, is the same software as used on BSD. It is often more correct to refer to Linux and BSD operating systems as Unix-like operating systems. Linux and BSD have different lineages, resulting in the use of somewhat different components.

The first Linux distribution I used was Mandrake, developed by Gaël Duval (1973 – ), and released in 1998. It was based on Red Hat Linux and the K Desktop Environment (KDE). Its current reincarnation as Mageia is fondly, but possibly irrationally, regarded by this writer. More recently, I have supported Gaël Duval in his development of /e/, a privacy-oriented fork of the Android-based LineageOS, with some online services, part of the E Foundation since 2018, Android, itself, could be considered a Linux variant, as it was based on a modified Linux kernel.

Linux Mint 20.2 Uma, is my current daily drive. Since 2014, Mint has been a community-driven Linux distribution. Almost all distributions used on tablets, laptops and desktops have a GUI desktop environment. The standard one with Mint is Cinnamon. It works appropriately, and without issues. Similarly, there are other applications that are used more than others in a wide variety of distributions. For example, the office package used here at Cliff Cottage is LibreOffice. Firefox is used as a web browser.

Looking no further than across the kitchen table, there are many different types of people who want distinctly different things from their operating systems. One person is content with her 2016 model Asus Zenbook laptop that for the past couple of years runs Linux Mint, and the other programs mentioned. She has no desire to replace the machine, for that would mean adapting to something new. As long as there are no hardware issues with the machine, then it is probably good enough to last until at least 2026. Another, older user, who does almost nothing more than read The Guardian newspaper with a Firefox browser, and writes a few weblog posts, using WordPress, still finds excuses to own several machines, most currently running Linux Mint, at least, most of the time. Another, younger user regularly uses four computers. These are a work-supplied Acer Swift running Windows 10, a personal Asus TUF gaming laptop, and two (2) scratch built gaming rigs, each filling their rather large tower with an assortment of fans. Each of these last three run Linux Mint.

However, there may be changes ahead at Cliff Cottage. While Mint is user friendly, it updates on a two year-cycle. For many people, especially the gamer and de facto support person, this is not fast enough. Enter Arch Linus, first released in 2002. While not trying to be all things to all people, it does aim to be simple, modern, pragmatic, user centric and versatile. It succeeds at some of these, but is probably more complicated and less user centric, than its adherents want to admit. However, it uses a rolling (rather than fixed) update cycle, which means that it is considerably more up to date than Mint. It also provides excellent documentation.

EndeavourOS is a rolling release Linux distribution, based on Arch Linux. Setup is much easier than that of the Arch base. It is currently installed on Eerie, our experimental Ryzen 7 desktop machine. After further testing, it will probably be deployed as a replacement for Linux Mint. Because so much of operating system activities is related to the specific desktop environment being used, it is probably advantageous to retain Cinnamon. During testing several other desktop environments were tried, but offered no apparent advantage. The main challenge with Cinnamon is a lack of appropriate documentation. LibreOffice, Firefox, and many other programs used regularly, will also be retained. Any transition to EndeavourOS has to be close to invisible, for at least one (and potentially two) of the Linux Mint users, as the ageing process makes accepting changes more difficult.

On 2021-06-24, Microsoft announced Windows 11, which will probably be released late in 2021, although preview versions are available now. The main disadvantage of Windows 11, is that it only runs on devices with a Trusted Platform Module 2.0 security coprocessor, which offers protection against firmware and hardware attacks. In addition, virtualization-based security (VBS), hypervisor-protected code integrity (HVCI), and Secure Boot must be built-in and enabled by default. This means that devices as recent as 2019, may not be able to run Windows 11. In the short-term this will not be a problem, because they will be able to run Windows 10. However, most versions of Windows 10 will loose support on 2025-10-14. After this date, they should not be used online, for security reasons.

One way to future proof an older system is to install a Linux distribution along with Windows 10, in a dual-boot configuration. This allows the machine to use both operating systems. It will also give users about four years to become accustomed to a Linux operating system, should they choose to go that route. Currently, people are encouraged to use EndeavourOS (or Linux Mint) with a Cinnamon desktop environment, if they want any meaningful help from this user.

While Microsoft Windows is demanding in terms of processor speeds, random access memory (RAM) size and other features, Linux is more accepting. It is possible to thrive with Linux installed on ten year old, limited capacity equipment. Many distributions flourish with 4 GB of RAM, some even less.

At Cliff Cottage we use a variety of special purpose operating systems. The large screen some people might mistake for a television, runs the Kodi media player on LibreELEC = Libre Embedded Linux Entertainment Center on an Asus PN40. Yet, not all of our open-source operating systems are Linux systems. Server equipment is often BSD based. The reason for this is that we want our network attached storage (NAS) server to use ZFS = Zettabyte File System, (its name in a previous life). Some Linux distributions handle this adequately, but BSD is designed to use it. Another advantage of BSD is its ports system. which provides a way of installing software packages by compiling them from their original software source. Packages can also be installed from pre-compiled binaries, if that is preferred.

There are situations where Linux is not the answer. Real-time operating systems (RTOS) are used in environments where a large number of events must be processed quickly. An example would be the control of your neighbourhood nuclear power plant. When a hazardous situation occurs, you want the operating system to respond immediately and appropriately. Linux, typically, does not respond fast and consistently enough to be used in demanding control situations. Part of the problem here, is that the Linux kernel is bloated. An upcoming weblog post will discuss RTOS in more detail.

More generally, there are legitimate criticisms of desktop Linux, including: an excessively large number of choices of distributions; poor open source support for some hardware, in particular drivers for 3D graphics chips; and, the failure of software providers such as Adobe and Microsoft to provide Linux versions of widely used commercial applications. Sometimes this can be solved by running the Windows versions of these programs through a virtual machine, a software version of a physical computer, or by using Wine, an open-source compatibility layer that allows application programs, including computer games, developed for Microsoft Windows to run on Linux.

Returning to the kitchen table, the Acer Zenbook user would probably be happy with Windows XP, and content with Windows 7. Problems arose with Windows 10, when Microsoft demanded more control than the lady (or was it the lady’s husband?) was willing to give. In addition, her support team had already migrated to Linux, and were not particularly helpful solving her Windows 10 related challenges. In the end, she had no choice but to reluctantly go over to Linux, herself.

Today, is the day many have chosen to acknowledge 30 years with Linux. For some it will be a celebration. For many others it will only be a statement of fact. While few use it on their personal computers (estimates are 2% or lower), Linux based distributions are at the heart of servers: All of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers run on Linux; Of the most popular 25 websites in the world, only 2 aren’t using Linux; about 95% of the world’s server activity is run on Linux; while; 90% of all cloud infrastructure operates on Linux; 85% of smartphones are based on Linux.

There are many sources of information about Linux: Wikipedia can be a good place to begin, with links to other sources. Distro Watch allows people to discover new and exciting, as well as old and boring, distributions.

One Reply to “Linux: 30 Years Old”

  1. Linus Torvalds was interviewed about the 30th anniversary of Linux. He wanted to emphasize that there were three equally important dates: “And while today [2021-08-27] is an anniversary date, it’s not even the only one. This was the anniversary of the first public announcement, but it wasn’t actually the actual first code drop. That came later — 17 September.

    “And even that second anniversary isn’t the ‘last’ anniversary, because the Linux 0.01 code drop on 17 September was only privately announced to people who had shown some interest from the first announcement.

    “So the first actually public and real *announced* code drop was 5 October 1991, which is when 0.02 was dropped. So I actually have three anniversaries, and they are all equally valid in my mind.”

    See: https://itwire.com/open-source/three-dates,-not-one,-to-mark-creation-of-linux-torvalds.html

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