The wonderful wizard of OS: Linux looms large in IT circles
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Recently, I had the opportunity to edit an instructor guide on Linux security for a college courseware package. I’ve heard of Linux, of course — who in the IT profession hasn’t heard of Linux? — and am familiar, at a surface level, with some of the more popular distributions. I must confess, however, to a certain lack of actual hands-on Linux experience.
My use of computers and computer- related networks has been limited to personal computers only, all of which have come prepackaged with the current flavor of Windows. Linux has been outside the realm of my little computer-world, so the companion textbook was a real eye opener. Talk about receiving an education! The materials left me asking the question, “Linux, where have you been all my life?”
Though its roots are in the similar Unix operating system developed at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, Linux as we know it is the brainchild of Linus Torvalds who started work on an operating system kernel for “fun” roughly 25 years ago. Torvalds’ little project eventually resulted in an OS family that has gained worldwide dominance on enterprise-level systems.
According to the Linux Foundation, 98 percent of supercomputers worldwide are powered by Linux — 98 percent! The Linux story gets better: In 2014, ZDNet reported that 485 of the top 500 supercomputers in the world run on Linux. That’s a truly impressive level of global confidence in one man’s humble open-source operating system.
In the beginning
While Linux seemingly catapulted out of nowhere into OS superstardom, its deeper history, as noted above, goes back more than 50 years to the 1960s. Early computers were both expensive and functionally limited, able to meet the needs of single user running a single process. A far cry, obviously, from the efficiency and speed familiar in 2015.
MIT, Bell Labs and General Electric partnered in 1964 to create an operating system that would allow multiple processes to run simultaneously. The result was Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (Multics). A few short years later (1969), Bell withdrew from the project and two developers, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, set about the task of creating their own smaller, workable operating system which they christened Unics. By the 1980s, Unics had become known as Unix, with multiple competing versions available. (Developers who have been around for a while may well remember the days of the Unix Wars, as various Unix versions competed for marketplace dominance.)
MINIX, a Unix-like operating system designed for IBM PCs, was released in 1987 by university professor Andrew Tanenbaum. To enable students to learn how operating systems work, Tanenbaum made the source code available and encouraged aspiring programmers to play around with it — and play they did. One of those early experimenters (Have you guessed it by now?) was a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds, who released his first version of Linux (which he initially nicknamed “Freax”) on Oct. 5, 1991.
The ubiquity of Linux
So what, exactly, makes Linux so special? Why is it so wildly popular for enterprise computing? Perhaps it’s the fact that Linux is open-source, and the source code is freely available. Or, maybe, it’s the fact that it’s highly customizable, enabling users to create a distribution tailored to their particular needs. Could it be the fact that, with the source code readily available, users can cut to the chase and quickly and easily create and implement bug fixes or patches? It’s all of these, actually, and much more.
To understand more about Linux, I interviewed Thomas Inks, a system administrator for the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, Texas. Inks provided excellent insight into why Linux has such an impressive reputation. When asked why he likes using Linux, Inks said, “I like it for the same reasons that 98 percent of networks run a derivative of UNIX/ Linux: It is stable, secure, free and reliable.”
He went on to state that he prefers his servers to be Linux, as Linux provides him the opportunity to change anything he wants, and modify the operating system or the kernel to fit his specific needs. According to Inks, Linux is also developer friendly, scalable, and enables users to implement new code quickly and easily. It also affords him the ability to deploy security patches to the operating system without the necessity of a reboot.
Historically, Linux has been widely used in enterprise-level systems, but its popularity isn’t limited to big business, or to the United States. Linux enables computing technology everywhere, from supercomputers to wearables. Linux can be found powering everything from consumer devices and Android phones to such foundational tech as the internet itself and the systems of many financial services providers. Linux runs televisions, air traffic control systems — even nuclear submarines!
Your PC = Linux not found
Despite its runaway popularity in the enterprise world, you won’t find the same level of usage in the realm of personal computing. According to Inks, one reason for this may be that Linux is a text-based operating system, meaning that users must learn to live without the mouse and embrace the command line — a challenge which many find fairly intimidating.
Additionally, Inks said, there are still a few functionality issues in most desktop versions of Linux, including a lack of games or applications comparable to the Microsoft Office tools (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and so forth). As Linux development progresses, this state of affairs may eventually change. Dell currently offers a laptop powered by the popular Linux distribution Ubuntu, which certainly speaks to an increasing demand for Linux capability in the personal computing arena.
And if the idea of personal computers sold with Linux already installed catches on to any degree, then the wildfire-like spread of Linux through enterprise computing could happen all over again with home and small business users. More than one IT observer has opined that an overwhelming majority of personal computer users rarely even dabble in OS installation or modification. If out-of-the-box computers suddenly came prepackaged with a Linux OS, then most users would simply use that OS.
Support your local Linux
Despite its slow-moving adoption by personal computer users, however, it seems fair to say that Linux is here to stay, and that we can expect to see more out of Linux in the future. Currently, the Linux Foundation (established in 2000) actively works to promote the continued growth of Linux through education, membership, collaborative projects, consulting services and more. For those interested in supporting Linux development, the foundation offers memberships at both the corporate and individual level.
Three membership levels — Platinum, Gold and Silver — are available to corporate sponsors. At the Platinum level, you’ll find industry powerhouses such as IBM, Oracle, Samsung, Fujitsu, NEC, Qualcomm Innovation Center, HP, NEC and Intel. Evidence that participants in the Foundation are committed to supporting Linux can be gleaned merely from the hefty annual membership dues — it’s not cheap!
Premium members pay a whopping $500,000 while Gold membership is $100,000 per year. The dues for Silver membership range from $5,000 to $20,000 annually depending on the size of the company. In addition to corporate memberships, The Linux Foundation also offers individuals the opportunity to participate. Student memberships are available for $25 annually and Individual membership start at $99 per year.
And while the Linux Foundation recently entered the IT certification realm, it’s far from the only player in the field. The Linux Professional Institute, based in Canada, has been pushing Linux education through its three-tiered certification program for almost as long as Linux has been around.
Here to stay
Linux is a powerhouse tool with support from many quarters, and not likely to be unseated from its position of preeminence anytime soon. I think Inks summed it up best: “Linux is designed to be the workhorse — it is the constant that almost won’t die unless provoked. It has seemingly limited functionality and is less intuitive to learn, but can outperform (any competition) given the opportunity.”
Until 98 percent of the world’s supercomputers switch over to something else, Linux seems likely to remain the gold standard for enterprise computing, and an emerging force to be reckoned with everywhere else.