Friday evening can be a very busy time in Citibank’s Changi Business Park, Singapore office. Hundreds of mission critical applications hit the production servers, security patches are applied to servers, hundreds of professionals including developers, systems engineers, Linux guru’s and management professionals spend the whole night on the conference calls ensuring the smooth functioning of servers at this financial giant. The applications that get life over the weekend have monitory value and therefore require robust servers to host them. These servers need to maximize the utilization of the applications and should have the stability to run for a longer period of time without a reboot. These servers should also have the capability to be scaled up as the infrastructure grows. Bottom line, these enterprise level boxes need to be tough.
Thanks to people like Richard Stallman, Bob Young and Linux Travolds, companies like Red Hat and Canonical and foundations like The Linux foundation for creating and supporting the Linux operating system. The muscle that today’s data centers have is built over Linux. The operating has taken the whole computing world by storm. I would actually go a bit further and say that (and it could be statistically and logically proved as well) that the rate at which the information is growing, enterprises would not have survived without the power of Linux. Microsoft windows server cannot support large scale enterprises with the same efficiency, accuracy and reliability relative to the Linux based servers.
What made Linux the backbone of data centers? What increased its adoption among enterprises? What made an operating system that was “made by engineers for the engineers” incredibly powerful that it is now used from desktops to data centers and everything in between? I have an active interest in business and technology history and drawing from this interest, I deduce three vital events that played an important role in scaling up Linux and that can answer the aforementioned questions:
Helsinki, Boston, Internet and the year 1991: Linux, as an operating system evolved from a Kernel created by Linus Travold, a student at that time at University of Helsinki. Linus was using an operating system called Minix and suggested changes to Andrew Tanenbaum, the creater of Minix. Andrew rejected the suggestions and as a result, Linus created his own Kernel. The take here was that Linus took into account the suggestions of users for improvement of the Kernel. Years before, the idea of involving users to improve the software was being pioneered by Richard stallman, one of the top software philosophers in the world. Stallman left MIT, Boston where he was working at that time and founded GNU with a goal of producing free software. Free, here was in terms of freedom and not zero cost. In the year 1991, the conducive conditions existed that would create Linux and start its spread. Linus in Helsinki had the Kernel but no shell, Libraries, compiler. Stallman, in Boston had necessary programs that could be wrapped around an operating system. With the distance involved, the only way to get the Linus program together with the GNU programs was internet. The growth of internet from that point played a major role in adoption of Linux. In the words of Richard Stallman: “The Internet would also be crucial in Linux’s subsequent development as the means of coordinating the work of all the developers that have made Linux into what it is today.”
IBM and Linux become friends in 1998: When Linux was still within hacker fringes of the Internet, IBM had no interest in investing in a new operating system. Although it was a risky proposition for the king of proprietary software offerings, Linux had one attraction. It could prove competitive for Microsoft. Around 1998, IBM started researching Linux and got involved with the open source community. A successful stint with Apache project was encouraging enough for the company to put their dollars in Linux. The big blue knew that Linux was getting popularity not only among the computer science students but also for a lot of businesses. From getting involved in the community to helping improve the operating system security through code testing, defect management and even open sourcing some of its own code, the software giant today spends more than $100 million annually on Linux development. This adoption and involvement of IBM in Linux encouraged a lot of big businesses to formulate their Linux strategies.
Red Hat disrupts technology industry in 2001: Red Hat Linux, at one point, was just a desktop application until Red Hat forked into RHEL and Fedora. Paul Cormier, in 2001, re-examined the business model to pitch Red Hat Linux to big businesses. The task at hand was to adhere to the open source principles and at the same time scale up to compete with Microsoft’s and Oracle’s of the world. The solution was keep the source code free but compile the bits and bytes to enterprise class. The result was Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat’s enterprise offerings now have diversified which includes Red Hat Satellite that have added immense value to large enterprises in terms of speed, reliability and scalability.