A Brief History of Linux/Open Source Distributions

Kent Roberts
by (41posts) under Cloud Hosting

Like Windows or iOS, Linux is an operating system. As such, it serves as an interface between a computer’s hardware and the applications operating on it. Unlike the aforementioned competitors (proprietary software created by Microsoft and Apple), Linux is free and open source. It was created using a kernel developed by Linus Torvalds while he was attending the University of Helsinki in Finland.

History of Linux

According to Linux.org, Linus Torvalds was originally developing applications at the University of Helsinki with a version of UNIX called Minix. However, he became dissatisfied with that system because, when he and others sent ideas for revisions to Minix creator Andrew Tannenbaum, the user comments were often ignored. Torvalds opted to design a new operating system that would focus heavily on incorporating modification suggestions submitted by users.

The notion of collecting community ideas to create better software had been around since the early 1970s, when Richard Stallman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started promoting the idea of collaborative development. Like Torvalds with Minix, Stallman had become disenchanted with the status quo, departing MIT in 1984 to found a nonprofit called GNU. GNU’s mission was a direct extension of Stallman’s philosophy: the organization developed software that could be freely used, distributed, and modified. This approach fit perfectly with Torvalds’ concerns.

In 1991, Torvalds had developed a kernel, but he did not yet have an operating system. To be clear, a kernel is a necessary component of an operating system, but it can’t achieve any tasks without programs (e.g., shell, library, compilers). Richard Stallman, meanwhile, had programs but lacked a functional kernel. A technological marriage was arranged between GNU, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Linux kernel, located in Helsinki, Finland. The code was transmitted through the Internet to allow the union between the two developers’ systems. In other words, Linux was born on the Internet, and that’s also where it continued to grow through developer comments.

History of Linux Distribution (“Distros”)

Speaking of its continued growth, Linux cloud hosting solutions quickly expanded into a number of “distributions,” which – also called distros or flavors – express the diverse ideas of different developers. Here is how several of the most common flavors arose.

Ubuntu history

Ubuntu, like other open source offerings, is rooted in the idea of technological community. In fact, per the official Ubuntu site, ubuntu is an ancient African word that expresses selfhood springing from group identity.

Ubuntu was created by Mark Shuttleworth and a developmental team in 2004 to bring the Linux operating system to all PC users rather than just those administering servers. Shuttleworth recruited his team out of the community of another distribution, Debian, to design a user-friendly open source desktop in addition to a server OS.

CentOS & Fedora history

In 1993, a startup called Red Hat was founded by Bob Young and Marc Ewing. The following year, they combined various open source programs into one of the very first distributions, Red Hat Linux 1.0. Red Hat continued to evolve over the next 10 years, when, in 2004, Fedora and CentOS arrived – as detailed by Tumra CTO Michael Cutler.

Red Hat was a for-profit business, making its money through ancillary services such as education and support for the OS. Not everyone who used Red Hat agreed on how it should develop, though. Some users, categorized by Cutler as “Linux enthusiasts,” wanted Red Hat to be focused on innovation. Enterprises, though, relying on Red Hat support, were more concerned with stability for use on thousands of servers.

By 2004, it was decided that it made sense to have two different distributions, one for each type of user: Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) for the enterprise folks, and Fedora for the enthusiasts. Fedora, rather than being managed by Red Hat, is governed by open-source developers. Nonetheless, Red Hat staffers still contribute to Fedora code.

Another free distribution was created at the same time (first release May 2004) called CentOS, so that a free option would be available for those who prioritize stability over innovation. This distribution was intended to be enterprise-grade, fully binary compatible with RHEL. The CentOS source code is almost identical to that of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and its updates and versions are synchronized with those of its upstream source.

Debian history

Ian Murdock created the Debian Project in 1993 (the same year that Red Hat was formed). The development of the distribution was sponsored by GNU between 1994 and 1995. At its inception, Debian was the only Linux flavor that allowed any user to contribute ideas. According to the official Debian site, it remains the only large, non-commercial project that includes policy documents, a constitution, and a social contract, serving as interactive guidelines for ongoing development.

FreeBSD history

FreeBSD is not a Linux operating system, but it’s discussed in the same general category because it is also Unix-based, free, and open source. The University of California, Berkeley, used UNIX source code it had acquired from AT&T in its computing classes, with students modifying it into Berkeley Unix or BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). That project began in 1976. Unfortunately, because it used code from the AT&T version, it required a paid license. In 1989, work commenced on all of  the AT&T code. The resulting operating system, released in 1992 by William and Lynne Jolitz, was called 386BSD. It was updated and renamed FreeBSD in 1993.

Be a part of history

With the exception of RHEL, all of the Linux distributions featured above are available through Atlantic.Net, as is FreeBSD. History takes time and patience, but you don’t need that with us. Get your affordable cloud server up and running in 30 seconds, with 24/7/365 live support and no contract.

By Kent Roberts


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