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Linux then, and why you should learn it now

Dec 06, 20175 mins
LinuxNetworkingOpen Source

Whether it’s being used to progress technology like self-driving cars, big data or automation, Linus Torvalds’ project that began as a hobby has proved endlessly beneficial. Linux is very valuable and constantly evolving, and it’s actually pretty easy to get started using it.

linux penguin image mother baby penguin
Credit: goinyk/iStock/Thinkstock

The booming popularity of Linux happened around the same time as the rise of the web. The server world, once proprietary, eventually fell in love with Linux just the same way networking did. But for years after it began growing in popularity, it remained in the background. It powered some of the largest servers, but couldn’t find success on personal devices. That all changed with Google’s release of Android in 2008, and just like that, Linux found its way not only onto phones but onto other consumer devices.

The same shift from proprietary to open is happening in networking. Specialized hardware that came from one of the “big 3” networking vendors isn’t so necessary anymore. What used to require this specialized hardware can now be done (with horsepower to spare) using off-the-shelf hardware, with Intel CPUs, and with the Linux operating system. Linux unifies the stack, and knowing it is useful for both the network and the rest of the rack. With Linux, networking is far more affordable, more scalable, easier to learn, and more adaptable to the needs of the business.

[ Related: What is Linux? ]

Linux networking is the network of the future for the enterprise data center and enterprise cloud; it’s an operating solution now used by so many that it is considered the most installed operating system in the world. According to 2016 findings from Gartner, data center expansion and cloud computing helped cost-effective and popular Linux grow 10.4%. A report from The Linux Foundation released ahead of the 25th anniversary last year noted over 13,500 developers from more than 1,300 companies have contributed to the Linux kernel since the adoption of Git made detailed tracking possible.

While you have probably heard of it before, you may be wanting to find out a bit more: what is the history, beyond what we have discussed already? Why exactly is it so popular, and what are the benefits of using it today?

Where it started

It started back in 1983 with another operating system known as UNIX, first released in 1971. In 1983, the GNU Project was started to create a complete UNIX-compatible operating system, but the project was stalled and had a missing kernel. Around 1987, a UNIX-like operating system for students was released called MINIX, but its licensing prevented it from being distributed freely. Irritated by the licensing of MINIX, Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki began working on his own operating system kernel. His kernel was released in 1991, and when combined with the GNU components and open source licensing, it became the Linux operating system we know today.

While it wasn’t originally developed as an open source project, today it’s the most well-known and highly used open source project in the world. Linux was developed to run on i386 personal computers but has since then been ported to more hardware than just about any other operating system in the world.

Linux now

While Linux has been around for over 25 years now, it has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity as more companies pursue the kind of web-scale IT I discussed in my first post. Its wide distribution, open source model, adaptable code, and strong community have made it the obvious choice for companies building their own infrastructure. But there are a few other reasons I believe it will remain prevalent and widespread:

Linux is on everything

Linux runs more than two-thirds of the servers on the Internet, all Android phones, most consumer network gear, 95% of the top supercomputers in the world, many of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices, Tesla cars, and even the PlayStation.

Linux is adaptable

The very reason that Linux is “on everything” is because it’s such an adaptable operating system. Because Linux is modular and open source, it means you can pick and choose only the pieces you need. You can install tiny versions of Linux just for specialized use cases (like running the water sprinklers in the gorilla exhibit at the zoo), you can modify it to work on appliances that route packs across a large enterprise network, or you can use it as your desktop operating system.

Linux has a strong community and ecosystem

One of the biggest reasons that Linux has been so successful is because of the strong community and ecosystem around it. There are Linux contributors (developers who write code to make the product better), Linux instructors, Linux training options, Linux blogs, Linux third-party tools, Linux distributions, and Linux conferences.

Linux is free and open source

Linux is totally free and open source, and this has made it the OS of the future. It runs on everything, it is highly adaptable, and it has seen an extremely strong ecosystem develop around it.

Linux unifies the rack

Knowing Linux is useful for both the network and the rest of the rack; it enables network engineers and system administrators to speak the same language.

This is just the beginning of what Linux makes possible for the modern data center. Since 1971, Linux has been shaping networking for the better, and the best part about Linux is that it is continually being enhanced. In the enterprise data center, Linux is proving essential in helping companies understand larger trends like big data and automation, while simultaneously tackling more diverse and quite interesting applications, like powering the displays in Tesla cars. Other carmakers like Toyota, Honda, and Ford are even jumping on the Linux bandwagon, as demonstrated by their sponsoring of the Automotive Grande Linux Project, committed to building software for connected cars.

But whether it’s being used to progress technology like self-driving cars, big data or automation, Linus Torvalds’ project that began as a hobby has proved endlessly beneficial. Linux is very valuable and constantly evolving, and it’s actually pretty easy to get started using it.


JR Rivers is the co-founder and CTO of Cumulus Networks, where he works on company, technology, and product direction. JR has been involved with networking since Ethernet only ran on coaxial cables. He's worked on some of the most foundational networking products of their time, from early Network Interface Cards at 3Com through switching and routing products at Cisco. JR's early involvement in home-grown networking at Google and as the VP of System Architecture for Cisco's Unified Computing System both helped fine tune his perspective on networking for the modern data center.

JR has helped position Cumulus Networks as a pioneer in the networking space with its operating system allowing customers to build and operate their network with the mindset of the web-scale pioneers like Google and Amazon. In the past year, JR has helped the company more than double its customer base to more than 500, including 18 percent of the Fortune 50.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of JR Rivers and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.