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How Did Linux Become So Popular

How Linux, which started as a hobby 🌈 project, became a beast that no one in the tech industry could ignore. Not even Bill Gates 🚀.

Image Showing Linus Torvalds and Linux Logo

Linus Torvalds started developing Linux so that he could use a similar environment for his personal computer that he was used to using at Helsinki University. He tried to find an operating system similar to the university computers but could not find one, so he decided to build his own kernel. The story of the idea of open-source software started taking shape in the 1980s is fascinating but what is more intriguing is how this hobby project started by Linus Torvalds became a mammoth that we witness today. Compelled by my curiosity, I decided to do some research and funneled down to four major events that propelled the growth of Linux to transform it into one of the most significant community-driven projects in the history of mankind.

GNU logo

Linus Torvalds made the first version of the Linux kernel available in 1991. Once it was released, it was picked up by the community and got notable traction from the developers working on the GNU Operating system who already had all the components of building an operating system ready but did not have a kernel. From 1991 to 1993, Linux was still in its beta phase where it was not ready to go out as a complete operating system. During its initial years, Linux was still an operating system used mainly by enthusiasts, but something was about to change.

The Apache Web Server

For Linux to grow out of the world of enthusiasts and to be adopted by businesses, it needed a real-world use that would make it a must-have technology. That threshold was crossed in 1995 with the development of the Apache Webserver. Since internet adoption was increasing, this because a significant turning point in the history of Linux. Apache was the first application that gave businesses some tangible benefits from using Linux. Now with Linux when you went out to build a server farm using Linux with Apache, it was much more cost effective than building one using Windows NT and the expensive hardware it came with. This meant you had to train your staff for server administration using Linux. Still, the cost of training was much less than the money data centers saved on purchasing Windows licenses and overpriced hardware. But the good news was that hiring new people and training the staff wasn't very expensive since students and enthusiasts were already familiar with Linux as it was used widely at the universities.

Apache Logo

This fuelled the adoption of Linux because of the internet boom. It made sense for the large corporations, internet service providers, and budding e-commerce companies back then to run their applications using Linux to save costs. Since the community of developers contributing to Apache and Linux was usually the same, the performance you got from running Apache on Linux was far better than running it on other operating systems.

The Cathedral and The Bazaar

"The Cathedral and The Bazaar" was a white paper written by Eric Steven Raymond, and it was his anthropological analysis of what made the free software movement work. Being a software developer and a GNU Contributor, he was amused by how Linux could survive and thrive with so many software developers contributing to it. Eric was amused that all the rules he had learned about the software development process, which included controlling complexity, keeping the project groups small, and having closely managed objectives, were all falling apart. If he evaluated Linux based on his experience in software development, then Linux should have been a disaster, but it wasn't; it was something incredible. He was determined to figure out how this worked, so he wrote his white paper. The Cathedral and The Bazaar highlighted two contrasting software development styles.

Image of the catheral and the bazaar

  • The Cathedral Model - The Cathedral model was the conventional and closed software development model. In the cathedral model, you have tight specifications of objectives within small project groups which are run in a relatively hierarchical and authoritarian manner.

  • The Bazaar - He termed what was happening in the Linux world as the Bazaar Model. The word "bazaar" means an open market. This was a very open and peer-to-peer kind of software development model, where you had very short release cycles and constant contribution and feedback from people who were developing and using the software simultaneously.

This whitepaper was vital because it was the final push for Netscape Communications Corporation to release the source code for Netscape Communicator and start the Mozilla project.

Netscape Communicator and The Mozilla Project

Netscape Logo

The next significant event was the day Netscape Communicator decided to open-source its code and create the Mozilla project. This event was important because Netscape was the first big organization to open-source the source code of its products. Netscape went open-source to fight Microsoft, which was giving away internet explorer for free with its operating system but never releasing the source code for Internet Explorer. Netscape feared that no one would buy Netscape Communicator because Internet Explorer came free with Windows and eventually would have created a monopoly lock over the internet. This would have created a survival crisis for Netscape and driven it out of the server market, where it made most of its profits back then. This decision made by Netscape to go open source gave Linux the credibility and the confidence it needed amongst venture capitalists, who then started taking open-source software seriously.

Release Of MySQL

Netscape Logo

Another parallel event that led to cementing Linux as the go-to operating system for the datacenters was the release of an open-source Relation Database Management System A.K.A (RDBMS) called MySQL. MySQL was the first open-source RDBMS based on Structured Query Language(SQL), which was a direct competition to Oracle and MSSql. Web application developers now had a database that they could use in their applications without worrying about licenses, which also brought down the development costs. This started a chain reaction where other database vendors, such as Oracle and Sybase, started porting their databases to run on Linux.

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