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The Basics

A brief history of the Linux operating system

linux history

Did you know that Linux refers to a vast array of operating systems that have been built around the Linux kernel? Any distribution includes this kernel and several tools and libraries that complement it, creating a user-friendly interface and providing the needed libraries & applications.

Linux can (and actually does!) run on lots of devices, from underpowered IoT gadgets that can run on batteries for months, to the world's fastest supercomputers. Lots of Internet servers utilize Linux, because it is flexible and safe. But how did everything start? How did Linux become the force it is today? Here are the most important things that you should know about.

First of all, it is important to understand that Linux was initially based on Unix, which was built at Bell Laboratories. Programmers working at the Computer Sciences Research Center wanted to build an O.S. that allowed several people to share a single computer, utilizing different user accounts and saving data into their own folders. It was a forward-thinking project back then, but Bell Laboratories stopped funding it after a while. However, a small group of researchers continued to work at the operating system, rewriting its entire source code in C.

You may not know this, but C is a highly portable programming language; you will find not just compilers, but also full IDEs that can create and run C code on your smart phone, for example. So, getting Unix's code rewritten in C was a big boost, because it allowed Unix to be the first portable O.S.

The Computer Systems Research Group from the University of California has used parts of Unix's C code to create the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), which has been actively developed until 1995. This was very important, because macOS is based on a BSD version called NeXT, while Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, utilized MINIX, another BSD version of Unix, as its main source of inspiration.

Back in 1991, Finnish undergraduate Linus Torvalds, who was frustrated by the terms of the MINIX license, started to code the Linux kernel. Over 100 programmers have joined his project within the next few years, boosting the development speed. This made it possible for Linus to release the 1.0 version of the kernel, which included exactly 176,250 lines of code, in 1994. SUSE Linux, the first Linux distro in the world, was released within the next few months.

The following years have marked the arrival of Gnome and (most of all) KDE, the Kool Desktop Environment, which added a "real" desktop environment to the powerful kernel, creating a fully functional operating system that was accessible to beginners as well. The number of Linux distributions has continued to grow, of course.

Unlike most commercial operating systems, Linux has several unique features. Its kernel is being developed separately, while people and companies create the other O.S. components. It's also an open-source project, being maintained by an active community of programmers.

Today there are literally hundreds of Linux distros. Some of them have been designed for servers, but most of them are built for desktop use. You will discover Linux distributions that have been built for researchers, gamers, music and video production engineers, and so on. Some distributions are commercial, being created and supported by corporations, while most of them are 100% free, being supported by passionate communities of volunteers.

This explains why you will find lots of actively developed and supported Linux distributions, and some of them include a huge number of software packages. To give you an example, Debian users have access to a library that includes over 50,000 applications. Other examples of popular Linux distros include RedHat Enterprise, Fedora, Ubuntu, openSUSE and Linux Mint.