The original date of this post marked 25 years since Linus Torvalds shared the first iteration of a free, hobby operating system that he had developed via a short Usenet post. Of course, what became known as Linux is now far, far more than a hobbyist’s OS and spawned a wave of innovation that significantly changed the IT landscape. Bigger than just Linux (which is pretty big by itself), however, this movement birthed the open source movement, where like-minded communities of individuals could freely develop and share what would become the IT foundation of the future.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the term open source, the underpinnings of open source, from transparency and collaboration to freedom and broad dissemination, have spilled out well beyond the confines of enterprise technology to greatly impact both the world of consumer technology as well as the global business climate at large.
Open source has impacted so much that it’s hard to pick out a handful of the most critical innovations, but we’ve tried. Here’s 25 things that we think are better thanks to Linux and open source; some of these may not exist without an open source backbone, while others may have evolved out of necessity, but would likely be unrecognizable to today’s counterparts. So what made our list?
- Real-time trading – We take near-simultaneous financial transactions almost for granted, as being able to move money, make stock trades and conduct other financial transactions is functionally an on-demand service. But all of this would likely not be possible without the real-time functionality of the Linux kernel, which powers more than 50 percent of the world’s financial transactions and backs 100 percent of Fortune 500 commercial banks.
- The global technology economy – Linux and other open source projects built on top of it have helped to drive the a standardization of IT, allowing for more interoperability across the world’s business environment. Via a common “language of IT,” services and software are better able to grow and evolve across traditional geographical boundaries, fostering a truly global technology marketplace.
- Government IT – Driven by the price efficiencies, innovation and scalability of first Linux and then open source at large, government agencies have a rich history in open source and are now driving towards becoming models of open source efficiency. Most recently, the U.S. federal government’s Second Open Government National Action Plan (pdf) emphasized use of open source, and contribution back to open source communities to help foster innovation and lower costs.
- Connected cities – Networking the critical aspects of a city, from manhole covers and traffic lights to emergency services and severe weather alerts, requires computing at a massive scale. It’s Linux, not a proprietary operating system, that provides this vast scalability while also offering the underlying capabilities to abstract the various computing layers to make managing such a complex deployment manageable.
- Air traffic control – The Federal Aviation Administration, the point of truth for North American aviation management, oversees nearly 24,000 flights per day…and it’s all run employing the scalability and security features provided by Linux.
Enterprise IT’s Status Quo
- Supercomputers – Computationally intensive tasks, from weather modelling to oil and gas exploration, require computers specialized to handle these extreme simulations, giving rise to the modern supercomputer. Supercomputing as it exists today, however, would also look much different sans Linux – for example, just look at the top 10 of the TOP500 list (which tracks supercomputing performance): all are running some form of a Linux distribution.
- Cloud computing – Distributed (cloud) computing, where computing resources aren’t on-premise or even owned by a given organization, simply would not be possible as we know it today sans Linux and open source. The scalability and flexibility of Linux enable many of these massive deployments to actually work, while the significantly reduced cost barriers of Linux make them more financially feasible.
- On-demand services – Going hand-in-hand with cloud computing is the concept of on-demand services. If a developer needs a VM or if IT Ops needs to provision a server, they expect to do so quickly and painlessly; Linux’s scalability allows for this rapid provisioning, as does its lack of cost-prohibitive licensing.
- DevOps – DevOps has existed in the IT buzzword lexicon for several years now, offering a better delineation (and working relationship) between developer and IT operations professionals. Thanks to Linux and the broader world of open source, this methodology becomes clearer and easier to implement on an almost daily basis, as new Linux-based innovations, like Linux containers, emerge to enable respective teams to focus on their specific roles and limit scope creep.
- Hybrid computing – Organizations today do not need to choose between the cloud or on-premise; instead, they can use a mix of technologies that best suit their infrastructure needs. Without Linux as, again, the scalable, stable base for these service mixes, hybrid computing simply wouldn’t be possible as we know it today – enterprises would likely need to choose between on-premise or hosted, with the specter of lock-in looming over whatever choice that they made.
IT’s Next Wave
- IoT – The boom in interest around the Internet of Things (IoT), the notion of a network of devices, big and small, that can “talk” to each other for more efficient operations, likely would not have taken shape the same way without Linux. Embedded Linux OSes, a fraction of the size of more conventional operating systems, power the world of IoT, making enterprise deployments scalable and cost-efficient. Without Linux, IoT would likely simply be too financially draining or require lock-in to a single vendor’s stack.
- Linux containers – If the name doesn’t give it away, Linux containers, a method of packaging and isolating an application with only its dependencies, are a technology built from key pieces of the Linux kernel. While other, similar technologies have existed in the past, the open nature of Linux containers combined with community-powered innovation have allowed for an ecosystem to boom almost overnight, giving enterprises a new path forward when it comes to how they build, deploy and manage their applications.
- OpenStack – Providing a key platform for private and hybrid cloud computing, the OpenStack cloud framework likely would not exist, or at least would be incredibly different, without Linux. It’s the scalability and flexibility of Linux that enables OpenStack to be so successful in bringing the benefits of private clouds to the enterprise, all while avoiding the lock-in that comes with a proprietary private cloud framework.
- Software-defined everything – From networking to storage, software is being used to abstract the traditional complexities of enterprise hardware, leading to a world where nearly everything is “software-defined.” Linux provides a major stepping stone for these efforts, once again providing a flexible, open platform for this abstraction to occur without incurring lock-in.
- Big data analytics – Big data, the collective term for the mountains of information produced by businesses, can hold the keys to more efficient operations and even increased revenues by identifying new opportunities, but first this data must be sorted, parsed and analyzed. The analytics tools, many of which themselves are open source, that process these vast expanses of data require a powerful, scalable platform, a platform that may not exist if not for Linux.
Reimagining the “beige box”
- Commodity hardware – Commoditized hardware, namely the x86 chip (the baseline for computing today), likely would’ve struggled to emerge as strongly as it has without Linux functioning as the baseline operating system. Linux provided a standardized operating system for x86 chipsets, giving a predictable base for businesses to migrate to from customized hardware stacks.
- New hardware approaches – Much like the rise of x86, Linux is also helping to bring about new hardware approaches like ARM, an extremely energy efficient processor. Without Linux providing the standardized platform for these chipsets to adhere to, we’d still likely see new hardware emerge, but it would be far more “bespoke” and less interchangeable across various scenarios.
- Amazon – Amazon Web Services is now nearly synonymous with public cloud computing, AWS now has more than 1 million customers using its vast arsenal of on-demand services…and Linux is a fundamental component of the AWS platform. While an AWS-like service isn’t unimaginable without Linux (think of the early ISPs in the 90s), the scale and price structure of an AWS would be hard to replicate.
- Google – The online search, advertising and cloud giant Google would look much, much different without Linux and the other open source technologies that power the company’s underlying infrastructure. While this isn’t to say that Google would not exist without Linux, we might lose its contributions to the open source world, including Kubernetes, if Linux wasn’t serving as the icebreaker.
- Technology transparency and accountability – Without Linux driving open source, we’d likely still see the enterprise datacenter as a brick-walled silo, with little to no insight into the broader business and much of the IT team’s daily operations focused on simply keeping the lights on. With Linux and open source, IT is now far more transparent to the broader enterprise, helping to better align with general business goals and actually innovate as opposed to just maintaining a status quo.
Beyond the Business
- Drones – Tied closely to IoT is the drone trend, that of remotely controlled flying robots. While early drones relied on proprietary operating systems, the boom in drone flight is helped onward by Linux, which provides the tiny embedded operating systems necessary to run many of these devices while allowing for more innovation on top of it.
- Open government initiatives – Pulling from the open source community model is the Open Government Initiative (and other state and local efforts) implemented by the U.S. federal government. Focusing on transparency and collaboration with the general public, it’s not at all unlikely that without the driving power of open source (and Linux leading the charge) that these efforts would be fewer and far between or much more limited in scale and scope.
- Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding – Also pulling more from a cultural level than a technical one are the concepts of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, where a project is built or financed by potential end users instead of dedicated employees or volunteers. This is an example of the meritocracy of Linux and open source being pulled into the mainstream, where sites like Kickstarter reward interesting ideas with significant funds that they might not otherwise receive.
- Android – Effectively a mobile fork of Linux, Android provides a scalable, flexible mobile platform for a wide variety of chipsets and phone formats. It’s gaining ground (if not overtaken) proprietary OSes like iOS and Windows Mobile and provides a robust ecosystem of applications and services for users, not unlike its Linux parent. Would an Android-like have emerged without Linux? Almost certainly, but it’s doubtful that it would maintain the presence that Android currently enjoys in today’s consumer market.
- 3D printing/maker movement – The “maker movement,” where end users endeavor to create their own goods, is highlighted by the rise of 3D printers, which use various materials to create parts and whole-crafted items. While far from a commodity technology at the moment, the 3D printer movement is driven by Linux, with many of the printers on the market supporting Linux thanks to flexibility of the platform and much of the software powering these devices being Linux-based. 3D printing would’ve surely emerged even without Linux, but thanks to the widespread power of the platform and collaborative nature of the community, the way we see 3D printing today owes quite a bit to Linux and open source.