Linux is now 25 years old, but it’s no hipster. It’s not chasing around Pokemon, and it’s not moving back in with its parents due to crippling student debt. In fact, Linux is still growing and evolving, but the core ideas of the Linux state of mind remain the same.
You see, Linux is much more than an operating system; it’s a mindset. Even if you don’t agree with its philosophy, you can’t afford to ignore it.
That’s why we decided to pay homage to this iconic operating system and the ever-growing community of developers who keep it going.
To mark the occasion, the Linux Foundation recently published the seventh edition of its Linux Kernel Development Report, which offers a detailed recap of all the work done over the past couple of decades. The adoption of Git, 10 years ago, made tracking easier (not that we’re looking for exact numbers here). It’s estimated that more than 14,000 developers have invested time and effort in Linux kernel development since 2005. This army of talent comes from more than 1,300 companies, and the report lists a number of industry heavyweights as the main sponsors of Linux kernel development: Intel, Samsung, Red Hat, AMD, Google, ARM, Texas Instruments and more.
While it’s the epitome of open-source, Linux kernel development is not a hobby. Not anymore. So, as we wish Linux a happy birthday, let’s take a quick look at some kernel development highlights:
- 25 years of development
- Contributions from 14,000 developers since 2005
- 5,000 new developers joined the effort in the past 30 months
- ~22 million lines of code currently constitute the Linux kernel
- More than 4,500 lines of new code added each day
- Development is speeding up
Linux State of Mind
When it was first released in August 1991, few could have imagined the long-term impact of Linus Torvalds’ open-source OS on the software industry. At the time, the tech landscape was dominated by a handful of big players: the likes of Microsoft, Apple and IBM. The nineties were an era of rapid technological progress, and new technologies—most notably the Internet—made remote, distributed development a possibility.
Developers halfway around the globe could finally collaborate on immensely complex software projects. It goes without saying that Toptal, and indeed every freelancer, owes a debt of gratitude to Linux pioneers who validated the concept of remote software development in an era of dial-up internet. They made it work without Git, Skype, broadband and a bunch of other technologies and tools we take for granted today. In fact, most of these tools were in part made possible by Linux-based servers and many are open-source.
But what drove the industry to adopt Linux? Well, to put it bluntly, the simple fact of not being Microsoft was a big part of it. A lot of UNIX people just had an issue with proprietary operating systems and wanted an open-source alternative. Diehards couldn’t reconcile with the fact that mainstream operating systems were a proprietary walled garden. Their vision was to create an open-source alternative—something that everyone could use free of charge and something they could modify and redistribute at will.
Idealism and business rarely cross paths, but when they do, we often end up with novel ideas backed by passionate proponents and criticized by equally passionate detractors. The idea of an open-source software ecosystem is as powerful today as it was in the early nineties, and with a quarter century of Linux development behind us, we can get a better idea of its profound impact on industry.
Open-Sourcing and Democratising the Internet
But wait, most of us are reading this on non-Linux systems: Windows and Mac rigs, smartphones and tablets running UNIX-like operating systems, so why aren’t we on Linux systems? Well, we are, at least sort of. How many LAMP servers sprung into action today to serve you your daily dose of emails, social feed updates, useless ads and (mis)information?
Personally, I think this is the biggest contribution to mankind made by the Linux community: Linux-based servers helped our industry take off and legitimized the open-source concept.
It was no longer about UNIX enthusiasts trying to create an open-source alternative to fight The Empire; Linux took on big brands on their home turf and emerged victorious. The concept was vindicated and mainstreamed, proving once and for all that open-source isn’t just a heartwarming notion; It’s good for business.
What did we get out of it?
Linux helped lower the bar for developers and entrepreneurs entering the industry. Successful Linux distros grabbed a sizeable market share in the hosting industry, generating pressure on competing platforms. In this war of attrition, Linux servers prevailed thanks to a number of factors. In the end, they came to dominate many market segments. Today, anyone can get a reasonably powerful hosting plan for peanuts, and if they’re looking for the cheapest possible solution, they’re bound to end up with a flavor of Linux. The rest of the stack is usually as free and open as Linux itself.
That’s what our side of the industry got out of Linux: The ability to quickly deploy products on low-cost, open-source infrastructure.
How many pet projects—started on the cheap—turned into multi-billion enterprises? How many would have failed had it not been for Linux?
Where’s the Money Linuxowski?
A common misconception about Linux development is that it’s handled solely by enthusiasts and that it’s not a niche for people looking to cash in. While Linux is a labor of love, it’s also big business in its own way.
As I highlighted earlier, development is speeding up, and more Linux developers from more companies are choosing to contribute. They’re not simply choosing to set aside their precious time because they are good Linux folk; the latest report states that the number of unpaid developers working on the kernel has dropped to 7.7 percent, dipping into single-digit territory for the first time.
While some might not agree, I see this as a very positive trend. Enthusiasm doesn’t pay bills, and it’s hard to keep any project going on enthusiasm alone for more than a few years—let alone a gargantuan project like Linux that came into being a generation ago.
It doesn’t end there. According to numerous surveys, demand for Linux talent remains robust and is actually increasing, and so is the Linux server market share. A few years ago, it would have been much easier to tally up the number of shipped servers, motherboards, and other hardware, and figure out the number of Linux boxes in the wild.
This is no longer the case.
Linux in the Cloud
A dark Cloud came along and made this process more difficult (much to the dismay of analysts). When your job is to look at numbers and market trends, any lack of data or ambiguity is bad for business, and for a while, analysts expressed concerns about the future of Linux in the post-cloud era. These concerns made a lot of sense (and, to some extent, still do) because the cloud ecosystem was an oligopoly from the get-go, dominated by the Amazons and Googles of the world.
The Cloud did not kill off small Linux servers, but it hasn’t been kind to them either:
- At one end of the spectrum, you’ll find people who believe the cloud will transform the server market, and through consolidation, will forever change the hosting industry. This economy of scale argument is tempting because it’s logical to assume cloud industry leaders will offer superior pricing by virtue of their size. You don’t get sweetheart hardware deals if you have a small, regional datacenter and need a couple of hundred fresh boxes every year; you get them if you have a massive cloud infrastructure and need dozens of new servers on a weekly basis. However, I find this argument overly simplistic.
- The opposing camp espouses equally simplistic views, but it tends to be more optimistic. A lot of Linux veterans have high hopes for cloud development; they believe CloudStack and OpenStack will help turn the tide, and they think there will always be room for smaller players.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle, but let’s not weigh in on this; it’s beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that both options could work for Linux in the long run. Even if the hosting industry is forever transformed and consolidated, that doesn’t mean demand for Linux talent will evaporate. On the contrary, it’s likely to increase regardless of what happens, although demand will evolve to meet new requirements.
The Next 25 Years
What do the next 25 years have in store for Linux?
It’s hard to say, but I have a feeling Linux isn’t going anywhere…at least not in the foreseeable future:
- The server industry is evolving, but it’s been doing so forever. Linux has a habit of seizing server market share, although the cloud could transform the industry in ways we’re just beginning to realize. Either way, Linux servers aren’t going anywhere just yet.
- Linux still has a relatively low market share in consumer markets, dwarfed by Windows and OS X. This will not change anytime soon.
- Linux does not have a significant share in mobile, although Android currently dominates this space. Mobile is becoming an Android/iOS duopoly. It’s oversaturated; there are too many software and hardware platforms out there, so it’s doubtful Linux will ever take off in this market.
- Gaming is a potentially huge, untapped market for Linux. This market is dominated by Windows in the desktop segment, proprietary operating systems in the console space and Android and iOS in mobile. Valve’s SteamOS is the latest attempt to get Linux on gaming rigs, and it’s a promising concept. Unfortunately, demand for Steam Machines has been soft and Linux still has a negligible market share in the gaming industry.
- Emerging segments include the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, smart home devices and more. Due to its open-source nature and the potential for a very small OS footprint, Linux-based operating systems could find their way into a range of connected devices from our homes and cars to our places of business.
- High-performance computing has a good chance of becoming a Linux-only space. Linux has practically replaced UNIX and other operating systems in current-generation supercomputers.
It’s hard to make Linux-related predictions due to the nature of the OS and the Linux community. Evolution doesn’t necessarily have to be a straight line, and Linux developers have proven this time and again. Linux could morph into something completely different over the next couple of decades and become the OS of choice for various products and services we can’t even imagine today.
Cover photo credit courtesy of ©Toptal LLC.