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This blog introduces the Linux kernel and Linux operating system, placing them in the historical context of Unix.

Since the creation of Unix in 1969, the brainchild of Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson has become a creature of legends, a system whose design has withstood the test of time with few bruises to its name.

Unix grew out of Multics, a failed multiuser operating system project in which Bell Laboratories was involved. With the Multics project terminated, members of Bell Laboratories’ Computer Sciences Research Center found themselves without a capable interactive operating system. In the summer of 1969, Bell Lab programmers sketched out a filesystem design that ultimately evolved into Unix. Testing its design, Thompson implemented the new system on an otherwise­idle PDP­7. In 1971, Unix was ported to the PDP­11, and in 1973, the operating system was rewritten in C-an unprecedented step at the time, but one that paved the way for future portability. The first Unix widely used outside Bell Labs was Unix System, Sixth Edition, more commonly called V6. Other companies ported Unix to new machines. Accompanying these ports were enhancements that resulted in several variants of the operating system. In 1977, Bell Labs released a combination of these variants into a single system, Unix System III; in 1982, AT&T released System V.

[Note: System IV was an internal development version. ]

The simplicity of Unix’s design, coupled with the fact that it was distributed with source code, led to further development at external organizations. The most influential of these contributors was the University of California at Berkeley. Variants of Unix from Berkeley are known as Berkeley Software Distributions, or BSD. Berkeley’s first release, 1BSD in 1977, was a collection of patches and additional software on top of Bell Labs’ Unix. 2BSD in 1978 continued this trend, adding the csh and vi utilities, which persist on Unix systems to this day. The first standalone Berkeley Unix was 3BSD in 1979. It added virtual memory (VM) to an already impressive list of features.

In the 1980s and 1990s, multiple workstation and server companies introduced their own commercial versions of Unix. These systems were based on either an AT&T or a Berkeley release and supported high­end features developed for their particular hardware architecture. Among these systems were Digital’s Tru64, Hewlett Packard’s HP­UX, IBM’s AIX, Sequent’s DYNIX/ptx, SGI’s IRIX, and Sun’s Solaris & SunOS.

Today, Unix is a modern operating system supporting preemptive multitasking, multithreading, virtual memory, demand paging, shared libraries with demand loading, and TCP/IP networking. Many Unix variants scale to hundreds of processors, whereas other Unix systems run on small, embedded devices. Although Unix is no longer a research project, Unix systems continue to benefit from advances in operating system design while remaining a practical and general­purpose operating system.

Unix owes its success to the simplicity and elegance of its design. Its strength today derives from the inaugural decisions that Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, and other early developers made choices that have endowed Unix with the capability to evolve without compromising itself.

And Then Came “LINUX”

Linus Torvalds developed the first version of Linux in 1991 as an operating system for computers powered by the Intel 80386 microprocessor, which at the time was a new and advanced processor. Linus, then a student at the University of Helsinki, was perturbed by the lack of a powerful yet free Unix system.

Linus did use Minix, a low­cost Unix created as a teaching aid, but he was discouraged by the inability to easily make and distribute changes to the system’s source code (because of Minix’s license) and by design decisions made by Minix’s author.

In response to his predicament, Linus did what any normal college student would do: He decided to write his own operating system. Linus began by writing a simple terminal emulator, which he used to connect to larger Unix systems at his school. Over the course of the academic year, his terminal emulator evolved and improved. Before long, Linus had an immature but full­fledged Unix on his hands. He posted an early release to the Internet in late 1991.

The use of Linux took off, with early Linux distributions quickly gaining many users. More important to its initial success, however, is that Linux quickly attracted many developers—hackers adding, changing, improving code. Because of the terms of its license, Linux swiftly evolved into a collaborative project developed by many.

Fast forward to the present. Today, Linux is a full­fledged operating system also running on Alpha, ARM, PowerPC, SPARC, x86­64, and many other architectures. It runs on systems as small as a watch to machines as large as room­filling super­computer clusters. Linux powers the smallest consumer electronics and the largest Datacenters. Today, commercial interest in Linux is strong. Both new Linux­specific corporations, such as Red Hat, and existing powerhouses, such as IBM, are providing Linux­based solutions for embedded, mobile, desktop, and server needs.

Linux is a Unix­like system, but it is not Unix. That is, although Linux borrows many ideas from Unix and implements the Unix API (as defined by POSIX and the Single Unix Specification), it is not a direct descendant of the Unix source code like other Unix systems. Where desired, it has deviated from the path taken by other implementations, but it has not forsaken the general design goals of Unix or broken standardized application interfaces.

One of Linux’s most interesting features is that it is not a commercial product; instead, it is a collaborative project developed over the Internet. Although Linus remains the creator of Linux and the maintainer of the kernel, progress continues through a loose­knit group of developers. Anyone can contribute to Linux. The Linux kernel, as with much of the system, is free or open-source software. Specifically, the Linux kernel is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2.0. Consequently, you are free to download the source code and make any modifications you want. The only caveat is that if you distribute your changes, you must continue to provide the recipients with the same rights you enjoyed, including the availability of the source code.

Linux is many things to many people. The basics of a Linux system are the kernel, C library, toolchain, and basic system utilities, such as a login process and shell. A Linux system can also include a modern X Window System implementation including a full­featured desktop environment, such as GNOME. Thousands of free and commercial applications exist for Linux. In this book, when I say Linux I typically mean the Linux kernel. Where it is ambiguous, I try explicitly to point out whether I am referring to Linux as a full system or just the kernel proper. Strictly speaking, the term Linux refers only to the kernel.


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