Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Linux down the Memory Lane

This is the story of not just Linux down my memory lane, but also the story of why I fell for Linux and have remained a devout follower of it ever since. As folks now know, the reasons why Linux is preferred these days are very technical but for me besides being technically a better OS, the reason is also nostalgia.

Early 90s was a fascinating era for me. Let’s begin in 1991, now fondly known as the year of the Internet. The PC-XT (80186) and the higher-end PC-AT (80286) were just about proliferating work places and some homes. Intel 80386 processor based systems weren’t so common still. I had joined for my PhD in computer vision also in 1991.  In IIT Bombay, we had only a central computer centre (with the Cray X/MP super computer) from where there was a 64kbps VSAT link with the rest of the world for the Internet access. My department (electrical engineering) wasn’t even on the local network. In fact none of the departments were, except possible computer science department. I met two like-minded guys in my lab and we all started spending endless hours on improving infrastructure for the joy of doing it. First, we set up Ethernet cable from computer centre to our department, and then setup our department server which would be connected to the computer centre, so that we could login to the super computer by physically being in our department. We learnt about Ethernet, TCP/IP, networking, routing all on the job and without attending any course!

Now, with the “comfort” of accessing the Internet from the luxury of our own lab was achieved, one of my colleagues started looking out for more stuff and he found out about this guy called Linus Torvalds in Helsinki. While studying computer science at University of Helsinki, Linus began a project that later became the Linux OS. His reasons, too, were similar to ours. In those days, a commercial UNIX operating system for Intel 386 PCs was too expensive for private users. So, he wanted to build a free OS which could make the most of 80386 based PCs at the time. He apparently said once that if either the GNU or 386BSD had existed then, he may never have written his own.
Linus developed what he called “Freax” (for free freak unix, which later became Linux). He developed his OS on MINIX system, for which free code existed at that time. MINIX source code was released by Andrew Tannenbaum in his book “Operating systems: design and implementation”. Reason why freax had to be invented was, because Linus argued, that 16-bit design of MINIX was not well adopted to the 32-bit features of 80386 based computer architectures.

First version of Linux was launched on 25th August in 1991 by Linus. Probably the only other installation of Linux 0.0.1 in the world other than that by Linus, was in our lab and I still have the source code of the first ever Linux kernel ! Since the 0.0.1 kernel, I have pretty much used every other version released (especially in earlier days) and continue to remain an avid user of Linux till date. It’s fascinating to see Linux grow as I grew up.

Back in 1991, there was no Ubuntu, or RedHat or any other distribution of Linux available. The closest that came was H J Lu’s boot/root floppies. They were 5.25” 1.2MB diskettes that could be used to boot a system into Linux. One booted from the boot disk, and then, when prompted, one would insert root disk and after a while one would get the prompt. Back in those days, if one wanted to boot from the hard disk, then one had to use a hex editor on the master boot record of the disk and it wasn’t for the faint hearted ! These were the days when we could predict the life of the hard disk just by listening to the sounds it made !

This was all before a real distribution came in existence. The first such thing was the MCC Interim Linux (from Manchester Computing Centre). This was still console only Linux and no X. Shortly after there as a release from Texas A&M University, called TAMU 1.0A. This was the first distribution that let one run X. The first polished distro was Yggdrasil. One could boot from the floppy and run everything else from the CD (the equivalent of today’s Live CD). Folks don’t know this was in the days of 1x and 2x CD-ROM drives. Then, the distributions that followed were SLS Linux, SuSE, Debian and Slackware. Then there was the SCO Linux and after these came the Red Hat and Ubuntu.

In 1992, hearing of success of Linux, Andrew Tannenbaum wrote a Usenet article in the group comp.os.minix with the title “Linux is obsolete”. One should note that while Linus used MINIX for development, the principles of the OS were diametrically opposite to those held by Andrew at the time and also mentioned in the book. Andrew’s reasons why he thought Linux was obsolete, was primarily because kernel was monolithic and old-fashioned. Tannenbaum predicted that Linux would be obsolete soon. Rest is history as we today know where Linux is and where MINIX is or for that matter GNU Hurd, of which Andrew was a great proponent.

Today, the aggregate Linux server market revenues exceed that of the rest of the UNIX market. Google’s Linux based Android claims 75% market share of smart phones. Ubuntu claims 20,000,000+ users and kernel 4.0 is now released.

The free and open philosophy of Linux and the enterprising nature of Linus Torvalds left an indelible mark on me during my graduate days and I continue to respect the open community and hence have hardly used any other OS. My devices of choice today are Ubuntu based laptop and Android based phone.

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