6 things you should know from Linux's first 25 years

In his keynote speech at LinuxCon last week, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst reflected on the impact that Linux has had in these 25 years, not only in technology but also in the business world.

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Red Hat CEO, Jim Whitehurst delivering keynote at LinuxCon.

Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Red Hat was founded in 1993, two years after Linux was announced and the company has been one of the top contributors to Linux. There is a symbiotic relationship between the company and the project. Whitehurst pointed out that it’s hard to talk about the history of Red Hat without talking about Linux and vice versa.

Creating a business model around open source

Whitehurst said that a lot of Linux adoption was happening in the 90s but Linux, and Red Hat, didn’t really have a business model beyond selling novelty items. “We ultimately decided that having a business model that involved selling t-shirts and coffee mugs probably wouldn't work,” said Whitehurst. And trying to box products at CompUSA wasn’t going to work, either.

People at Red Hat got together and decided they had to make this phenomenal technology available to enterprise customers in a way that they need. “We created this business model, we call it enterprise open source, where we take all open source software and then offer it with a defined lifecycle,” said Whitehurst.

This business model for open source is Red Hat's biggest contribution to Linux, and it has led to Red Hat becoming the first open source company to generate more than $2 billion in revenues per year. Now other open source companies, notably Canonical and SUSE, are following the same business model.

Even Adobe and Microsoft are moving to a subscription-based business model, and it’s working for them too.

Top-down adoption

People often think that Linux gained adoption from the ‘bottom up’, where it found its way from sysadmins to CEOs and CIOs. That’s not true.  According to Whitehurst, Linux started top-down in the enterprise. Red Hat got its major wins with investment banks who were running massive trading platforms.

“These [investment bankers] are typically people who care a lot about freedom. These aren't people who even care about cost,” said Whitehurst. “These are people who care about the best possible feature functionality at any cost, and they adopted Linux. Very simply, Linux on x86 was faster than Unix on RISC. Within just a couple of years, all of the Wall Street moved.” 

Linux has won

Last year during the Red Hat Summit, Paul Cormier, president of products and technologies at Red Hat, proclaimed that "Linux and open source community have won." Today there are only two platforms in a datacenter: Windows and Linux. And most innovation in the cloud is happening on Linux. Even Microsoft is witnessing the rise of Linux in its own Azure cloud.

For a very long time Red Hat has been fighting a battle for open source to be seen as a "viable alternative" to the traditional software stack. “Our next aspiration for open source is to not be a viable alternative, but to be the default choice for next generation software stacks,” said Whitehurst.

We are actually already there. If you look at new workloads, whether they are being built on the cloud, whether it’s big data, analytics, machine learning... the default choice for running those new workloads is Linux. “It's not a viable alternative. It is the default choice,” said Whitehurst. All the innovation — from containers to software defined networking — is happening on Linux. “It has become the platform on which the whole next generation of technologies are developed. It really is the platform for innovation,” he said. 

Collaboration model

One of the biggest, yet often not recognized, contributions of Linus Torvalds to the world is creating a unique model for collaboration. It enabled not just individuals to collaborate; it also enabled companies, organizations and even governments to collaborate. 

Whitehurst gave an example of the challenges the U.S. Navy was facing with its anti-missile system. “They needed a real-time operating system and we worked with them. We (meaning the community, not just Red Hat) worked with them to build features into the operating system to allow for real-time performance. Those were the same features that investment banks needed to run some of the most highly performing, mission critical financial transaction systems in the world.”

Linux can solve real-world problems

Whitehurst found that Linux’s development model isn't just a great way to develop software, but “it's a great way to coordinate bright people who have to apply judgment and creativity to their jobs, but still able to coordinate to get things done.”

“That, I think, can be another massive legacy of Linux and open source is, literally, a different way to organize people to get things done in the world,” he added.

Whitehurst mentioned three big companies that are betting on this coordination, collaboration model: “Nike has specifically said, ‘We want to leverage the principles of open source and sharing to help us deal with industry transitions.’ Ikea talks about the open source mindset and how it runs. Toyota just open-sourced all of its hydrogen patents. It's becoming much more involved in thinking about how to drive innovation broadly.... The term open source is thinking about working across corporate boundaries is becoming the norm for leading edge companies. I would argue it's going to become more and more the norm, broadly, if companies want to survive.”

Impact beyond technology

Linux has certainly changed the tech world in the last 25 years, but it’s impact is further reaching. “I would actually argue the social DNA that was developed to coordinate a different set of volunteers to work together is already massively impactful on business and will be going forward,” said Whitehurst.

He believes that the same social DNA, along with the technology stack, can really help solve the biggest problems the world is facing. "I do think that Linux, as a technology, but more broadly, as a social DNA about how people can work together, has the potential to dramatically impact human outcomes and get some of the most daunting challenges,” said Whitehurst.

“I think what Linux has done, and, broadly, what we're seeing continue to innovate around open source, is really develop a better way to harness and distill the best ideas.” he said. “So, again, we can talk about Linux for what it's done in technology, but I think its impact so far on the world has been so much broader, and where I see the possibility for it to go is truly extraordinary….”

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