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Twenty-five years ago, a short post on a Usenet group by Linus Torvalds heralded the arrival of a new, home-brewed operating system: Linux. Fast forward to today, and Linux is the bedrock of enterprise computing, the fundament for a significant majority of datacenter innovation. Linux operating system distributions are now so numerous and so pervasive that it’s almost easy to take Linux’s impact for granted.

“Almost” being the key word here. Over the past quarter century, Linux adoption has grown significantly, and we expect it to continue growing, just as we expect to see more innovations emerge from this extraordinary community.

The sheer scale of Linux’s influence is difficult to articulate - the New York Stock Exchange, one of the most sophisticated IT organizations in the world, has said “it flows like water.” . It’s easiest to understand the role of Linux in two ways:

  • As an extremely low barrier of entry to a high-quality, innovative operating system kernel

  • As an icebreaker for the broader movement of open source software

Linux is open source, but open source is not just Linux

Open source certainly existed before Linux. It would not, however, exist as it does today without Linux. Linux provided a powerful catalyst to the free and open source software movement.The successes of a fundamental building block like the operating system drove more adoption, more innovation and more legitimacy for other projects and communities. Twenty-five years later, we have an IT domain that is now effectively “open by default.”

Take, for example, GitHub, which is now the home for a bulk of the world’s open source code, communities and projects. Github is built on git, which was created by Linus Torvalds, the grandmaster and namesake of Linux, to help bring sanity to Linux kernel development. It was never intended to be the engine for this massive repository that it is now, but Git simply evolved to that state. This is a common theme in open source, where projects and tools that were originally started in support of Linux but have grown well beyond those boundaries to serve the community at large, not just Linux.

The standard for innovation

Linux has also had a profound impact on outside of the open source world. Not just through the obvious innovation of the kernel, but also through standardized innovation. As our CEO Jim Whitehurst often alludes to, interchangeable parts in manufacturing during the early part of the 20th century eliminated much of the “bespoke” processes that went into manufacturing, allowing for true innovation to thrive on common platforms.

This is exactly what Linux has done for 25 years - it provides a common, standardized platform, predictable across use cases, that allows for innovations on top of innovation. Cloud computing, for example, is a result of this standardized innovation. Without the cost and technical efficiencies provided by Linux, cloud computing would look incredibly different, if it existed at all – more akin to the siloed, custom UNIX stacks of the early 90s than the flexible, commoditized services we expect today.

Linux containers are another example of innovation on top of Linux. Containers use the standardized components of Linux itself to provide a new way of packaging and consuming enterprise applications. From Linux containers, we’ve seen even more innovation emerge, from the Docker project to Kubernetes, creating an emerging market for applications and tools that can manage dozens or hundreds of simple, isolated processes.

Finally, hardware is not immune from the effects of Linux’s innovation. By providing a standardized platform, Linux effectively drove a wedge between the application and hardware, allowing for the rise of commodity x86 servers and even the evolution of emerging hardware approaches, like ARM and system on chip (SoC). This common base for computing has allowed enterprise IT to grow, emphasizing innovation instead of simply keeping the lights on with expensive maintenance and exorbitant licensing fees.

Beyond the datacenter

Linux, as a driver for the methodology of open source, has also had a profound effect on our culture. As open source and Linux have grown together in prominence, we’ve seen more and more open-oriented shifts in our world, from Wikipedia to open governance initiatives to community-driven business efforts, like crowdsourcing and even Kickstarter. The notion of collaboration done in a transparent, open manner joins well with an increasingly interconnected world, especially with the rise of social media, making open source a trend that goes well beyond the technology sector.

25 to life

Linux has accomplished an inordinate amount in its short life: the driver for open source in the enterprise, an innovation standard-bearer, a cross-cultural, cross-industry driver for openness and more. But that’s not enough - what’s next? In the coming years, what does Linux need to accomplish? What challenges will it face? Here are just a few that I see:

  • Security - As a growing baseline for enterprise IT deployments, Linux is not just an enabling layer of software. It’s now a part of many organizations’ critical security infrastructure. This means more and more sophisticated mechanisms are needed for protecting data and applications, and that flaws or vulnerabilities must be diagnosed and addressed before they can be exploited.

  • Hardware advances - The commoditization of hardware (thanks to Linux) now means more hardware options that update more frequently. Trends like cloud computing, non-volatile memory, GPU computing and the emergence of highly interconnected computing fabrics will change what we expect from an operating system. Linux needs to retain the position as the great standardizer, but this means adapting to an ever-growing ecosystem of emerging chipsets and hardware approaches.

  • Linux containers - For an innovation that bears its name, Linux containers have the potential to most shake up Linux (and open source) in the next quarter-century. From redefining the enterprise application lifecycle to operating systems that may need to exists for only a few milliseconds, Linux needs to continue driving towards the automation, scalability, and manageability that containers require.

Thanks to Linux, open source is now a key player in enterprise IT and the global business world. Without it, many of the everyday tools that we take for granted, from on-demand services to VoIP, might not exist or would, at the least, look much, much different. While questions about the future must be addressed, there’s one point that will forever stand out: We owe a significant portion of our world today to a single Usenet post from 1991.

Here’s to 25 years, Linux, and many more to come.

About the author

Gunnar Hellekson is vice president and general manager for the Red Hat® Enterprise Linux® business. Before that, he was chief strategist for Red Hat’s U.S. Public Sector group. He is a founder of Open Source for America, one of Federal Computer Week’s Fed 100 for 2010, and was voted one of the FedScoop 50 for industry leadership. Hellekson was a founder of the Military Open Source working group, a member of the SIIA Software Division Board, the Board of Directors for the Public Sector Innovation Group, the Open Technology Fund Advisory Council, New America’s California Civic Innovation Project Advisory Council, and the CivicCommons Board of Advisors.
Prior to Red Hat, Hellekson worked as a developer, systems administrator, and IT director for a number of internet businesses. He has also been a business and IT consultant to not-for-profit organizations in New York City. During that time, he spearheaded the reform of safety regulations for New York State’s electrical utilities through the Jodie Lane Project.

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