Linux's roots in Unix

Find out what were the conditions that made the world ripe for a computer system like Linux.

Linux grew within a culture of free exchange of ideas and software. Like Unix -- the operating system on which Linux is based -- the focus was on keeping communications open among software developers. Getting the code to work was the goal and the Internet was the primary communications medium. Keeping the software free and redistributable was a means to that goal. What, then, were the conditions that made the world ripe for a computer system such as Linux?

In the 1980s and 1990s, while Microsoft flooded the world with personal computers running DOS and Windows operating systems, power users demanded more from an operating system. They ached for systems that could run on networks, support many users at once (multiuser), and run many programs at once (multitasking). DOS (disk operating system) and Windows didn't cut it.

Unix, on the other hand, grew out of a culture where technology was king and marketing people were, well, hard to find. Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, was a think tank where ideas came first and profits were somebody else's problem. A quote from Dennis Ritchie, co-creator of Unix and designer of the C programming language, in a 1980 lecture on the evolution of Unix , sums up the spirit that started Unix . He was commenting on both his hopes and those of his colleagues for the Unix project after a similar project called Multics had just failed:

What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form. We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication.

In that spirit, the first source code of Unix was distributed free to universities. Like Linux, the availability of Unix source code made it possible for a diverse population of software developers to make their own enhancements to Unix and share them with others.

By the early 1980s, Unix development moved from the organization in Murray Hill to a more commercially oriented development laboratory in Summit, New Jersey (a few miles down the road). During that time, Unix began to find commercial success as the computing system of choice for applications such as AT&T's telephone switching equipment, for supercomputer applications such as modeling weather patterns, and for controlling NASA space projects.

Major computer hardware vendors licensed the Unix source code to run on their computers. To try to create an environment of fairness and community to its OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), AT&T began standardizing what these different ports of Unix had to be able to do to still be called Unix . To that end, compliance with POSIX standards and the AT&T Unix System V Interface Definition (SVID) were specifications UNIX vendors could use to create compliant Unix systems. Those same documents also served as road maps for the creation of Linux.

Elsewhere, the Unix source code that had been distributed to universities had taken on a life of its own. The Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) began life in the late 1970s as patches to the AT&T Unix source code from students and staff at the University of California at Berkeley. Over the years, the AT&T code was rewritten and BSD became freely distributed, with offshoot projects such as FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD still available. Linux has been described as a Unix-like operating system that reflects a combination of SVID, POSIX, and BSD compliance. Linux continues to aim toward POSIX compliance, as well as compliance with standards set by the new owner of the Unix trademark, The Open Group (, which includes Linus Torvalds on its staff and whose members include most of the major commercial vendors, and the Linux Standard Base (, which coordinates compatibility among Linux distributions.  


What is an operating system?

An operating system is made up of software instructions that lie between the computer hardware (disks, memory, ports and so on) and the application programs (word processors, Web browsers, spreadsheets and so on).

At the center is the kernel, which provides the most basic computing functions (managing system memory, sharing the processor, opening and closing devices, and so on). Associated with the kernel are a variety of basic services needed to operate the computer, including:


  • File systems: The file system provides the structure in which information is stored on the computer. Information is stored in files, primarily on hard disks inside the computer, but also on removable media such as CDs and DVDs. Files are organized within a hierarchy of directories. The Linux file system holds the data files that you save, the programs you run, and the configuration files that set up the system.


  • Device drivers: These provide the interfaces to each of the hardware devices connected to your computer. A device driver enables a program to write to a device without needing to know details about how each piece of hardware is implemented. The program opens a device, sends and receives data, and closes a device.


  • User interfaces: An operating system needs to provide a way for users to run programs and access the file system. Linux has both graphical and text-based user interfaces. GNOME and KDE provide graphical user interfaces, whereas shell command interpreters (such as bash) run programs by typing commands and options.


  • System services: An operating system provides system services, many of which can be started automatically when the computer boots. In Linux, system services can include processes that mount file systems, start your network, and run scheduled tasks. In Linux, many services run continuously, enabling users to access printers, Web pages, files, databases, and other computing assets over a network.

    Without an operating system, an application program would have to know the details of each piece of hardware, instead of just being able to say, "open that device and write a file there."


Chapter table of contents


This is an excerpt from Chapter 1, 'An Overview of Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux,' from the book Fedora 5 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Bible by Christopher Negus and courtesy of Wiley.

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