Three decades of Linux

Doghouse – 30th Anniversary of Linux

Article from Issue 250/2021

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Linux, maddog charts his career in free and open source software.

Thirty years! The Linux Pro Magazine editorial staff told me that the focus of this issue was celebrating the 30th anniversary of Linus Torvald's message to the world that he was going to start his "little project," suggesting that I write something about it.

Of course, for me, 30 years is only three-fifths of my work career. I was very lucky to start in programming when computer systems were a lot simpler. Often they did not have an operating system. The device drivers were linked into your program, even on a mainframe machine that cost several million dollars, and had 1MB of memory.

I started at a time when computer security was locking the door at night (and of course you turned the computer off), networking was carrying a box of punch cards down the hall, and graphics were ASCII art printed out on the line printer. We did not have network architects or system administrators. We had operators, who would load the tapes, run the programs, and feed the printers with 132-column, green-and-white-striped, fan-fold paper

I was lucky to get to know a series of people who, for the most part, taught themselves how to program and often would program in assembly language because the computers of the day were so slow and so simple that you sometimes needed to do that.

I got to meet and talk with people like Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, Dr. Maurice Wilkes, and J. Presper Eckert, Jr. You can search the Internet for their names if you are unfamiliar with these people. You'll find their names, and more, there.

I was hardly ever at the first part of real breakthroughs in computer science, but I was lucky enough to use the early results from the people who did the really heavy lifting – I was able to stand on the shoulders of giants. Many of the things of which I am proudest in my career came about through a gentle nudge given by me to get people going in the right direction.

I delivered, using my Chevy Nova Hatchback, the first VAXstation with Ultrix-32 on it to Richard Stallman when he was still living in his office at MIT. We wanted to make sure the fledgling GNU tools would work on our product.

I facilitated getting the Rock Ridge Extensions into the ISO 9660 CD-ROM Standard so it could support Unix (and later GNU/Linux) systems. I manipulated getting that code into our proprietary Unix operating system, making the face of our engineering manager (normally a calm, smiling person) turn bright red in anger.

I slid source code out to people who really needed it to write a device driver and could not afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars to license the sources.

I managed a three-person staff who took all the free software from the GNU project and many other pieces of open source software and compiled and built a distribution called Good Stuff so our customers would not have to do that. Then we gave it away.

And, in 1994, I convinced people at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to fund the airline ticket and hotel room for a 25-year-old university student (Linus) that no one (at least no managers at DEC) had ever heard of – or even heard of his project. Finally, I recognized that this project was more than just a "hobby" or a "geek thing." I saw that it would have real economic value, so I decided to promote it. And part of that promotion was having Linux ported to the 64-bit DEC Alpha, because by that time I knew that 64-bit was the way of the future.

Of course, there was much more. I formed Linux International with a few very small companies. Almost immediately, I had to defend the word "Linux" from a trademark attack and then had ownership transferred to Linus for safekeeping.

I worked with various Linux Local User Groups (LUGS) events, as well as larger events such as USELINUX (produced by the USENIX Association) and LinuxWorld (produced by IDG).

My job was to "smooth" things, to help people understand this strange thing called (depending on who you were) either Linux or GNU/Linux, and to gently push them to do "the right thing."

And, of course, there were the people I met, had beer with, talked with, and whose hands I shook – from over 100 different countries, all ages, all sexes, all creeds. That was really the best part, the most enjoyable part: the people. Some of them are no longer with us. And some that I met as teenagers now have children or even grandchildren. And that worries me.

I want to be sure that there are young programmers coming along who have the same enthusiasm and determination as those young "whippersnappers" I met along the way and who will meet the same challenges in the same ethical ways.

To them, I say, "Carpe Diem."

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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