What is Linux and how does it work?

As an operating system, Linux manages the resources of a computer, performing basic tasks such as controlling and allocating memory, prioritising system requests, managing input and output devices, facilitating networking and handling files.

In functional terms, it offers the same capabilities as commercially available operating systems such as Unix and Windows. But unlike these, there is no charge for Linux, which can be freely downloaded and modified, used and redistributed by anyone.

Linux was launched on the world in April 1991, after Linus Torvalds, then a 21-year-old Finnish programmer, described the concept on the Internet newsgroup, comp.os.minix.

Supporters rallied to his call for code contributions, and by September, version 0.01 of the Linux kernel was released with 10,239 lines of code.

Today, Linux continues to be developed by a worldwide community of volunteers, although many are employees of the world's biggest IT companies. It now encompasses 8.2m lines of code, which grow at a rate of about 10 per cent a year. Every hour, about 85 new lines are contributed.

Word about Linux spread quickly among developers, but only in recent years have non-IT executives begun to hear about it. On inquiry, many have found that Linux is already up and running in their organisations, brought in "under the radar" by developers, at first to power non-critical systems such as file and print servers and then e-mail and web servers.

Linux is now in the third and final phase of an evolution toward becoming a recognised data centre operating system environment, according to George Weiss, an analyst with IT market research company, Gartner.

"The first phase was its use in basic infrastructure and network-edge [servers]; the second phase began to see more deployments in web-serving and applications; and the third phase is in secure, reliable, mission-critical applications and databases," he says.

This third phase is crucial, he says, because of the potential for enterprises to deploy Linux solutions in grids, service-oriented architectures, clustered databases and massively scalable server farms.

This year, he predicts, between 20 and 25 per cent of user expenditures allocated to Linux will be for mission-critical applications.

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