Linux at the U of C

Linux was created by univer-sity student Linus Torvalds in 1991 and can be thought of a Unix work-alike for smaller personal computers.

In a personal computer, Linux, like the Windows operating system found in most PCs, acts as the interface between software programs and computer hardware. That is, Linux is responsible for passing data back and forth between applications like Netscape and hardware like a modem.

A primary advantage of Linux over Windows is its efficiency. Generally, any task that can be done on a PC running Windows can be done on the same PC running Linux, only faster. What makes Linux even more different, and some would say better, is that unlike Windows, which is owned and distributed by Microsoft, no single company controls Linux. Companies such as Red Hat and Caldera sell distributions (their own flavours of Linux) by modifying the human-readable source code for the OS.

The source code, and most distributions of Linux, are freely available via Internet to anyone. Many programs and OSs fall under Open Source license, which calls for those programs and OSs to be distributed as source code which can be modified by users to add functionality to and customize their programs or “roll their own” version of Linux under the license. Anyone who wishes to distribute their customized program or OS must also distribute the modified source code used to create it so that others can repeat the process.

And many people and companies have. Currently, an estimated 200 different distributions of Linux exist for almost every computing platform in use today from modern portable digital assistants and enterprise database servers to ancient 386s from the ’80s.

A consequence, or perhaps a cause, of this wide compatibility range is the large and diverse following of users and programmers who support the Linux and Open Source communities. Many Linux enthusiasts contribute their time, expertise and other resources to the community by writing and debugging Open Source programs which are then available to millions of users.

Among Linux programmers, having one’s source code included in a Linux distribution is a badge of honour. This is particularly true if one’s source code gets included in the Linux kernel, the core set of code largely maintained by Linus, on which most Linux distributions are based. It is believed that this type of recognition in the Linux kernel or another Open Source project is what keeps many attached to the movement.

Not surprisingly, many contributors are young science students and graduates who have the know-how to write programs and release them under the Open Source license, if only to get a job done and help others like them along the way, or to beef up the resumé. In any case, the sharing of code generated by Open Source projects benefits those in the community and everyone else, including academics, who uses their code or glean ideas from reading it. Thus, Linux should, and does, have a significant place in the universities of the world, where the research, development and free expression of ideas have always been commonplace.

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