Linux by the numbers

The story of Linux at the 3.0 mark

The latest version of the Linux kernel, Linux 3.0, was pushed out last night, marking the end of the 2.6 kernel series.

As most people in the know understand, this does not represent a big sea change, since the new version numbering was really just a way to discontinue the 2.6 numbering, which would have been 2.6.40 for the kernel today, had not Linus Torvalds announced in late May that the time had come for a new numbering scheme.

The fact that Linux is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer likely played a part in Torvalds' decision, which he even mentioned in his initial statement in May:

"We've been doing time-based releases for many years now, this is in no way about features. If you want an excuse for the renumbering, you really should look at the time-based one ('20 years') instead."

While there is no big technological achievement that marks this kernel release, one thing did catch my eye: Xen virtualization support is finally integrated in the Linux kernel. A lot of people have been critical of this, since KVM has already been in the kernel since version 2.6.20 and KVM is now supported in Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Canonical's Ubuntu Server, and SUSE Enterprise Server Linux. Though SLES also supports Xen.

You can argue that Xen is just a Johnny-come-lately in the Linux kernel, but I would put forth that the inclusion of Xen support alongside KVM support is all about offering choice to Linux end-users... which is what Linux has been about since its inception.

Linux 3.0 doesn't necessarily represent a technological milestone, but it puts a stake in the ground for something else: the longevity of how a free software project is supposed to work. It's powerful, it works well, and, though it's a bit more bloated than it used to be, it's agile too. It's not owned by any one company, and everyone with the skills is free to participate and reap the rewards of the end product.

These are no paltry rewards, either. In 2008, when I worked for the Linux Foundation, I helped put together a study that set the value of Linux kernel development at over a billion dollars. Which meant that is some company started building something like the Linux kernel right now from scratch, they would need $1.4 billion to provide just the people-power to do it. I would not be surprised to see that figure even higher today.

That Linux is a success is undeniable. In mobile, server, cloud, and virtualization, the Linux operating system has demonstrated it is the operating system of choice in a variety of platforms. To the dismay of so many Linux fans, desktop Linux wasn't meant to be, but in recent months I have come to regard that as a "failure" we can all live with.

Desktop Linux, you see, was really a point of pride for Linux users, and a direct reflection of how much we really don't like Microsoft Windows. The goal of dethroning Windows, you see, became the be-all-end-all for many Linux users, and in truth it still is.

So maybe Linux advocates should take a little pleasure in this statement from ZDNet's Ed Bott, who rebranded his blog to The Ed Bott Report from the Ed Bott's Microsoft Report this week and explained why:

"In part, this change is a reflection of how Microsoft's competitive position has changed in the past decade and especially in the last five years. The lines between companies and markets are increasingly blurred. Once, not that long ago, Microsoft had a DOJ-certified monopoly on personal computers. Today, Microsoft is still hugely successful in the enterprise, but the company's share in the PC segment is slowly eroding. In other essential tech categories (especially mobile) Microsoft is struggling just to become a serious player."

Thus, while Microsoft has dominated in the desktop, it may have lost its chance in all of the other platforms, platforms where Linux is at or near the top.

And no one is giving up on Linux on the desktop, by the way. We can mark that Linux is behind in the race, but the race isn't over yet.

This is the story of Linux at the 3.0 mark, a story of freedom and innovation that has been around for 20 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Let's mark the milestone with pride in a job well done by the developers, contributors, and users, who deserve their allocades for their part in the best operating system ever collaborated.

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