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Turning Back the Clock: What Spurred the Open Source Movement?


Last year, we wrote about the future of open source. We also discovered how the internet sorta arose from screw standardization in the 19th century. But how did open source even come about?

Let’s take a look back — as the first stirrings of the open source movement took place well before Bill Gates made his first million (or billion) dollars.

In the Beginning, There Was IBM

The internet was started by a bunch of researchers with a shared set of values. They wanted to share resources, information, data, and, yes, code. It’s argued that the very structure of the internet was inspired by the social structure of those scientists — flat, collaborative, and ultimately open.

In the 1950s, IBM distributed its OS source code to its customers. Systems programmers then would make tweaks and additions and ‘share’ their code with other customers. As a result, an IBM user group, SHARE, was set up and coordinated — and distributed these code contributions in the SHARE library. A process that was arguably a very early open source process.

Of course, the contributors to, and recipients of, the SHARE library were all IBM-licensed customers, so it was not what we’d call truly open, but definitely collaborative.

Then… Came UNIX

In the 1970s, University of California Berkeley essentially hijacked Unix, and opened it to the world. Here’s how.

UNIX was developed at Bell Labs as a portable platform written in high-level C language. This portability quickly gained momentum, but not in the direction Bell Labs’ parent company AT&T would have liked.

At that time, AT&T was forbidden to enter the computer business due to antitrust issues. Since Bell Labs was the research and development arm of the old AT&T, the Bell System, and it was covered by the antitrust ruling, so AT&T could not sell UNIX.

To make matters worse for AT&T (but great for scientists), the company also was required to license any of their Bell Labs patents upon request. Under this rule, copies of UNIX were requested and distributed widely to computer scientists at universities and research institutes.

Once the UNIX code was out in the closed loop of the wild, scientists extensively modified the code to their purposes, shared it with other scientists, who modified it further, and this was a one-way process.

Code went out from Bell Labs, but there were no contributions returned to be folded back into the source tree, so it wasn’t actually open source.

Instead, the scientists made it open source. They did what they always did — collaborated, which circumvented whatever control Bell Labs tried to assert (which was little) over the direction of their software.

Meanwhile at MIT, Stuff was Happening

While companies like AT&T were attempting to protecting their software intellectual property, there were those who thought that a much freer approach was warranted.

In 1983, MIT’s Richard Stallman announced the GNU project with a goal to build a UNIX-like operating system, without any Bell Labs proprietary source code. Without Bell Labs’ code, it could be made available to users who then would have the freedom to run, modify it, and share it as they pleased.

By the way, in case you wondered, GNU stands for “GNU’s Not UNIX.”

GNU was the sort of mass collaboration project that we are now familiar with today. Stallman also announced the GNU General Public License (GPL) software license, which is the basis of open source licensing today.

From Finland with Linus

Separate from the GNU project, Finnish software developer Linus Torvalds developed the Linux kernel, and in 1991 it was made available under the GNU license. It was adopted as the kernel for the GNU operating system and Linux, as we know it today, came into being.

If you want a good introduction about Linux, we’ve got one right here.

Soon after, startups like Red Hat in the United States and SUSE in Europe saw an opportunity to commercialize Linux. Because of the restrictions of the GNU license, these companies were able to charge for service and support agreements, but without the traditional license use fees for the products.

And so began the steady movement of open source into the force it is today.

Open Source as it Stands Today

Open source now is a staple of enterprise computing. There is an incredible array of open source-based products for customers to use including operating systems, databases, backup utilities, web and application servers, storage systems, network and systems management, and development environments.

New proprietary software products seem to be few and far between, with open source being the model preferred by customers and vendors. Google and Amazon are both strong proponents of open source technology for their internal use and for their cloud offerings.

Even traditionalists such as Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle are tipping their hat to open source.

Taking Your First Steps with Open Source

Linux has definitely arrived, evidenced by variety of certifications for administrators, engineers, and enterprise professionals.

There’s a strong demand for certified professionals in this technology.

CBT Nuggets is on the forefront of providing training for open source products and certifications. Want to get onboard the open source movement? It’s never too late. Here are some great training courses to get rolling.

  • Linux Essentials: This training course covers the exam objectives for the LPI Linux Essentials certification, an entry-level cert for those with no prior Linux experience.

We also offer courses on more specific and advanced open source platforms and software.

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