Quarter Century of Innovation – aka Happy Birthday Linux!


Screenshot from 2016-08-25 14-35-23

Happy Birthday, Linux! Thank you Linus for that post (and code) from a quarter of a century ago.

I distinctly remember coming across the post above on comp.os.minix while I was trying to figure out something called 386BSD. I was following the 386BSD development by Lynne Jolitz and William Jolitz back when I was in graduate school in OSU. I am not sure where I first heard about 386BSD, but it could have been in some newsgroup or the BYTE magazine (unfortunately I can’t find any references). Suffice to say, the work of 386BSD was subsequently documented by the Dr. Dobb’s Journal from around the 1992. Fortunately, the good people at Dr. Dobb’s Journal have placed their entire contents on the Internet and the first post of the port of 386BSD is now online.

I was back in Singapore by then and was working at CSA Research doing work in building networking functionality for a software engineering project. The development team had access to a SCO Unix machine but because we did not buy “client access licenses” (I think that was what it was called), we could only have exactly 2 users – one on the console via X-Windows and the other via telnet. I was not going to suggest to the management to get the additional access rights (I was told it would cost S$1,500!!) and instead, tried to find out why it was that the 3rd and subsequent login requests were being rejected.

That’s when I discovered that SCO Unix was doing some form of access locking that was part of the login process used by the built-in telnet daemon. I figured that if I can replace the telnet daemon with one that does not do the check, I can get as many people telnetting into the system and using it.

To create a new telnet daemon, I needed the source code and then to compile it. SCO Unix never provided any source code. I managed, however, to get the source code to a telnet daemon (from I think ftp.stanford.edu although I could be wrong).

Remember that during those days, there was no Internet access in Singapore – no TCP/IP access anyway. And the only way to the Internet was via UUCP (and Bitnet at the universities). I used ftpmail@decwrl.com (an ftp via email service by Digital Equipment Corporation) to go out and pull in the code and send it to me via email in 64k uuencoded chunks. Slow, but hey, it worked and it worked well.

Once I got the code, the next challenge was to compile it. We did have the C compiler but for some reason, we did not have the needed crypto library to compile against. That was when I came across the incredible stupidity of labeling cryptography as a munition by the US Department of Commerce. Because of that, we, in Singapore, could not get to the crypto library.

After some checking around, I got to someone who happened to have a full blown SCO Unix system and had the crypto library in their system. I requested that they compile a telnet daemon without the crypto library enabled and to then send me the compiled binary.

After some to and fro via email, I finally received the compiled telnet daemon without the crypto linked in and replaced the telnetd on my SCO Unix machine. Viola, everyone else in the office LAN could telnet in. The multi-user SCO machine was now really multi-user.

That experience was what pushed me to explore what would I need to do to make sure that both crypto code and needed libraries are available to anyone, anywhere. The fact that 386BSD was a US-originated project meant that tying my kite to them would eventually discriminate against me in not being able to get to the best of cryptography and in turn, security and privacy. That was when Linus’ work on Linux became interesting for me.

The fact that this was done outside the US meant that it was not crippled by politics and other shortsighted rules and that if it worked well enough, it could be an interesting operating system.

I am glad that I did make that choice.

The very first Linux distribution I got was from Soft Landing Systems (SLS in short) which I had to get via the amazingly trusty ftpmail@decwrl.com service which happily replied with dozens of 64K uuencoded emails.

What a thrill it was when I started getting serialized uuencoded emails with the goodies in them. I don’t think I have any of the 5.25″ on to which I had to put the uudecoded contents. I do remember selling complete sets of SLS diskettes (all 5.25″ ones) for $10 per box (in addition to the cost of the diskettes). I must have sold it to 10-15 people. Yes, I made money from free software, but it was for the labour and “expertise”.

Fast forward twenty five years to 2016, I have so many systems running Linux (TV, wireless access points, handphones, laptops, set-top boxes etc etc etc) that if I were asked to point to ONE thing that made and is still making a huge difference to all of us, I will point to Linux.

The impact of Linux on society cannot be accurately quantified.  It is hard. Linux is like water. It is everywhere and that is the beauty of it. In choosing the GPLv2 license for Linux, Linus released a huge amount of value for all of humanity. He paid forward.

It is hard to predict what the next 25 years will mean and how Linux will impact us all, but if the first 25 years is a hint, it cannot but be spectacular. What an amazing time to be alive.

Happy birthday Linux. You’ve defined how we should be using and adoption technology. You’ve disrupted and continue to disrupt, industries all over the place. You’ve helped define what it means to share ideas openly and freely. You’ve shown what happens when we collaborate and work together. Free and Open Source is a win-win for all and Linux is the Gold Standard of that.

Linux (and Linus) You done well and thank you!

4 thoughts on “Quarter Century of Innovation – aka Happy Birthday Linux!

  1. Thanks for the “nostalgic eassy” Harish! The best line I think ” Linux is like water” and yes people without understanding it and giving thought of it. I started way late ,precisely on Jan 2000 ,when I bought a IBM Netvista A22p tower model computer ,and that time it cost me hell lot money(I know ,I know it’s nothing for others) .The first thing I did with it , put GNU/Linux on it and wipe out the other os comes along with it. Then the journey began with GNU/Linux. My first introduction to UNIX in 1996 May( yeah way delayed) and with SCO too.

    The best part , one day every one in classroom typing on black console(very first day) and I was staring at it for long ,then the instructer came and told me ,it is awiting for you ,in a sense chanllenging you to fiddle with it.Aha! “light blub” moment for me. Fall in love with it and the journey continue..probably till my death. Done enough ,but not written enough.

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