The Humble Beginnings of Linux

Randy Bentson reflects on the early days of Linux.
Distribution Kits

All during the development of the kernel, concurrent development was being done on the tools I've mentioned, as well as others. One of the topics of discussion by users was what they collected for their system. Since new users didn't want to hunt the net for the critical pieces, the idea of a “standard distribution” was established.

One common medium of exchange has been the floppy disk, so the distribution kits have generally been cast in terms of images of MS-DOS-readable disks. One can copy a friend's disk set and then bootstrap Linux. If you're anywhere near a large community, chances are there is a Linux or Unix users group nearby. If you're lucky, you'll find a set of floppies to borrow. If that fails, it's almost certain you'll find someone who will copy their distribution to your floppies.

Distribution kits include: Debian, MCC, Slackware, Software Landing Systems (SLS), SUSE, TAMU, Yggdrasil.


These distribution kits are generally deposited or maintained on an ftp site and mirrored to other ftp sites. Many bulletin boards maintain copies of these distributions. This gives you a second path to acquire Linux: all you have to do is download 50 Mbyte via modem.

The third and, I think, most significant path to acquiring Linux is CD-ROM. A number of companies publish one or more (I've seen as many as four) distributions on a single CD-ROM. The companies add lots of other material, such as X-Windows, the GNU sources and snapshots of archive sites (which contain other, non-distribution kit software), to their packages and sell them for $20 to $40. Since you can easily spend $20 in floppy disks for a distribution kit alone, this is quite a bargain! When one can now buy a single-speed CD-ROM drive for less than $100, getting a distribution by way of CD-ROM is very attractive.

Some of the current Linux CD-ROM publishers include: InfoMagic, Morse Telecommunication, Nascent, Red Hat Software, Trans-Ameritech, Walnut Creek and Yggdrasil Computing, Inc.

It should be noted that distribution kits have different numbering than the kernel itself, and CD-ROMs may have yet another way of identifying versions. This can lead to confusion when someone refers to “the Fall 1993 release” or “the 2.0 release”. If you look at /usr/src/linux/Makefile, you'll find the version, patch level, and sub-level in the first few lines. Look at the README-type files in the root of the distribution to determine the kit's version.

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

My first experience with Unix was in 1980, when I was handed three 2400' reels of half-inch magnetic tape and a two-foot high stack of xerographed manual pages. I was pointed to the VAX and wished the best of luck.

Those were heady times, living on the edge, working without a safety net. One's phone list (of other system administrators) was critical to one's survival. Everyone (the system administrators and select students) had the source code, and one was expected to dive into the kernel and fix things.

But things got boring for a while in the late 1980s: vendors distributed only object files for their Unix systems and there were commercially-available support groups to call. One was expected to manage configuration files and submit bug reports—and then wait for a correction.

In a conversation just last week, I pointed out that those golden days are with us again, only better. First, the number of sites and kernel programmers has grown ten-fold or a hundred-fold, so there are more folks contributing fixes and improvements. Second, since we're running on personal computers, the effects of our changes are localized, and we're even more free to explore. Finally, with widespread Internet service, we're so much better connected to one another.

These are such interesting times!

Randolph Bentson ( has been programming for money since 1969-writing more tasking kernels in assembly code than he wants to admit. His first high-level language operating system was the UCSD P-system. For nearly 14 years he has been working with Unix and for the last year he's been enjoying Linux. Randy is the author of the Linux driver for the Cyclades serial I/O card.



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Re: The Humble Beginnings of Linux

Anonymous's picture

These are such interesting times!

May you live in interesting times!
--Ancient Chinese curse