The Internet is now a household term in many countries. With otherwise serious people beginning to joyride along the Information Superhighway, computer networking seems to be moving toward the status of TV sets and microwave ovens. The Internet has unusually high media coverage, and social science majors are descending on Usenet newsgroups, online virtual reality environments, and the Web to conduct research on the new “Internet Culture.”
Of course, networking has been around for a long time. Connecting computers to form local area networks has been common practice, even at small installations, and so have long-haul links using transmission lines provided by telecommunications companies. A rapidly growing conglomerate of world-wide networks has, however, made joining the global village a perfectly reasonable option for even small non-profit organizations of private computer users. Setting up an Internet host with mail and news capabilities offering dialup and ISDN access has become affordable, and the advent of DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and Cable Modem technologies will doubtlessly continue this trend.
Talking about computer networks often means talking about Unix. Of course, Unix is not the only operating system with network capabilities, nor will it remain a frontrunner forever, but it has been in the networking business for a long time, and will surely continue to be for some time to come.
What makes Unix particularly interesting to private users is that there has been much activity to bring free Unix-like operating systems to the PC, such as 386BSD, FreeBSD, and Linux.
Linux is a freely distributable Unix clone for personal computers. It currently runs on a variety of machines that includes the Intel family of processors, but also Motorola 680x0 machines, such as the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh; Sun SPARC and Ultra-SPARC machines; Compaq Alphas; MIPS; PowerPCs, such as the new generation of Apple Macintosh; and StrongARM, like the rebel.com Netwinder and 3Com Palm machines. Linux has been ported to some relatively obscure platforms, like the Fujitsu AP-1000 and the IBM System 3/90. Ports to other interesting architectures are currently in progress in developers' labs, and the quest to move Linux into the embedded controller space promises success.
Linux was developed by a large team of volunteers across the Internet. The project was started in 1990 by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish college student, as an operating systems course project. Since that time, Linux has snowballed into a full-featured Unix clone capable of running applications as diverse as simulation and modeling programs, word processors, speech recognition systems, World Wide Web browsers, and a horde of other software, including a variety of excellent games. A great deal of hardware is supported, and Linux contains a complete implementation of TCP/IP networking, including SLIP, PPP, firewalls, a full IPX implementation, and many features and some protocols not found in any other operating system. Linux is powerful, fast, and free, and its popularity in the world beyond the Internet is growing rapidly.
The Linux operating system itself is covered by the GNU General Public License, the same copyright license used by software developed by the Free Software Foundation. This license allows anyone to redistribute or modify the software (free of charge or for a profit) as long as all modifications and distributions are freely distributable as well. The term “free software” refers to freedom of application, not freedom of cost.