Linux in 2011: What a Great Year
After 20 years, Linux continues to move forward.
2011 was another strong year for Linux as new kernels and distributions continued to advance the state of Linux. It was also a year of challenges as the kernel development community grappled with a security breach at kernel.org, and desktop users cringed as the GNOME Shell and Unity interfaces challenged normal usage paradigms.
The Linux Kernel
2011 was a most impressive year of kernel development for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the end of the 2.x series and the debut of Linux 3.x.
The Linux 3.1 kernel was released in October. Among the noteworthy additions in that kernel was a fix that lets applications see it as a 2.6.x kernel. This means the 3.1 kernel actually also can be seen as Linux 2.6.41.
"This patch adds a UNAME26 personality that makes the kernel report a 2.6.40+x version number instead," kernel developer Andi Kleen wrote in a git commit. "The x is the x in 3.x."
The 3.1 kernel was also a triumph in that its release was a proof point for the resilience of Linux kernel development. In late August, kernel.org was hacked. In response, the main Linux repositories were offline for more than a month. Linus Torvalds moved his tree over to Github and development on the 3.1 kernel continues without any significant delay.
There had been some limited talk in recent years about advancing the number for the Linux kernel. After all, the Linux 2.6 kernel came out all the way back in December 2003. The Linux 3.0 release came in July to coincide with 20th anniversary of Linux.
"There are no special landmark features or incompatibilities related to the version number change, it's simply a way to drop an inconvenient numbering system in honor of twenty years of Linux," Torvalds wrote in a mailing list posting.
The Linux 3.0 kernel also marked the entry of the Xen hypervisor into the mainline kernel, after years of being on the outside.
The 2.6.39 kernel came out in May. The 2.6.39 was the release that finally eliminated the last elements of the big kernel lock, freeing up performance. Linux 2.6.39 also benefited from a new block device plugging model, which provides a per-thread approach that improved performance.
The Linux 2.6.38 kernel came out in March. Among the big new innovations is something known as Transparent Hugepages.
With Transparent Huge Pages (THP), memory allocations for processor use grew from 4 KB in size to 2 MB.
The year began with the 2.6.37 kernel back in January. The 2.6.37 kernel was also a performance win for Linux thanks in part to the retry page fault when blocking on disk transfer patch, which was authored by Google developer Michel Lespinasse. According to Lespinasse, with the patch, a read access that used to perform at 55 iterations per second will now perform at 15,000 iterations per second, with the patch installed.
Ubuntu had two release in 2011, though the 11.04 release which introduced the Unity desktop was perhaps the most disruptive. Ubuntu 11.04, the Natty Narwhal debuted in April. The 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot release, which came out in October was noteworthy for its cloud technologies, including Juju for orchestration and OpenStack as the foundation.
The Red Hat sponsored Fedora Linux project came out with Fedora 16 and 15 during the year. Again, the big shift came in the desktop, this time with debut of GNOME 3 in Fedora 15 in May, providing the new GNOME Shell interface to users.
The challenges and criticisms that users leveled against both the new interfaces gave rise to the popularity of Linux Mint during 2011.
From a corporate perspective, 2011 also ushered in the return of SUSE Linux as its own business unit, separate from Novell. Attachmate acquired Novell for $2.2 billion and spun out SUSE as its own unit.
Linux at 20
2011 was a year of change and growth for Linux. That's a good thing. During 2011, the Linux Planet celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of Linux. Linus Torvalds' "hobby" has turned into one of greatest success stories in the history of technology.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals.