LWN is about to celebrate a birthday. Picking the true anniversary of an
enterprise like LWN can be a bit tricky - there are many points which could
be said to mark the true birth of the organization. After some thought, we
have decreed that LWN.net was born on January 30, 1998. So we have a
tenth anniversary coming up. That's a long time - far longer than any of
us thought we would be doing this. Life is funny that way, somehow.
One cannot let a date like this go by without at least partially taking
advantage of its hype-creation possibilities. So there will be a few
things happening to celebrate our decade of writing about Linux,
culminating with some sort of celebration on the 30th, when your editor
will be speaking at this year's (sold-out!) linux.conf.au in Melbourne,
Australia. One of those will be a short series of articles - starting with
this one - looking back at those ten years. What a long, strange trip it
Back in early 1997, your editor was the manager of a software development,
system administration, and data delivery group at the National Center for
Atmospheric Research. He had, at that point, been using Linux for a few
years. It was running on a number of servers, of course, but we had also
deployed it on desktops and used it for the acquisition and display of
meteorological data, including high-bandwidth (for the time) doppler radar
data. Don't let anybody tell you that real-time Linux is a new thing.
At this time, your editor was seeing two futures: (1) an increasingly
dilbertesque life spent mostly in meetings, and (2) the clearly
bright future of Linux. So he was actively looking for ways to move out of
conference rooms and toward Linux, and talking over schemes with a number
of friends. An early idea - to commercialize one
of the first weather stations ever put on the World Wide Web with LWN
editor Forrest Cook, never quite took off. But that thought process
During that same time, Elizabeth Coolbaugh had just left a very similar
position at the same institution; she was looking for a new project for the
next phase of her life. After some discussions, Liz and your editor
settled on a business idea which seemed to have some promise. It was not
to be the last silly decision they were to make.
You see, at that time there was a struggling Linux distributor named Red
Hat which was beginning to get the sense that there might be a market for
its boxed Linux product in the corporate world. But companies need
support, and Red Hat lacked the ability to provide that support. So the
company's management came up with the "support partner" concept. Upon
being accepted into this program, partner companies would be able to sell
Red Hat-backed support certificates, which Red Hat would help to market.
This widespread network of Linux experts would be able to provide local
support to clients and would, for the hardest problems, be able to get help
from Red Hat itself. It looked like a winner for everybody involved.
That program was not yet operational at this time, though - but Red Hat
promised it would be Real Soon Now. Your soon-to-be editors, not yet
having done much business with Red Hat beyond ordering an occasional CD,
believed this promise. But it still made sense to do something productive while
waiting. The idea that emerged after some talk was to put up a regular
newsletter about what was happening in the fast-evolving Linux community.
Even back then, keeping up with everything was hard, so we figured that the
service would be valuable. As an added bonus, it would attract attention
to this new support company (called Eklektix) and show just how blindingly
smart and up on Linux we were.
Discussion of details occurred slowly through much of 1997. On
January 22, 1998, the first
issue of LWN was posted; it talked about the 2.1.79 kernel, the brand-new
spinlock mechanism, the devfs debate, the creation of Red Hat Advanced
Development Labs, and attempts to bring Java to Linux. The January 29, 1998 issue changed
the format and led off
with Netscape's announcement that it would be releasing the source code for
its browser. We also found all of two news articles about Linux (we posted
every one we found in those days) and talked about NFS problems, the devfs
debate, the Debian 2.0 release roadmap, and gcc 2.8 problems.
At this point, we had posted two issues, but had not actually told anybody
about them. Unsurprisingly, traffic was low. That changed on
January 30, when our
announcement made it out to the comp.os.linux.announce newsgroup - the
best way to get the news out at that time. As promotional text the
announcement was rudimentary at best, but it had the desired result - we
got over 1000 page views on that first day, which seemed like a lot at the
time. LWN was off and running.
Some highlights from the early days of LWN:
- February 12, 1998: Eric
Raymond starts pushing "open source" instead of free software.
Worries over whether Intel's proposed "Merced" architecture would
- February 19, 1998: Richard
Stallman fights back against Open Source. SCO claims to be the
largest provider of Unix-based servers. Jesse Berst's famous "could
you get fired for choosing Linux?" article runs. Jaroslav Kysela
launches the "Ultra" (later ALSA) sound driver project.
- March 12, 1998: Ralph Nader
suggests that Dell should sell Linux-installed systems.
- March 19, 1998: Bruce Perens
resigns from the Debian project, saying: "I'm
sorry it had to be this way, but I feel that my mission to bring free
software to the masses really isn't compatible with Debian any longer,
and that I should be working with one of the more mainstream Linux
distributions." Sendmail, Inc. was launched.
- April 2, 1998: the Mozilla
source release happens. Alan Cox joins Red Hat. The feature freeze
for the 2.2 kernel is announced. The Open Group announces that use of
the X Window System will requires fees - but Linux users had XFree86
and didn't care.
It's fair to say that we didn't entirely grasp the significance of the
events reported in the April 2 edition. The hiring of Alan Cox was
one of the first in a long series - before then, almost nobody actually had
a job which involved developing Linux. The Open Group's attempt to
relicense X was thoroughly defeated by the existence of a free version with
an active development community - a story which would be repeated a number
of times in the coming years.
- April 30, 1998: Red Hat gets
around to launching its support program, with Eklektix as one of the
four they had managed to sign up. Kernel development halts as a
result of the birth of Linus's second child.
- May 28, 1998: LWN moves to its
own domain at LWN.net. The Linux Standard Base is proposed. Your
editor first describes himself as "grumpy" after producing LWN by
himself (Liz was at Linux Expo). PC Week calls Linux "a communist
operating system in a capitalist society" and predicts its demise.
Red Hat 5.1 is released.
- July 16, 1998: KDE 1.0 is
released; KDE v. GNOME flamewars spread across numerous mailing lists
and web sites.
- July 23, 1998: Oracle ports
some of its products to Linux.
that 8MB of memory will be needed for the 2.2 kernel.
The Oracle announcement seems mundane now, but the existence of Oracle
products for Linux was a specific indicator that many people were looking
for. It was an indication that Linux was a "serious" platform. Richard
Stallman, of course, thought that Oracle's announcement was terrible news.
- July 30, 1998: Debian 2.0 is
released. Rumors circulate that IBM is considering Linux.
Linux-Mandrake is launched.
- August 13, 1998: the Open
Source Initiative is launched, flame wars result. Richard Stallman
calls for free
documentation for free software. The kernel goes into a "hard code
freeze" - not the first or last time that a Linus-decreed freeze would
prove to be less hard than anticipated. The devfs discussion
continues. Red Hat states that it
cannot legally ship Qt or KDE.
- August 20, 1998: Red Hat
launches Rawhide. Bruce Perens bails out of the Linux Standard Base
- October 1, 1998:
Intel and Netscape (and two venture capital firms) invest in Red Hat.
Also notable this week was the first of the big "Linus burnout"
episodes, making it clear that something in the kernel development
process needed to change.
Let us now pause for a moment. From this distance, it may be hard to
appreciate just how big the news of the Red Hat investments was. For all
that had happened, Linux was still a somewhat obscure phenomenon, unknown
to much of the information technology world. When Intel put money into Red
Hat, it became clear to all that both Linux and Red Hat were headed toward
success. This was, in some real sense, the point where Linux entered the
dotcom bubble, though the real action was still a year away.
The 2.1.123 release failed to compile as a result of some merging errors;
developers got upset about the state of affairs and a long, inflammatory
discussion resulted. Linus stormed out of the virtual room and took a
vacation. It was a somewhat scary series of events which foreshadowed more
to come; getting the kernel development process to scale as the community
grew was a multi-year process.
During this time, LWN was also growing in both readership and size; it was taking
increasing amounts of time. We eventually had to move the server from its
initial location (behind an ISDN line in your editor's basement) to a
proper hosting facility. But, remember, LWN was not the main endeavor;
it was an attention attractor for the support services offered by Eklektix,
Inc. This business plan was not going particularly well. Those who dealt
with Red Hat in that era know that, as a company, it was a rather chaotic
place. The marketing for the support partners never happened, and the
backup services for the support plans the partners were able to sell
themselves were, shall we say, less than the customers thought they
deserved given what they had paid. The support partner program was not
a big success for anybody involved.
As a result, one of the first things Red Hat did with its new pile of cash
was to cancel this program and start building its own, internal support
operation. Eklektix continued to push its own support offerings for a
while, but the fact of the matter is that it was not a fun business: it
seemed to mostly consist of cleaning up after low-budget ISPs which could
not be bothered to install security updates. So the search for
alternatives began. Meanwhile:
- October 16, 1998:
Larry McVoy contacts LWN and describes his upcoming "BitKeeper"
software as a way of making Linus "scale". Debian takes an official position
- November 5, 1998: The
- November 19, 1998: The Qt
library becomes available under the new QPL, eliminating roadblocks
for the distribution of KDE. VA Research (also known as
Linux VA Software SourceForge) gets a big
venture capital infusion. Red Hat hires Matthew Szulik as CEO.
- The first LWN
Linux timeline was released at the end of 1998.
- January 28, 1999: LWN's first
anniversary. The 2.2 kernel is released, complete with a
trivially-exploited security hole. Linus decrees that
32-bit Linux will never support more than 2GB of memory.
distribution is compromised. The Windows refund movement gathers
- February 11, 1999: perhaps the
first big discussion of binary-only modules.
- February 25, 1999: IBM
announces support for Red Hat Linux on its systems.
About this time, Eklektix announced that its new line of business would be
training - and Linux system administration training in particular. The
announcement was timed for the first ever LinuxWorld conference; both LWN
editors spoke there, with Jon delivering a system administration tutorial
to 450 attendees. It was the start of a new phase - though it was not much
more successful than the one which came before.
If the investments in Red Hat were the beginning of the Linux bubble,
LinuxWorld was where the inflation began in earnest. The amount of money
on display there was impressive to say the least. The Red Hat party will
live forevermore in the memory (or lack of memory, as the case may be) of
all who attended. LinuxCare, which was supposed to be the big
support success story for Linux, was unveiled at this conference. Never
had there been so much overt commercial interest around Linux.
- March 25, 1999: It turns out
that BitKeeper is to come out under a not-really-open-source license.
- April 8, 1999: Discouraged
Mozilla developers resign from the project - there was a time when it
seemed like a usable Mozilla browser would never come. Dell buys a
piece of Red Hat. Al Gore claims to have an open source presidential
campaign. RMS battles for "GNU/Linux" on linux-kernel.
- April 15, 1999: the Mindcraft
study. It turned out that some of Mindcraft's criticisms were right,
but we fixed the problems in a hurry.
- April 27, 1999: The last Linux
Expo is held in Raleigh.
It is interesting to note that, during this time, LWN got its first
acquisition offer: from Red Hat. We turned it down: the terms of the offer
looked much like indentured servitude under firm Red Hat control. But we
did work a deal with the company to supply news items for its portal site.
Yes, during this time, Red Hat's business model was aiming toward becoming
the dominant network portal for Linux-related information. Remember, this
- June 10, 1999: Red Hat files
for its IPO. VA Linux bulks up on free software developers.
- July 1, 1999: Slashdot is
acquired by Andover.net. Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman feud over
- July 22, 1999: Red Hat gives
Linux hackers an opportunity to buy pre-IPO stock.
- August 12, 1999: Red Hat goes
public, with great success. Andover acquires Freshmeat.net. The
second LinuxWorld conference is held.
The Red Hat IPO was the beginning of a new phase: clearly somebody was
making a lot of money from Linux, even if who wasn't exactly clear. What
was clear is that Eklektix was not on the list. When we planned out the
training offering, we had a set of spreadsheets with some truly wonderful
numbers on the income which was sure to result. Somehow reality failed to
match the spreadsheets. So we came to realize that we needed to look in
At this time, advertising was beginning to bring in some actual money.
But, more to the point, as the market heated up, companies were showing
increasing amounts of interest in anybody who had any sort of Linux
credibility or mindshare. We had some of that credibility at that time.
So we decided to see what would happen if we let the word out that LWN was
for sale. Suffice to say that the result was a far wilder ride than we
could have ever anticipated. But that will be the topic of next week's
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