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Would The Internet Exist Without Linux?

The internet as we know it today predominantly runs on Linux. There’s an extremely high probability that the internet connection you’re using right now is connected thru a Linux server – and routed thru many other Linux servers along the way.

Below is a graph showing the market share for top servers across all domains from August 1995 to September 2008 – from



You’ll notice that Apache has a huge lead over anything else out there. The only other type that comes anywhere near it is Microsoft.

While it’s true the HTTP server from Apache has a Windows version, the one used the most without any hint of doubt is the *nix release.

Why was it that Linux (and Unix) paved the way for the modern internet and not something else?

Two reasons:

  1. Cost.
  2. The ability of Linux to “act enterprise” without needing enterprise-grade computer hardware.

Imagine the following scenario:

It’s 1994. You get the idea that you want to run your own dial-up ISP. You need the “leased pipe” (the primary internet connection from the phone carrier, usually T1), a computer to act as the server and a bunch of serial-connected dial-up modems (via digiboard most likely) to receive the calls for that server to give your customers connectivity. And of course a bunch of phone lines from the local carrier for your modems.

The computer you use is obviously not going to be some $10,000+ super-duper server because you simply don’t have the cash for it. Rather, it’s going to be whatever you can afford that will get the job done.

And all you’ve got is a 486 DX2 66MHz box – which at the time was modern.

It’s 1994 and you need a server-grade OS. What’s available?

Windows NT 3.1 did exist but wasn’t exactly equipped to do what you wanted. And there was no way MS-DOS with Windows 3.1 could do the job.

Apple’s MacOS was only at System 7.1 in 1994, so that was a no-go.

What’s left? Unix and Linux.

Any Unix was too proprietary at the time – assuming you could even get your hands on a copy of the OS.

For you nit-pickers out there, yes it’s true there were BSD distros in ’94 – but it wasn’t exactly easy to get a hold of. For those interested, read up on 386BSD, the predecessor to Free/Open/NetBSD.

Then there’s Linux. You had a few choices at the time. Slackware, Red Hat, Debian (of course) and maybe a few others.

At this point you acquired the Linux OS of your choice from a friend on floppy diskettes, installed it, configured the server and gave it the best shot you could. Your Linux “server” had absolutely no GUI because it had to be 100% optimized for speed (and for the fact it was never meant to be a server).

God willing, if your “server” didn’t choke on a daily basis and your customers stayed customers, you made enough of a profit to cover the T1 line cost and upgrade to a real server later on.

~ ~ ~

This story is more or less how modern internet started. There were thousands of Mom n’ Pop ISPs that operated out of a garage (sometimes literally) just like this – and the vast majority of them were all running Linux. Windows couldn’t do it back then and neither could MacOS.

Linux was literally the only OS out there that had the right price (free), ran similar to a Unix and could use existing computers of the time to connect customers. Anything else would break the bank way too easily. What would you have used that you could afford? Netware? Lotus Domino? HP-UX (that requires those refrigerator-sized HP servers)? I don’t think so.

In addition, those who ran web sites also followed suit. They used plain-jane consumer grade PCs “upgraded” to servers (by OS and nothing more usually) to run things like HTTP servers, IRC, FTP, electronic mail and so on.

Would the internet as we know it exist without Linux?

Absolutely not. Where Linux shines the most is in its server applications – no question.

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22 thoughts on “Would The Internet Exist Without Linux?”

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Darren Pilgrim says:
This article is far off the mark. Linux was a hobbyist interest in the 90’s. People who ran small ISPs used SunOS/Solaris or BSD. The reason is quite simple: stability. At the time, Linux was not reliable. If it wasn’t kernel bugs, it was the lack of coherency between glib, userland and the kernel. It was impractical to source-update a Linux system, most of us just installed a new release from scratch and did a few manual kernel patches here and there.

It wasn’t until almost a decade later that the major Linux distros gained long-term system coherency, some of them still don’t get it right.

If you had a business that depended on it in 90s, it didn’t run Linux.

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garbeam says:
Would this article exist without Linux?

No! That’s 100% true ;)

Rich Menga says:
I wrote it on Windows Live Writer.. (d’oh!) :P
AaronBabitzke says:
I think he should have focused more on “Can the internet exist without Open Source solutions?”. The internet could, but lets face facts; we would be charged more by ISPs and hosting companies to pay for the mass volume of non-Open Source software licenses that would be needed to run the servers.

I have worked for WISPs for the past 5 years, and from what I have seen, none of them would have been able to startup without some form of Open Source software.

march says:
nit-picking or not:
me too, I think, BSD would have taken over this role, or even some stripped down Darwin / NeXTstep (less likely some OS/2 + BSD ports; the internet needed some portable OS).
After all: the first http server and browser ran on top of NeXT.

I remember an article in ’93, shortly before Linux “exploded”, describing the first 386 ports of BSD evolved – whatever people think today: there always were alternatives to todays well-known big players.

Remowylliams says:
It is a pity that Rich Menga spent so much time looking up a graph and presented his ‘Proof’ for a conclusion that totally ignores The origin of the Internet, the tenents of supply and
demand, and the fact that there were several *NIX operating systems that were a heck of a lot more stable that Linux was back in the days Rich is talking about.

Spend some time reading Wikipedia Rich. As someone quite smart posted elsewhere the question should be, would Linux exist as it does now without the Internet.

Happy Halloween.

Rich Menga says:
Thanks for mentioning my name even though it states so right under the title of the article! Never can get anything by you!

“As someone quite smart posted elsewhere..” Ah, nice jab there. And pointless.

Someone truly smart would have not suggested to read the Wikipedia (as if that place is absolute truth). Wrong.. wrong.. wrong.

Happy Halloween back at’cha! Don’t forget to subscribe!

steveee says:
@G Fernandes
Second, let’s look at the figures a little more objectively. Over the period Dec. 2005-June 2008, the market-share of the Apache Web Server has been losing ground to Microsoft web servers. It’s only from June 2008 to Sept. 2008 that the Apache Web Server has recovered a little of that lost ground from Microsoft.

Your objectivity is a little off also. If you had followed the Netcraft stats over the past years. One of the major reasons for this M$ bump of increased market share is M$ has actively promoted the by-up of a large number of parked domains. This is not a true indicator of site activity. Netcraft also split Google server from the Apache stats about this time also. Apache together with other Unix and Linux based web servers outnumber IIS by considerable margin…

G Fernandes says:
I don’t recall drawing any conclusions from that specific observation. As a matter of fact, that specific observation was there to emphasize the fact that one can not go by published statistics to draw random conclusions, as the author of this article seems to have done.
Ged says:
I think you have the question the wrong way round.
The question should be, ‘Would Linux exist without the internet”. I think the answer would be, probably not.

The internet existed long before Linux was around….

BSD is arguably a better server OS, this would have filled the Linux void nicely.

Rich Menga says:
Sure it would have, but the community communication medium would have been different (think BBSes – started in 1978).
Scott Ullrich says:
Would linux exist without BSD? That is the question.
G Fernandes says:
And the answer to that is an unequivocal “Yes”. GNU/Linux didn’t arise as a response to the BSD’s. GNU/Linux was born because it’s creators perceived the need for a free OS that was owned and controlled by them. The BSD’s failed to satisfy this criteria because of it’s more liberal license terms compared to the GNU GPL.
Freaxx says:
Actually it was just GNU that was born to fight against propietry software. According to the ¨Linux is obsolete debate, Linux was created because
a. Linus had bought a brand new 386 processor and learn about it.
b. He was sick of Minixs limtations (which were due to its aim to be bought by students with extremely low end hardware)
Harish Pillay says:
I think the article has got the premise the other way around. Linux, as we know it today, could NOT have happened if it was NOT for the Internet. The existence of the Internet was a pre-requisite for Linux to happen – not that anyone predicted that in the first place. Things like TCP/IP, freely and openly developed standards via the IETF was fundamental in putting in place the bedrock of networking that made the Internet. So, once the Internet got going, the ability to share code and grow code by anyone, anywhere and at anytime, meant that the promise of Linux and FOSS could be delivered.

Harish Pillay

Alun J. Carr says:
Actually, institutions that wanted a crack-proof web server went for Mac OS 7-9 with WebStar, because there was no terminal/CLI that could be used for entry. I think that chunks of the US military went for that combination. The server wouldn’t have been as fast as Linux/Apache, but it was more secure.
Simon says:
Linux was literally the only OS out there that had the right price (free), ran similar to a Unix and could use existing computers of the time to connect customers.

Hardly true. Linux is certainly now the most widespread of the free Unix implementations, but it’s far from the only one. I’m not sure why you describe the various BSDs as hard to get hold of – from my own experience, they could be downloaded just as readily as the Linux distros, and indeed a lot of the ISPs you describe did run on those OSs just as much as Linux.

Eldon says:
You’re forgetting a few things. The internet was and would still be fine without Linux though the cost to play might’ve slowed down development pace a bit here and there.

UnixWare, SCO and other x86 based Unixes existed in 1994. NetWare ran a pretty decent Appache stack in the mid-90’s. When the internet bubble burst, Sun was supplying more pizza box sized Sparc servers running Solaris than anyone else was supplying. Linux was just beginning life. Linux didn’t become dominant on the internet until the last few years in major commercial sites. Solaris still ruled. MS had and has a good portion of corporate web servers some on IIS and some on Apache.

There’s no question the internet as we know it today is better off for having the Linux option but it’d also be just fine if there was no Linux.

Rich Menga says:
Your first sentence says it all. Not a question of whether cost might have slowed dev down, it would have, period.
G Fernandes says:
Cost wouldn’t have slowed anything down – the BSD’s predate GNU/Linux. Free was available long before Libre.
Capn Scott says:

Redhat, a donated rack, some rack mount cases ($139/ea) and old motherboards, an SDSL line with 6 static IP’s, and some old 10 base T ethernet hubs and anything else that I could scrounge…

Those were the days…

Capn Scott

G Fernandes says:
A more reasonable title might have been: “Would the Internet exist without Free and Open Standards?”. The answer to that is an unequivocal “No”. Without Free and Open Standards, the Internet would simply not exist.

GNU/Linux is most certainly a facilitator and a driver for Free and Open Standards. But the bottom-line is Free and Open Standards.

Rich Menga says:
I dunno. Title sounds groovy but I can’t dance to it.
G Fernandes says:
Well, that’s quite informative. Groovy and Truth are inhabitants of different solar systems.
Rich Menga says:
Cool! Don’t forget to subscribe! Have a nice day!
G Fernandes says:
A bit of a speculative article with some questionable conclusions.

First off, while undeniable that the Apache Web Server leads in deployments here, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and interpret the numbers incorrectly. An approximately 20% lead is not a huge lead.

Second, let’s look at the figures a little more objectively. Over the period Dec. 2005-June 2008, the market-share of the Apache Web Server has been losing ground to Microsoft web servers. It’s only from June 2008 to Sept. 2008 that the Apache Web Server has recovered a little of that lost ground from Microsoft.

Third, deriving a conclusion from web-server market-share about the Internet in general is a little contrived. The web may well be the most used service on the internet, but it is at the end of the day, a service – one of many that can be (and are) available over the internet.

Fourth, while GNU/Linux almost undoubtedly runs the most servers providing the most services over the internet, one must remember that the internet was really born on Unix. Had GNU/Linux not been there, another free Unix variant (e.g. the BSDs) may well have been the popular choice. So, without a doubt, the Internet would not only exist without GNU/Linux, it would also pretty much be as you see it today. We may have been a little poorer in software choice due to the lack of GNU/Linux, but we wouldn’t lack the Internet per-se.

While speculating, always be careful about deriving conclusions without scientific or factual basis. Speculating – as the name should suggest – is far from a scientific activity, and also suffers from being very easy to loose track of facts.

Joseph Garcia says:
Yours is the best comment yet!

Of course the Internet would exist without Linux. The Internet existed long before Linux was even thought of. It existed when the Internet protocols were implemented on BSD through DARPA funding in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Sure, it wasn’t as widespread as it is today, but the reason why it’s widespread isn’t because of Linux. Has nothing to do with Linux. It is because people demanded access. That demand could have easily been served up with BSD boxes or SunOS boxes (which was BSD based anyway). Actually, it was served up on those types of server OS’s.

If it weren’t for the legal issues with BSD and AT&T holding BSD back, BSD would probably be the dominant open source Unix operating system. Remember, back then the source came with the license therefore it was always Open Source. Sendmail, vi, etc all were born on BSD.

So.. No, Linux has nothing to do with the Internet’s existence. It would have still existed and probably not been much different that what it is today.

alex says:
The graph suggested to me that Apache was there first and without the market it created Microsoft’s web server would never have appeared.
GeekLad says:
I worked at a small Mom/Pop ISP in about ’94, and we did indeed use a Linux box as our mail server. We also had a couple of other machines (Sun SPARC station for DNS, and a couple of Windows NT 3.51 machines for what I can’t remember). It’s kind of hard to say whether or not the Internet would exist without Linux.

I would agree that it is unlikely it would exist without free software. Without free software such as Sendmail, BIND, Apache, PHP, Perl, etc., the Internet definitely wouldn’t be what it is today. All of these tools may have existed in one form or another without Linux. On the other hand, Linux was tremendous force in the open source movement, so perhaps they wouldn’t have existed without Linux. Like I said, it’s really hard to say one way or the other, but it definitely makes for interesting discussion and it’s always fun to reminisce.

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RotoRooter says:
Yep! December ’94, 486 dx/2 66 with 16mb ram and 340 meg drive. No digiboard to start tho, 4 port card. Slackware then, slackware now, but now is 4x quad core and 32g ram!

But if my “partners” would have had their way, we would have used desqview! Obviously, they REALLY didn’t understand!

Maybe the net could have taken off with 386/bsd, but I doubt it, it had no crowd mentality!

tyler says:
thats whats cool about linux is that it can be free and still be “enterprise”

btw, ever think of getting or other related commenting engine? your commenters will appreciate it ;)

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Oct 27, 2008

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