Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, April 14, 2000  |  Number 7
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Linux for Smarties

In four years, CEO Robert Young and his partner, Marc Ewing, took Red Hat, Inc. from a tiny start-up to the leading global supplier of Linux, the legendary open source computer operating system invented by young Finnish computer whiz Linus Torvalds in 1992.

Torvalds, a university student, had the revolutionary idea of creating a clone of the Unix operating system and making it available free of charge, along with its underlying source code, to any user who wanted it. In 1995, Young and Ewing founded Red Hat, Inc. to market software packages that make Linux more user friendly. Red Hat put together Linux packages with third-party applications, documentation and technical support and sold them for about $50 apiece. Sales were brisk.

So brisk in fact, that Red Hat soon became the leading supplier of Linux-based operating system supplies. When the company made an initial public offering of its stock on August 11, 1999, the IPO was a major media event. The price of the stock soared from $14 to $52 in a single day.

Now, readers can get an inside account of Red Hat's brief but hectic life in Under the Radar, How Red Hat Changed the Software Business and Took Microsoft by Surprise, by Young and co-author Wendy Goldman Rom. (Coriolis Press, $27.50). The book tells how Ewing and Young went"from selling Linux out of our homes (to avoid getting real jobs) with few ambitions for great financial success, to being fought over by the world's two largest investment banks during our IPO."

It was, by all accounts a wild ride, and Fermilab was along for parts of it. In fact, Fermilab is on the scene as the curtain rises in Under the Radar's opening chapter,"Inside the Tent":

There was a blip on the screen, something new in the field.

At first barely visible. It had appeared slowly and almost imperceptibly. Indeed, at first it had been difficult to see there was anything at all. No, this was not some dramatic sighting, no alien mother ship suddenly blazing its way across the screen.

The first time that engineers at silicon giant Intel Corp. had the first inkling of change was when scientific labs across the country began demanding that it port its"math libraries" to a new operating system.

For one, Dr. Yeh, a Taiwanese scientist at Midwest-based Fermilab, had made such a plea in early 1998. Fermilab, the federally funded atom-smashing think tank overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy, was a mecca for the world's top nuclear [sic] physicists. It had quietly added a new flavor of system software to its roster of those driving the lab's network of computers.

Such sites were known in the computer industry as"early adopters," technically savvy users that often were the first to install leading-edge products before the market had fully accepted them. One of the critical benefits of the new software that Fermilab had installed was that it was almost crash proof, andóeven more importantlyóscientists could freely tinker with its source code, the guts of any piece of software.

This was not the norm in the Microsoft-dominated software industry. Source code was like a secret chamber that few were allowed to enter. By keeping this code to themselves, software companies kept control of their customers, dictated technological change, and ensured continual revenue streams. With the source code kept secret and inaccessible, customers were locked into continual operating system upgrades dictated by the supplier. Likewise application software creators depended on the internal workings of the operating system and were often put at a disadvantage by the suppliers' secrecy.

ìWe need your math libraries to run under Linux," a number of Fermilab scientists repeatedly told Intel.

As we know, the blip on the screen has become a worldwide computing phenomenon, with an estimated 20 to 30 million Linux users, several hundred of them at Fermilab.

ìDr. Yeh," that"early adopter" from the federally funded atom-smashing think tank somewhere in the Midwest, was of course Fermilab physicist G.P. Yeh, who was indeed a leader in the laboratory's exploration, testing and ultimate adoption of Linux for Run II computing applications. Today, the Computing Division supports Linux, and its Fermilab applications continue to grow.

So it's fitting that the inscription on the flyleaf of Yeh's personal copy of Under the Radar should read"Thanks for your and Fermilab's help! Cheers, Bob."

by Judy Jackson

last modified 4/14/2000   email Fermilab