article Fall 2023

Open-Source, Linux, and UW-Madison: A Story of History and Increasing Relevance

Niche and confined to technical discourse, Linux and open-source technologies shoulder the responsibility of maintaining life in the modern digital age.

On a global scale, from governments to multinational corporations, world leaders invest in the immense power of one technology. This exceedingly powerful tool is known as open-source. Open-source computing makes Linux, an operating system that powers everything from servers to mobile devices, possible. Known for its versatility and customizability, Linux is flexible to almost every need and localization imaginable. 

Linux is based on an operating system named UNIX, which set precedents in modern computing, leading to significant development from many organizations including UW-Madison. Underneath all the installed software of nearly every computer and piece of digital technology, Linux acts as a middleman, relaying the information from the software to the hardware.

The key aspect driving the success of Linux is the implementation of open-source software. Open-source is the design philosophy that makes source code publicly available and grants everybody the ability to study, modify and redistribute it. Despite its resounding impact, open-source remains largely absent in mainstream, non-technical discourse. But why is it so important to discuss, and in what ways does open-source software impact the daily lives of billions of people across the globe?

The UNIX and Linux operating systems would not be possible without open-source. Founded in 1984, one of the earliest groups advocating for open-source was the Free Software Foundation. They promoted the open-sourcing of UNIX by supporting the development of Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) operating systems, under a project called GNU. 

GNU is a collection of software packages that are free to download and implement. The GNU project also works to better protect the rights of open-source developers by creating GNU Public Licenses. Linux eventually adopted this license. This led to new software such as the UW-Madison-developed, HTCondor, which strives to make distributed computing more efficient. HTCondor also uses an open-source license, namely the Apache License.

By making software free and open-source, developers contribute to software freedom on a global scale. This builds a worldwide community of people passionate about their projects and the projects of others. FOSS directly led to the UW-Madison Data Science Institute’s  establishment of the Open Source Program Office, as announced on June 11, 2023.

Professor Oliphant teaches an Operating Systems class.
Photography by Annie Krillenberger

Along with this new program, UW-Madison boasts an extensive history in open-source software development. Prior to the establishment of the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) at UW-Madison, there were three organizations in its place, the most relevant being the Madison Academic Computing Center (MACC). The MACC worked to support the university’s computing needs and helped enhance the technology used at UW-Madison. MACC was one of the earliest adopters of ARPAnet, the predecessor to modern internet, and contributed to computer networking, including developing networking software for UNIX.  It also played a critical part in NSFnet, which the DoIT history web-page describes as “a backbone network joining six regional supercomputing centers under the […] National Science Foundation.”

Now, the Open Source Program Office serves to encourage collaboration across the UW-Madison and Madison College campuses. In a press release by the UW-Madison Data Science Institute, Kyle Cranmer, Director of the Data Science Institute, explains, “The goal of the Open Source Program Office is to catalyze institutional change that will foster open-source community and projects.”

Beyond UW-Madison, free and open-source software impacts all fields, not just computer science and engineering. By open-sourcing, developers provide the ultimate assurance in their software. Start-up businesses typically earn less trust than well-established brands, especially in technology. Open-source helps overcome this issue and soothes any concerns over new software from companies.

Professor Oliphant teaches an Operating Systems class.
Photography by Annie Krillenberger

Open-source may also provide greater security for software. Making code free and open to the public allows the community to help catch security vulnerabilities in the code. This concept, called “Security Through Transparency,” operates under the idea that more eyes on a piece of code results in catching bugs and vulnerabilities sooner. This contrasts with older methods of “Security Through Obscurity,” which encourages privacy of code from the public. While open-source software may help to increase security on a larger scale while contributing to the development of code, the security of software primarily depends on the amount of attention devoted to it.

The benefits of open-source extend beyond security assurance. Rather, without open-source, the technical community would lack the collaboration that leads to monumental computing achievements. It is therefore pertinent that discussions around open-source continue to gain public attention so that the development of future operating systems like Linux reach an even wider audience. 

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