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 news.netcraft.com.
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?
- 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.
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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.