Open source software and tools, the Beowulf Project, and communities changed the face of high-performance computing.

How Linux and Beowulf Drove Desktop Supercomputing

Just about every Linux user has a gut feeling for what open source means, especially in regard to what they do and what it means to them. The rise of free software and open source software has had a profound effect on just about every technology in existence, especially on high-performance computing. In this article, I discuss some history about free and open source software and focus on two key projects: Linux and Beowulf.

Begin at the Beginning

An argument can be made that the open source software movement started with the birth of the Internet in 1969. This development allowed computer systems to communicate, to share, send, and receive data. To accomplish this, a software standard had to be developed, and each system had to follow these standards. Proprietary computer and software companies would have to follow these standards if their systems or tools would work with those from all of their competitors. The track record of competing companies adhering to a software standard had been abysmal; therefore, an argument can be made that the best or only way for companies to follow a standard is through open source software.

Free Software

The TeX typesetting tool is probably the first large-scale software to be released under a permissive license in 1978. The project was started and is led by Donald Knuth, one of the shining stars of computer science. In developing TeX, he adhered to two principles: “… to allow anybody to produce high-quality books with minimal effort, and to provide a system that would give exactly the same results on all computers, at any point in time.” To achieve these two goals, he released TeX with a very permissive license and indicated that the source code of TeX is in the public domain.

The start of open source is GNU. Although it might not be the first open source set of software tools, it is close to the beginning. More importantly, it is where the concept of free software started. GNU (an acronym for GNU’s Not Unix) was launched in September 1983 by Richard Stallman with the starting goal of writing a Unix-like operating system. Stallman’s tenet was “software should be free.” He wanted users to be free to read the source code and study it. They could also share the software, modify it, and release their modified software. To GNU, “free” does not refer to the price of software, but rather to a matter of liberty. The GNU project explains its use of free as: “... you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’.”

Stallman, if you didn't know, has uncompromising opinions and ethics; he had defined himself as a force of nature and carried that drive into GNU. Although he’s not the sole author of software within GNU, he has created a formidable project that has a massive number of Unix-like tools written under the GNU umbrella. Many Linux tools are GNU tools (e.g., GCC and Octave). The GNU tools took the Linux kernel from just a kernel to a complete operating system.

In October 1985, Stallman set up the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a non-profit organization created to support the free software movement, which includes the “… universal freedom to study, distribute, create, and modify computer software … .”

Up to the mid-1990s, FSF primarily used its funds to pay software developers to write free (in terms of liberty and not price) software for the GNU project. From the mid-1990s to today, FSF mostly works on legal and structural issues for the free software movement and community.