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Linux pioneer SUSE marks 25 years in the field

The Germany-based SUSE Linux marked a milestone over the last few days: on Friday, 2 September, the company turned 25, a remarkable achievement in an industry where the remains of software companies litter the landscape around the world.

There have been ups and downs over those years, but the company has been on an up ever since it was re-established as an independent business unit in Nuremberg where it began its existence. 

This came about after its parent company, Novell, was bought by The Attachmate Group in 2010; the latter, very wisely, decided to give SUSE its own head and, under the astute Nils Brauckmann, who describes himself as a "pragmatic generalist", the company has become more than just profitable.

But one is getting somewhat ahead of the tale. SUSE was formed in 1992 by three university students – Hubert Mantel, Roland Dyroff, and Burchard Steinbild. The fourth man in the equation was software engineer Thomas Fehr.

They had a simple objective: to build software and deliver UNIX support. Linux had been around for a little more than a year at that point and they decided to use it.

Linux, the kernel of an operating system, is made available to lesser mortals as a distribution and the first such beast was produced in mid-1992 by a developer named Peter MacDonald. It was known as Soft Landing Systems Linux.

The next distro to follow was Slackware, produced by the indomitable Patrick Volkerding, who is still doing the same job today. In 1994, the first S.u.S.E Linux emerged, a German version of Slackware.

The name S.u.S.E is a German acronym and means "Software und System-Entwicklung", or "Software and systems development". The name was later changed to SuSE and some years on became SUSE.

SUSE's bad days began in 2003 when it was bought by Novell, then a big software and services company in the US. SUSE was run as a unit of Novell and during its years there just about managed to break even.

In 2006, Novell signed a patent-licensing deal with Microsoft, which had a bad effect on SUSE, given the bad reputation that Microsoft had in the FOSS community. One of the top open source developers at Novell, Jeremy Allison of the Samba project, walked out in protest.

SUSE could not take a trick while it was a part of Novell; the parent company also played host to Miguel de Icaza, the co-founder of the GNOME Desktop project, and a known fan of Microsoft who caused much discomfort in the free and open source software community.

In 2010, salvation appeared in the shape of The Attachmate Group which bought Novell and took the company and all its assets private. SUSE became an independent business unit as detailed earlier.

For its first few years, SUSE had to shake off the cobwebs it had accumulated as part of Novell. But it slowly came into its own and started becoming profitable.

The company did not become overly ambitious; it was second to Red Hat by a huge margin in terms of revenue (and still is).

But given the way Linux usage was growing, there was space for more than one company to provide services around the operating system and SUSE took its place in this software space.

In 2014, SUSE was bought by its present owner, the British mainframe company Micro Focus, and again became a public outfit.

Like other open source outfits, SUSE has widened its services and now not only provides an enterprise Linux distribution but has a well developed software-defined storage product and one for a container-as-a-service option. It also caters to those seeking cloud options and does more than its fair share in contributing to upstream FOSS projects.

Along the way, it has spawned a top-notch community distribution, openSUSE, which is run by an autonomous board led by the ebullient British developer Richard Brown. 

SUSE has a number of top-notch hackers in its ranks, none better than its kernel development chief Vojtěch Pavlík, whose extraordinary ability and skill was unknown to the public until iTWire interviewed him in 2014.

Its engineering roots are embodied by one of its founders, Mantel, who told iTWire back in 2012, when the company marked two decades: "I'm still hacking on code. This is what I always wanted to do since I had my first contact with computers back in 1977. I left the management already in 1999 in favour of being able to work as an engineer. There are better managers than me :)."

Nothing embodies the spirit of SUSE better.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.