GNU and Linux

posted on September 12th, 2013

Often times GNU and Linux can seem synonymous. It is hard to find a reference to one without the other. So what exactly is the difference? Are they both just open source operating systems or is it a little more complicated? What is their relationship to each other? This post will give a little bit of the history of the two movements and explain how they relate.

Early GNU History

GNU was the first attempt at developing a free (as in speech) operating system. The project was started by Richard Stallman in 1983. Stallman, then a programmer in MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, quit his job to work on GNU full time. In these early years Stallman worked and to organize the "free software" movement, with GNU as its flagship product. In 1985 the Free Software Foundation was formed to continue developing GNU and organizing the "free software" movement.

By the early 90's many components of the GNU environment were completed (e.g. GNU Debugger, GNU Compiler Collection, GNOME desktop, etc...), but there still wasn't a GNU Kernel (known as GNU Hurd). It was into this vacuum that Linux stepped in 1991.

Early Linux History

In April 1991, Linus Torvalds, began playing with his own little free OS. It appears to have been more of a hobby for him than an attempt at usurping GNU in anyway. Nonetheless, when he asked for input from the developer community in August, the community strongly got behind the project. By September Linux 0.01 was released online, by December Linux 0.11, and by 1994 Linux 1.0 was out.

GNU and Linux early relationship

From the beginning GNU and Linux communities worked together. For example, about 6 months after the start of Linux, Torvalds began using GNU Public License. At the same time many GNU developers began porting GNU components to the Linux kernel.

Perhaps the biggest disagreement between the communities was over naming. Stallman wanted to call the new environment GNU/Linux to represent the combination of the GNU components with the Linux kernel. Torvalds was opposed to "GNU/Linux", preferring simply Linux. For the most part "Linux" won out.

GNU and Linux now

GNU and Linux have continued as separate centers of gravity in the free and open source community.

The GNU project has continued to focus on developing software components. Its primary site,, boasts over 360 projects.

Linux has continued to focus on kernels and operating systems. It is claimed that Linux has been ported to more computer platforms than any other operating system.