penguin Linux

"I've heard about this Linux. What is it, what's it good for, and does it make any difference to me?"

Note: This article was originally published in late 2001. There were a couple of minor updates since then, but this is the first major update, completed in August 2012



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Linux has been much in the news, and many business people wonder what it really is and if they should be using it. This article describes what Linux is and how it compares to other operating systems. See our companion editorial Should Your Business Use Linux? for more on it's usefulness.

What is Linux?

Linux is a computer operating system used similarly to Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows Server (yes, we agree with Microsoft that all mention of Windows Vista should be erased from human memory).
  • Both are available in workstation and server configurations.
  • Both are marketed primarily to business, but also to consumers.
  • Both offer "point and click" graphic desktop user interfaces.
  • Both are most often run on Intel or AMD x86/64 based computers (PCs).
  • Both have a very wide range of available software
  • Both are used for gaming (desktop configurations)
  • Both have a strong presence on the Internet.
  • Both make good departmental servers
  • Both wanted to be Unix when they grew up (Linux has since pretty much displaced Unix)
We can further define Linux by how it differs from Windows.
  • Lineage - Windows NT/2000/XP/7 descended from an early (and incomplete) version of OS/2, a single user multi-tasking operating system IBM intended to replace single user single-tasking DOS. Windows NT incorporated the GUI (Graphic User Interface) from the DOS based Windows95. NT didn't scale, didn't perform and wasn't stable, so a major rewrite was done to produce Windows 2000. Windows XP and 7 are directly descended from Windows 2000. Windows XP was almost identical to Windows 2000 (except the desktop GUI) until SP3. Windows Server versions were developed in parallel, based on Windows 2000 Server.

    Linux was designed to be very similar to Unix, a multi-user multi-tasking networked operating system, itself derived from Multics, a multi-computer multi-user multi-tasking networked operating system developed in 1965 and used until 10-30-2000. Unix was first distributed in 1970 and has been in continuous development in both commercial and academic environments for over 40 years. Today, Linux has supplanted Unix almost completely in many environments - but note that current Apple Macintosh operating systems are BSD Unix with a fancy user interface over it. Apple used BSD because its license doesn't prohibit them taking the code proprietary.

  • Software - Windows XP and 7 computers will run just about all the new PC software titles you read about and see advertised (but not mobile or Apple applications). Windows 7, however, isn't as good as previous versions for running older DOS programs, many of which are still in daily use, particularly in small businesses. Recent versions of Windows Server don't do DOS.

    Linux has a huge amount of excellent native software available, much of it as capable as equivalent Windows titles, but only a few are titles you hear talked about and advertised. The main difference is most Linux programs are free, and most Windows programs you have to pay for.

    Linux runs nearly all DOS programs very well, and, using a software system called Wine, can also run many important Windows applications, including Microsoft Office 2010 and many top games.

    Linux is particularly strong in Internet software, in fact a large part of the Internet runs on Linux. Google, for instance, is an all Linux shop, and would have been totally impossible with Windows. Amazon isn't far behind. For users, Linux has the Firefox and Google Chrome Web browsers, and you can get Internet Explorer to run under Linux if you really need to. Adobe Flash works in Linux browsers, but is doomed to be replaced by HTML-5 which is fully supported under Linux.

  • User Interface - Windows XP/7 come with a GUI (Graphic User Interface) with which most people are quite familiar - but that's it. screenshot

    There are two major GUIs for Linux, KDE and GNOME, and at least a dozen minor ones - including some designed to look exactly like Windows. Business oriented distributions have generally favored KDE (K Desktop) which was originally similar to the Windows GUI (but is now much enhanced). Linux is much more flexible and customizable than Windows because the GUI itself is separate from the underlying graphic engine (X).

    You can see how some people configured their desktops through our Screenshots page. These are actually quite old examples and you can get much fancier now, including multi-screen displays, but you get the idea.

    Linux also has a command line (text) user interface. While it looks to the user much like the DOS window provided by Windows, it is far more powerful. The GUI doesn't have to be launched to use it, and all administrative tasks can be done from the command prompt. This allows complete administration of Linux computers remotely, even over slow phone lines. Many Linux servers are "headless", they don't have a screen and are administered remotely or over the local network. A headless Windows server is nearly impossible.

    While Windows has a single console (the one that runs the GUI), Linux is multi-console. You can have the GUI up on one console, and text applications and command line sessions up on a couple of others - and hot-key among them. The GUI itself offers four separately configurable desktops, but most people use only one.

    Servers are usually configured not to load a GUI at all, since all administration can be done in text mode. This allows Linux to achieve high performance on lower cost computers than is possible with Windows Server.

  • Cost - Bill Gates and his billionaires got very, very rich selling Windows and Windows software for a lot of money. You can get Linux on DVD for $10, and you can do an Internet install for free. Some Linux distribution come with 6 or 7 DVDs of software you can select from and install, all of it free.

    Microsoft's defense: "The initial cost is just a small fraction of the total cost of an operating system". This is certainly true, but those continuing support costs are precisely where Linux tends to save the most money.

    We once compared Linux servers to Novell NetWare, which once ran almost every small and medium business's servers. but, alas, few today even remember Netware. Microsoft, ever the skilled marketing company, convinced corporations they could transition from NetWare to Windows NT and hire lower cost less skilled support staff (NetWare was hard to administer and CNEs were highly paid). When they transitioned, they found this to be true, but they also found they needed about three times as many servers and three times as many support people as they had with NetWare. There's an interesting story from those days, and, it's true.

  • Stability - While Windows 2000 was a vast improvement over NT in crash resistance, capable of running months instead of just weeks without a crash, subsequent Windows Server releases are even better, but still need to be rebooted fairly often. Linux servers can run for years without a reboot. We don't see many Linux boxes with over a year of uptime simply because Linux is evolving rapidly. Most Linux servers are brought down for a kernel update every year or two.

  • Performance - On most server platforms, Linux is reported to run around 25% faster than Windows Server, though Microsoft has at times constructed very expensive servers to "prove" that Windows is faster.

  • Administration - Linux is a "lights out" operating system, Windows is most definitely not. A Linux server can easily be managed from half way around the world over a phone line or over the Internet. Remote administration of Windows Server requires a fast connection and is only partial.

    A Linux server doesn't need a keyboard, monitor or mouse, but a Windows server is useless without them. Until recently we administered a number of Linux servers for our clients, working from our OS/2 workstations using a 56K modem. Today, though, they are nearly all administered over the Internet.

    Microsoft boasts that with their familiar "point and click" interface, you don't need highly trained (read expensive) administrators. This is an illusion, resulting in many very poorly administered servers - to the point massive credit card theft from Windows based e-commerce sites became a cliche. Proper administration of servers is demanding regardless of whether they are Windows, Linux or something else, but Windows hides that fact from you until you have a problem.

    All Linux systems can be administered from a command prompt. Better distributions also have both text menus and GUI (point and click) administrative tools.

    Windows Server needs to be rebooted after even minor changes, and as part of most software installs. Linux needs to be rebooted only for a major kernel update (every year or two).

  • Configuration - Windows Server, and applications running on it, are configured using "point and click" graphic tools. Configuration information for both system and applications is binary coded and kept in a fragile central database called "The Registry" (one of the truly bad ideas of the 20th century). Once something is in the registry, it's often just about impossible to get it out, and if the registry is damaged, even an experienced administrator has little choice but to "Triple R" the system (Reboot, Reformat, Reinstall).

    Linux system configuration information is kept in easily edited text files. Applications use the same method and keep their own configuration files in their own directories. When an application is removed, its configuration files go with it. If Linux is reinstalled for some reason, the application programs don't have to be reinstalled as they do in Windows. The top distributions include a "point and click" interface for most important systems for administrators allergic to text editors.

  • Support - Windows 2000 support comes primarily from Microsoft, the only organization with easy access to the source code. Support is paid "per incident" or by contract. Effective free support is no longer provided. Microsoft makes some parts of their support "knowledge base" available on their Web site, but fully functional only using the Internet Explorer Web browser so they have access to your computer.

    Support for Linux was originally by posting questions on the Internet. This mode is still available and still much used, but paid support and support contracts are available from IBM, Red Hat, Suse and other organizations. Major distributions also have searchable knowledge bases,

  • Documentation - Windows Server and Desktop come with on-line Help files. A lot of this help is limited in scope and depth. Fortunately more help can be found with Internet searches.

    Linux distributions come with huge amounts of documentation in text and HTML format, as well as quick and dirty man pages accessed simply by typing "man" and the program name. Documentation ranges from wonderful to marginal depending on who wrote it. New administrators should check out the HOWTO documents, of which there are many, both on the Linux hard disk and on the Internet.

    Updated documentation can be found on the Internet, especially through the Linux Documentation Project. Beyond that you can buy books, and there are lots of them.

  • Installation - Windows Server installs smoothly if all the hardware in your computer is compatible. Major Linux distributions install just as smoothly, though you have to be just a little more careful about hardware compatibility - but these days its a lot easier than it once was. Most computers will have no problems unless they are "the latest and the greatest", then you may have to wait a couple of months for a distribution that supports all the new features.

  • Installing Software - Most Windows NT/2000 software packages install easily and automatically, though some don't uninstall so easily. Installing Linux software packages is much improved - most install smoothly themselves or with the RPM, apt-get or Yast installers and on-line download centers. There are still some, though, that "requires advanced skills". This is still Linux' weakest point and makes it necessary for less experienced users to have access to an experienced person if something goes wrong. Not a problem for most businesses, but definitely a problem for the home market.

    On the plus side, once installed, Linux software rarely needs to be reinstalled. Even upgrading to a newer version of Linux or moving to a bigger hard disk will not require reinstalling software if the original configuration was done right.

  • Device Drivers - New devices always come with drivers for Windows, which work most of the time. While some manufacturers now provide good support for Linux, others aren't so enthusiastic about it.

    Linux developers have, however, become highly adept at writing device drivers, and most manufacturers are now cooperative and provide the necessary information so reverse engineering isn't required. Some are now even "Open Sourcing" their device drivers, since they know there will soon be an "Open Source" version out anyway.

    If a device is useful, it will have Linux drivers soon, even if the manufacturer doesn't want it to.

  • File System Fragmentation - as every Windows administrator quickly learns, the NTFS file system fragments hideously. Left unattended, the system will bog down and finally collapse. For this reason Vista and Windows 7 run the defrag program automatically and often, invisibly to the user. Unfortunately the defrag program that comes with Windows isn't very good, but you can buy third party defragmenters that are better. Not so important on desktop machines, but definitely on servers.

    The Linux file system does not fragment (unless you run out of disk space). Of course the Unix, OS/2 and NetWare file systems don't fragment either, only Windows has a big fragmentation problem. That didn't stop Microsoft from claiming that OS/2 was flawed because it didn't come with a defragmenter.

  • Scalability - Scaling downward, Linux will run fine on low end machines Windows XP/7 and Server won't even attempt to install on. Scaling upward, things have changed radically since this article was first written. In those days, Windows 2000 could run on more expensive machines than Linux could. if you could afford $70,000 for a server. Today Linux scales far beyond Microsoft's wildest dreams, running about 1/3 of IBM's System Z mainframes used by major corporations. Linux also runs on massive clusters of hundreds of computers, as it does at Google.
  • Raw computational power - Windows is not really even in this picture. In November of 2011, of the top 500 fastest supercomputers in the world, 91% ran Linux. A very special version of Windows, Microsoft HPCS 2008, ran on 0.2%.

    Typical applications.

  • Running multiple tasks - Microsoft recommends using a separate server for every major process, because Windows tends to bog down and crash if you try to run several major processes on the same machine. Linux tends to bog down if you have more than a few hundred processes running, but it does not crash. Some companies now set up a Linux server and run a number of Windows Servers as virtual machines to cut down the hardware and maintenance costs.

  • Platforms - Windows runs on Intel and AMD 32-bit and 64-bit PCs. Oh, yes, there is a Windows Mobile for smartphones, but it has a tiny 2.2% of the market. Android, the leader with 59%, is a variety of Linux.

    Linux runs on many platforms, including Alpha, MIPS, Power PC, Sparc (Sun), IBM AS/400, IBM System z (mainframe) - everything from Nintendo to supercomputers. IBM has installed mainframe Web servers that run over 1500 instances of Linux, one for each hosted Web site.

  • Client Support - As a server, Windows supports Windows XP and newer clients. Server 2003 had reasonable support for Macintosh, but Server 2008 dropped that making Mac connection difficult and unreliable.

    Linux, as a host/server, also supports DOS, Windows 3.1, OS/2, Windows95/98, NT, 2000, Linux, Unix, Apple Macintosh, dumb terminals, thin clients, and any device capable of terminal emulation (including the Apple II and TI 99/4).

  • Standards compliance - Microsoft has always made a lot of noise about compliance with Internet standards. Problem is, this was generally in name only. They almost always corrupted those standards into "Windows Only" versions, making it difficult to integrate Windows with other systems. Now, with their dreams of world domination just a memory, they've been starting to behave better. Linux developers are fanatics for unwavering compliance with public and industry standards.

  • Security - Let us try not to laugh. Only in Windows is it possible for a virus to e-mail itself to your entire address book, implant a back door into your system, e-mail your IP address to its perpetrator, destroy your entire porn collection, and start transmitting spam email, all in a matter of seconds - without your even opening an e-mail attachment. Microsoft started with a single user, non-networked system and totally ignored the Internet. When they realized the Internet was the future, they tried to tack on some security - but you can't do that, it needs to be built into the foundation. Linux is descended from multi-user, multi-tasking, network connected systems with security from the get go.

    It is possible to write a Linux virus, but it isn't easy and it probably won't be able to do much. Sure, a poorly administered Linux system with a user dumb enough to work logged in as root isn't hard to compromise, but at least the perpetrator has to work at it, it isn't all automated for him.

    The NSA (National Security Agency) has released back to the Linux community "Secure Linux", designed to be resistant to highly skilled attacks. Dubbed "Spook Linux", it was examined with great care for NSA back doors (there is evidence such back doors exist in Windows). Since it's Open Source, the code could be completely examined. Secure Linux is now an install option within most major distributions

  • Customization - Windows is a monolithic monster - pretty much an "all or nothing" proposition. Linux is highly modular. You can load just what you need, to the point a functional Linux system can be set up on a single floppy disk.

    With Windows, what you get is what you get, but with Linux you have the source code and the right to change it. Very few companies will ever so much as look at the Linux source code, but some have special requirements, or wish to create a Linux based product. For them, the source code is invaluable. Android and Google's server farms are examples of highly customized Linux

Software

Software for Linux is already plentiful, but there are some gaps, particularly in specialized packages used by professionals or provided by business partners. These gaps can be largely relieved by the ability of Linux to run most Windows business software (including even Microsoft Office) under emulation or in a VM (Virtual Machine) session. Linux software has been coming from many sources:
  • Many Unix business software packages have been and are being ported to Linux, and much of this porting is being done by major companies like IBM, Oracle, SAP, and HP. It is almost trivial to port a Unix program - many need only a recompile. The Applix office productivity suite, Appgen accounting and Data Pro accounting are examples.
  • Of particular interest to small business is the vast library of software written for SCO Unix. Many programs still under maintenance have been ported to Linux. Some that haven't can run through an SCO support module available within Linux.

  • Some Windows software has been ported to Linux, though some publishers are afraid to do this for fear or retaliation from Microsoft. Borland had developed Kylix, a Linux version of their Windows based Delphi development environment, but this effort was abandoned as Borland collapsed. In 2008 Lazarus was developed to be compatible with the Pascal and Object Pascal versions of Delphi. In 2010 Embarcadero, current publisher of Delphi, resurrected the Kylix project as a Macintosh and Linux cross compiler for Delphi and C++ Builder code, so there is still hope. There's a lot of business software developed in Delphi.
  • Open Source replacements for Windows software have been developed. An outstanding example is The GIMP, a PhotoShop replacement with good capability and performance - but GIMP is free and Photoshop costs around US $650.
  • New development by commercial software companies. Not many major packages yet because there's just so much stuff to port.
  • New development by Open Source communities. Outstanding examples are Apache (which runs more active Web sites than all other Web servers combined) and Samba. Hundreds of products and projects are listed at Freecode and on other Internet sites.

Of course, you aren't going to find any of this software in stores (stores are allergic to free stuff especially) but it's available over the Internet. E-commerce was where you were going anyway, wasn't it?

Who Owns Linux?

A large number of people own bits and pieces of Linux, so the answer is, nobody owns it. That doesn't mean nobody controls it.

A number of years ago, some yo-yo trademarked the name "Linux" with extortion in mind. He was handled rather roughly, and "Linux" is now a trademark owned by Linus Torvalds. He is the person who wrote the first version (and who controls development of the Linux kernel).

Linux is issued under the GPL License, enforced by US and other copyright laws. This license allows anyone to use Linux, modify it, sell it, give it away or whatever they want. It also requires that any changes, additions, fixes, or products integrated with it also be GPL'd - if they are distributed. For any distributed package all source code must be made available without cost or restriction. Steve Balmer gets the willies just thinking about it.

Where Did Linux Come From?

Finland student Linus Torvalds was dissatisfied with the operating systems he could get for free, so he decided to write one. He based his efforts on the powerful Unix operating system. In 1991 he published his new operating system on the Internet and invited other programmers to join in the development of Linux.

Another effort to produce a free Unix clone is the GNU (GNU is Not Unix) project. GNU started in 1984 and has not yet produced a viable operating system, but they have produced a great quantity of the essential tools that run on Unix. These were adapted to Linux, so it is sometimes referred to as "GNU/Linux". The GNU people say it should always be called GNU/Linux - good luck with that.

To make sure all this effort remained completely available to everyone, Linux code is issued under the GNU GPL (General Public License) which makes it a copyright violation to make any work based GPL'd code proprietary. The source code must always be available and unrestricted (except by the terms of the GPL).

Thousands of programmers and testers now work on Linux, coordinated through the Internet. All kernel work is cleared through Linus Torvalds. Many of these people are volunteers, but many are now paid to work on Linux by companies like IBM, Red Hat, SUSE, Google and (gasp!) Microsoft.

What is a Linux "Distribution"

Once a new kernel version is released (every 2 years or so) it is available to anyone who wants to look at it, use it, sell it, or give it away.

Red Hat logo Centos logo Turbo logo SuSE logo Debian logo Ubuntu logo Mandriva logo Xandros logo

Companies and organizations package the kernel with the GNU utilities, their own installation procedure and hundreds (even thousands) of subsidiary programs, documentation, and sometimes proprietary (non open source) products. This set is called a "distribution" ("distro" for short).

Corporate targeted distributions like Red Hat and SUSE are packaged with paid for technical support which may be renewed on an annual or multi-year basis.

Each distribution has unique characteristics and targets a particular type of user. A business should select the distribution that best matches their needs. Remember though, they are all Linux and far more similar than they are different.

There are two key distributions, Red Hat and Debian. Many, but not all, other distributions are based on one or the other. Here is a List of Distributions of interest to business - and a couple you'll want to avoid.

Should or Can Your Business Use Linux?

Only you can answer that question for your business - but I've written an Editorial on the subject to help you make that decision. Here's our conclusion:
  • Linux should be your preferred operating system on the server, unless there is a compelling reason to chose another operating system (NetWare, Unix, Windows Server). See next section.
  • On the desktop, Linux is viable for a lot of businesses, and will save them a lot of money, but you must evaluate its suitability carefully for your business. If you can get by with it now, you'll have a whole lot more to work with over time as Linux desktop continues to develop.

Who Can't Use Linux?

If any of these conditions apply, you can still use Linux on other servers for other purposes (Microsoft recommends you run only one major process on a Windows server).
  • You depend on Microsoft Back Office servers (IIS (Internet Information Server), Exchange Server (e-mail), SQL Server (database), etc.). These are carefully crafted to run only on Windows Server.
  • You depend on a Client Server software package that uses a database engine that runs only on Windows Server. All the major database engines (except SQL Server, of course) have Linux versions, but we have encountered minor ones that do not.
  • You depend on software for which you need support, and the vendor simply refuses to support it with a Linux server no matter how much better it runs with a Linux server. This is a common situation.

In the original version of this article, I maintained that you could not use Linux on any of your servers if your business had adopted Microsoft's Active Directory and domain log-ins which became standard with Windows 2000. This is no longer so, and with release of Samba 4 sometime during 2012, Linux will even be able to act as an AD master domain controller. This has been helped along by much better cooperation by Microsoft now that their dreams of world domination are in tatters.

I also said that you couldn't run Linux servers on a Novel IPX/SPX network. This is not at all true now because Linux speaks both TCP/IP and IPX/SPX and Novel and Linux servers can mix on the same network - in fact, Linux can be used to link two or more IPX/SPX networks through a TCP/IP only link.

How are Other Businesses Using Linux?

Today, most businesses are using Linux on servers. In larger businesses these are often special purpose servers, but increasingly in small business Linux runs on the main servers.

Some businesses, however, have adopted Linux top to bottom, desktops and servers. Others mix in Linux desktops with their Windows desktops depending on the task and the person.

Here is a List of Examples (with attached articles) of businesses using Linux for major systems, not just auxiliary servers. We have only a few at the moment, but will be adding a whole lot more as we have time.

Most of the examples are large businesses, and their applications may be quite different from the applications a small business would use, but they show just how seriously Linux is being taken in the business world. I assure you, adoption by small business is proceeding apace.

What About the Desktop?

Years ago when this article was first written, many expected Linux to expand rapidly on the PC desktop. There has been expansion, but figures are exceedingly difficult to compile. Most large Linux desktop deployments are part of specialized internal systems. These are invisible to the outside world and don't get counted at all - and, of course, Linux being free, there are no sales figures.

In any case, Linux has not taken the desktop by storm for a number of very distinct reasons:

  • When you buy a brand name computer, it comes with Windows installed. The manufacturers have no choice, their contract with Microsoft controls this and any violation will result in higher costs for Windows. Even if you can order a computer without Windows, you probably pay the cost of Windows anyway. So, if you've already paid for Windows, and it's already installed, you might as well use it.
  • Microsoft Office: The way large companies do business with their vendors and customers, 100% compatibility with Office is required by their automated systems. 99% just will not do. Though you can run Office under Linux, if that's your critical application, you might as well use Windows.
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer: Microsoft won't produce a Linux version for obvious reasons. Some banks and financial institution Web sites still work only with Internet Explorer. While Microsoft, giving up on control of the Internet, has been moving to standards, they have not been able to convince major Web sites, particularly entertainment sites, to give up the proprietary features Microsoft once urged them to use.
  • General users, who basically want to use a computer for very specific tasks requiring very limited computer expertise, are highly resistant to learning more than they already have, especially since most of them don't really understand Windows. Certain critical software titles are only supported in Windows (and possibly on Macs). These include PhotoShop, AutoCAD and Microsoft Outlook (integrating with Microsoft Exchange Server or a Linux server hosting an MES compatible).
  • Specialty software which runs only on Windows or the publisher of which declines to provide any support if you aren't running it on Windows.
  • The Gimp and Open Office are very good, but just not quite as complete and easy to use as PhotoShop and MS Office.
  • Games: Many game publishers, in severe need of development support from Microsoft, will not produce Linux versions for fear of retaliation. Many still remember the threats Microsoft made to deny support to any company that produced OS/2 versions of their software.
  • With Windows XP, particularly by Service Pack 3, Windows is no longer so unstable as it once was. Crashes are fairly infrequent now.
  • General inertia and unfamiliarity with alternatives.

Most of these reasons are starting to fade as much business software and systems are moving to "The Cloud". In other words, moving to servers out on the Internet. When your business software is accessed through a Web browser, it doesn't matter a whole lot what operating system is on your PC.

Some computer techs do give their mothers Linux boxes for Internet browsing and email. Linux does those tasks extremely well and it greatly reduces the amount of tech support they need to provide for their moms, especially since it's almost totally virus resistant.

©Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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