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WHAT IS LINUX?
Linux has gone from a mere concept in 1991 to a full, rich, dependable workhorse in just 7 years! Current estimates are that 6 to 10 million or more computers run Linux -- and the number is nowhere near a plateau.
DOS and Windows lowered the bar for technical excellence in operating systems in order to raise the bar for ease of use. Linux has already surpassed DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95 for technical excellence, and some knowledgeable people argue that it has even surpassed Windows NT. At the same time, there are tremendous efforts surging ahead to do what no Unix-type operating system ever succeeded in doing: making the operating system friendly enough for non-technical people to enjoy its benefits! The past year alone has seen the birth of a strong Windows-95ish desktop system, based on the open standard of X Windows. It has also witnessed the development of even more easy-to-use and easy-to-administer front-ends that effectively harness the power of Unix.
Linux is designed to POSIX specifications (and at least one distributor has gone through POSIX certification). Linux is multiplatform (Alpha, Intel, Sparc, Macintosh, PowerPC, MIPS, and more!). Linux is multiuser and multitasking. Linux is built on open standards, like X Windows and a full-blown TCP/IP implementation. The Linux kernel and all standard utilities are distributed with full source code. Linux even sports a healthy DOS emulator, a Windows emulator (in development), NetWare support, Lan Manager support, and DECnet support is in the works. Languages such as GNU C/C++, GNU Fortran, Pascal, Perl, and Tcl/Tk are included for free as well. The Apache Web Server -- the most popular Web server in the world, hosting over 50% of Internet sites worldwide (Netcraft Web Server Survey, January 1998) -- is a standard feature.
Linux is lowering the cost of operating both the desktop and the server compared to both traditional Unix implementations and the current Microsoft operating systems. By combining the power of a Unix server and a snazzy user desktop, Linux can match most of the serving abilities of Windows NT while carrying a software pricetag below that of a traditional DOS/Windows PC!
Software vendors, assisted by such companies as Caldera (birthed by Ray Noorda after leaving Novell), are beginning to port software to Linux. Netscape Navigator, Netscape Fastrack Server, WordPerfect, Software AG's Adabas-D, the StarOffice Product Suite, and the Applixware Product Suite are all available, with many more on the way including a number of the Corel products. Informix has announced that it is examining the porting of its database products to Linux. Linux vendors such as Caldera and Red Hat are now offering traditional product support services that corporations require. The time is now clearly past when Linux can be dismissed as a mere "hacker's operating system!"
Why use Linux?
Of course there are many other reasons to use Linux such as the full source code is provided and can be modified but 'regular' application users will unlikely need the source code.
Technical merits of Linux
Linux is Network-friendly
Although not a huge movement yet, there will be more networks set up in homes as costs for basic computer hardware and networking equipment continue to plummet. The small office/home office network can now be realized for about half the price it would have cost a year ago. Most industry news sources expect this trend to continue. This will probably be more of a factor when homes and small offices want to get their own high-speed internet connections and need dedicated hardware to manage it.
Thus, one of the major litmus tests of the quality and utility of a modern operating system is how well it networks. Since Linux was developed by a team of programmers over the Internet, its its networking features were given high priority. Linux is capable of acting as client and/or server to any of the popular operating systems in use today, and is quite capable of being used to run Internet Service Providers. In fact, in Southern Minnesota, all of the small local ISP's (I do not know anything definite about the phone companies) use Linux. It is also well-suited to serving as a dial-in network station.
Linux supports most of the major protocols, and quite a few of the minor ones. Support for Internet, Novell, Windows, and Appletalk networking have been part of the Linux kernel for some time now. With support for Simple Network Management Protocol and other services (such as Domain Name Service), Linux is also well suited to serving large networks.
Finally, all these networking options will run quite acceptably on minimal hardware configurations. It depends on what services are needed and in what quantity, but I know that for some time a small college in Southern Minnesota ran a 56k baud leased line (access for a student body of about 300) gateway with E-Mail, DNS, and FTP on a single 486/33 with 32MB RAM and a lot of big SCSI drives.
Linux is Multi-user
Linux is Open
An important aspect of open software is the ability to write kernel extensions and drivers as needed. What if new hardware comes out that we want to take advantage of? We just write the driver -- if someone else doesn't do it first.
Another huge advantage of an open system is a large number of software authors and beta testers. This makes the software testing and refinement process faster and better. Because there is not a lot of commercial software for Linux (though that is an increasing market), most software written for Linux is written because the authors want to do it. Since there are no corporate deadlines, there need be no compromise of quality. Also, I think many programmers relish the idea of showing off some artistry, since others will actually see and appreciate their code.
This means many good things for the user. It means higher-quality software, which means less prone to crash, more efficient, what have you. Often, if you have a question, it is often possible to ask the author of the software him/herself via E-Mail or Usenet Newsgroups. It makes it easier for people to get involved in the development process, which means that even if someone is not a programmer, he or she can have a profound impact on a piece of software by suggesting how to improve it to the development team.
Linux is Reliable
What does this mean in practical terms? In a recent issue of Linux Journal, a feature was run on how long a Linux system has continuously run. Several uptimes of over 1 year were reported. This is because the system is designed to be upgraded and modified "on the fly" -- the only reason one would need to turn off a Linux system would be to add hardware or boot from a different kernel. That means that the end-user can count on Linux to work consistently, day in and day out.
Another factor which touches on reliability is that there are currently two mature program packaging standards in the Linux world. Debian and Red Hat each have their own packaging systems; both will check dependencies (package A needs to have package B installed before it will run, so the installer will install package B), both can upgrade an entire running system without a reboot. this makes it easy to upgrade parts or all of a system, as well as add new software, or remove unwanted software.
Linux is Backwards-Compatible
What this means for the user is that they can protect their investment in hardware. When old hardware is rendered obsolete by the latest version of Windows (or MacOS...we try to be fair), it can most likely still run enough of Linux to be perfectly useful. There is no reason for Linux users to try to make hardware obsolete - and every reason for them to provide support for older hardware.
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