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Clearing Up the Linux Issues

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By johnnyb61820
November 14, 2001

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I have not started a thread on the Microsoft board about Linux yet. This will be my first. I normally wouldn't, but there is so much confusion/misinformation out there I felt I needed to at least set the record somewhat straight. Think of this as a MSFT Board Linux FAQ. However, one thing that needs to be said is that the culture around Linux is a little more complex, because of the choice involved.

1) Isn't Linux free? Why am I seeing copies of RedHat sold for $50 and more?
The "free" touted in Linux is primarily free as in freedom. This means that you are free to do anything you want with the software, except distribute it without the same freedoms you received. This includes modifying it, learning from it, reselling it without royalties, sharing it with your friends, and using it for any purpose you wish. Now, because "sharing it with your friends" is one of the freedoms granted, you can also obtain Linux at no cost, if you have a friend who already has it. So, obtaining it at no cost is more of a side effect of the freedoms rather than an original purpose. However, when you obtain such software, there is no warranty. Many people want warranties and support, and in such cases, they should purchase a package. You can still often get supported packages for less than their proprietary counterparts. This is not to say anything about TCO.

2) Which distribution is the right one?
It depends on your needs. One of the advantages of Linux is that anyone can sell it customized to the needs of a specific group. So, before you decide to put Linux on a computer, you should decide what your needs are. You _can_ customize any distribution to fit your needs, but if you want a supported configuration, and one that is easy to use for your specific needs. Some suggestions:

Home user: Mandrake 8.1, Red Hat 7.2, and possibly SuSE
Server: Red Hat (any version), Debian, SuSE
Business Desktop: LTSP (Thin-client)
School Workstation: K12LTSP (Thin-client)

Others are catered to more specific needs. For example, there is a Debian Jr. for kids, and a distribution catering to the needs of audio people. You may think that all of this can be solved simply with a choice of applications. To some degree, it can. However, other decisions are more exclusive. For example, multimedia-based distributions will include a kernel that is optimized for low-latency, while the server ones are based on high throughput. Server machines, if they have a GUI, would need it to run with a low priority, while desktop workstations should have the GUI be the highest priority. In addition, the default application set would be different as well.

3) Why are distributions so big?
Distributions include the operating system and applications. Most operating systems require that applications be purchased separately. Some distributions do this, some include basic applications, and some include every application that they can find. So, you have some distributions that can be put on a floppy (mostly router distributions) and some distributions including 6 CDs or more. Again, with Linux, companies have the ability to customize what they ship directly to the needs of their clients.

4) Isn't that "bundling"?
Many people have problems with Microsoft's bundling of applications because they believe Microsoft has a monopoly, and is using their monopoly to monopolize other markets. If they are, that is illegal. Bundling is _not_ a legal or ethical problem for people in non-monopoly positions. With Linux, you cannot have a monopoly position, simply because anyone is allowed to sell your product. Red Hat, a few years back, was not satisfying the needs of desktop users, and Mandrake took Red Hat's package, replaced Red Hat's name with theirs, and included better desktop applications. Also, both distributions were fully compatible with each other. So, if a distributor is not meeting the needs of their clients, is overpriced, or anything, any other company can simply repackage it with their own brand name, and correct the situation.

5) I've heard Linux is hard to install, is that true?
It depends. Any operating system is hard to install if you use hardware that is not on the list of supported hardware. For any distribution you use, you need to look at their hardware compatibility list. If they do not have one, and you are not technically inclined, you should simply not use that distribution. For the desktop-based distributions, installation is usually fairly easy. Most of them allow you to select "easy" or "hard", and the easy one usually involves relatively few clicks. In fact, Corel, when they had a distribution, would install with about two clicks (maybe three). Also, for larger rollouts this is not an issue because you only need to do the installation once, and then just copy the hard drive to the other systems. Some distributions are extremely hard to install, because they are there either for ultimate customizability or learning. For example, the LinuxFromScratch distribution is basically just a manual on how to compile and build an operating system from scratch.

6) Isn't Linux just playing catch-up?
In some things, yes. For example, on the desktop, there has really only been a move to do anything useful in that area in the last three years. However, it's interesting to see how far they've come in only three years. It would be incorrect to say that they haven't innovated, even though they haven't fully caught up yet. Several things in the Nautilus file manager are innovative, including the ability to give user-specified flags or emblems to files, for use in giving additional meta-information about the file for future use. The Galeon web browser is innovative in its method of handling downloads, and the Mozilla web browser is innovative in handling JavaScript pop-up windows so they don't annoy you. Once the free software community has fully caught up, you can bet they will start to innovate a lot more.

In the server side, you will find Microsoft generally being the one to play catch-up. Windows NT continually gets more and more UNIX-like with each release. Microsoft's main innovation on the server side is their Component Transaction Monitor. However, most server-side things started with UNIX. Also, it's hard to say that a particular technology started on Linux, because they are mostly portable to all other UNIX systems as well.

7) So, what about TCO?
TCO is something that only you can really determine for your specific application and setting. Often people will find UNIX-like systems to be easier to manage remotely, and that they can scale better to many applications.

8) Which one is faster?
Again, this entirely depends on your workload.

9) Should I be considering running Linux?
For the business workstation - if you have a large number of workstations running only basic office apps, then you should be considering it. If you have less than 15 workstations, you probably will only have increased trouble. The benefits will probably only be evident at over 40 workstations, because of easier manageability. If you have specialized applications, then you are best off running whatever operating system best supports those applications. Most companies run specialized applications, so they would only want to run Linux if their application is specifically supported.

For the home desktop - if you are interested in development, then yes. Linux provides a plethora of development tools, GUI builders, languages, and the like for free. If you are not interested in development, the only real Linux options for you would be a computer like the one from ThinkNIC.com, or something like that, unless you are just really curious. My personal favorite desktop Linux distribution is RedHat 7.2, but your opinions may differ. Most home desktop users will probably be better off opting for Windows or a Mac.

For the server - you should definitely be considering it. You should at least be considering replacing IIS with Apache (you can run Apache on Windows). It may not end up being the one you choose, but it is definitely a very viable and cost-effective option for most applications.

For the large-scale server - You probably are either better off running a UNIX on a large box (IRIX or Solaris), or, depending on the application, running a cluster of other operating systems.

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Again, sorry for the long Linux post on the MSFT board, but I felt that these questions needed answers. And, instead of just repeating them over and over again, we can just point to this post with a reference number. If I've left any out, I or someone else can add it to this thread.