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Linux Is a Promising Alternative to Windows

 By Louis Columbus (

Tired of sending your yearly installment of $99 for upgrades to Redmond each year, or paying more than $300 for the next major operating system release this month?  Then Linux is for you.  With a bit of technical expertise and curiosity over how to make Linux hum on your system, you will be right at home working with this operating system. 

International Data Corporation, which tracks the adoption of various operating systems, has projected that use of Linux will continue to grow from 29,800 installations in 1998 to 1,748,000 units by 2002, primarily as an operating system for Web servers.  The figure below shows IDC's growth projections comparing Linux and Windows NT.

 Created by Linus Trovalds in 1991 while he was a student at the University of Helsinki, Finland, Linux truly reflects what the Internet is capable of providing in terms of an information and development exchange. Linux is freely distributed over the Internet and also sold through retail stores worldwide.  Although free on the Internet, Linux is hundreds of megabytes in size (that translates into eight days of downloading over a 14.4 modem) and is a pain to download, quite frankly.  There are several distributions available including Debian 2.0, Red Hat 5.2, Mandrake 5.3, Slackware 3.6, OpenLinux 1.3, SuSE 6.0, TurboLinux 3.0 and LinuxPro 5.0. These distributions all come on CD-ROM, making it possible to get up and running quickly. 

  Tipping the Red Hat

 I've found that running RedHat on an Intel-based Pentium III workstation works well and zips through the install routine in about 30 minutes.  I paid $35 for RedHat at Fry's Electronics and had it up and running within an hour of bringing it home.

 Before getting started with the installation, I had to make sure I had a clean disk partition, because Linux wants to have the primary disk partition on your system.  Be sure to have a partition in mind before starting a Linux install, otherwise your primary operating system, applications and data will be overwritten.  I chose a secondary drive and started the install, as I wanted to flexboot into Linux, Windows2000 Beta 3 and Windows NT 4.0 on the same system.  Linux supports flexboot, which is a nice feature.  Red Hat includes a menu-driven utility called Disk Druid for creating partitions, which is much easier to use than the standard text-based fdisk program. Red Hat also includes an Express Setup that installs common configurations, as well as a custom installation option.   The installation program detects and sets up ethernet cards, video cards and other devices, as long as RedHat supports them. Video preferences are requested as you complete the installation.

  Using Linux

Day-to-day tasks worked well with Linux, including email and Web browsing.  I found the support from Red Hat's portal site was fine for the mainstream components and peripherals in my workstation.  One of the key aspects of Linux is its reliability.  I found my workstation crashing a lot less often and didn't miss the blue screen of death from Windows NT.  All the claims about reliability are true; it runs great.  The support is also very good, and Red Hat's site is immensely valuable.

I also tried several of the applications now available for Linux.  Lack of applications is the Achilles' heal of this operating system.  There is not enough software available yet to make Linux a major player in the battle for the typical user.  There are 85 programming applications available on Linux today, by far the leading category of applications.  There are 22 application suites, including Corel's WordPerfect and Sun's downloadable StarOffice.   There are 15 graphics applications available, the best one being Cameleo from Caldera.  From a typical desktop user's standpoint, more applications are necessary to make Linux worth completely leaving Windows.  It's a matter of time until Linux application software surpasses the development tools available.  

From a server standpoint, the story changes quickly.  Because of all those development tools, there is a flurry of activity in the server arena, with strong results.  There are 40 different networking applications certified as compatible with RedHat, 23 of which are for servers. Caldera Netware sells for $59 and supports the NetWare operating system's file, print and directory services, making it ready to run on Linux. This is ideal for small businesses that have limited budgets and want to get started with networking their companies with file and print services. The only downside of the server growth is the lack of security products.  Only eight are certified on Linux today.  

A Final Look at Linux

Linux shows great promise as a networked operating system and is going to be a viable server operating system for years to come.  Currently, however, the lack of consumer applications is a serious limitation.  It all comes down to exploring and be willing to roll the boulders out of your own road to compatibility.  If you're up for the challenge and are curious, Linux is for you. Be sure to check in on Linux from time to time, because the development community is on a mission to produce as many applications as possible.  If you're into exploring operating systems, then enjoy the adventure!  It's worth the trip.

Correction: The article on changes for Microsoft in the January issue of WWWiz incorrectly stated that Microsoft developed the e-commerce protocol XML. In fact XML is the result of industry participants working together to invent and refine this technology.

Louis Columbus is director, market research for and regularly writes on Internet and technology topics.  He has 10 books published and more than three dozen articles.  His latest book is Administrator's Guide to Electronic Commerce with H.W. Sams Publishing Company.

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