In a world where the Windows 95/NT bandwagon seems to be gaining momentum, it?s difficult to believe that, not only is there an alternative operating system, but one that matches the Microsoft offerings in nearly every respect. Even more remarkably, this alternative costs nothing.
The operating system is Linux, a freeware version of Unix. If Unix has any reputation in business today, it is as a robust, if elderly, operating system marred by high prices and myriad incompatible variants, each with a relatively small user base showing little growth.
Linux, by contrast, has the same power and reliability as the venerable Unixes, but already has a user base of many millions (no one knows exactly how many), and is fast emerging as the most vital area of the market with the greatest potential for challenging Windows.
Linux was created just six years ago as a project by the then 20-year-old Finnish student of computing science, Linus Torvalds, from whom it takes its name.
The operating system would almost certainly have remained of marginal interest had Torvalds not put it on the Internet, making it freely available for people to download and experiment with. As a result, he started to receive not just suggestions for improvements but also revisions to the code that implemented some of them.
Almost by itself, a huge team of developers around the world began to evolve. The programmers were remarkable in a number of respects.
For example, they worked for nothing, and almost never met face to face. Instead, they used the Internet to communicate and send updated files to each other. In this respect, Linux is perhaps the first example of a truly global, distributed collaborative development process ? one that would have been impossible without the growth of the Internet.
Surprisingly, this patchwork approach to operating system development didn?t end up as a mishmash of unstable code.
First, there was the central figure of Torvalds to ensure that all the pieces of the giant software jigsaw puzzle ultimately snapped into place.
Second, the open nature of the development process allowed users to try out new components as they were being written, and to iron out bugs and potential problems early in the cycle.
The Internet meant that a global team of beta testers could communicate easily and directly with the person writing the software, so speeding up development.
Pulling these elements together created a kind of Darwinian selection process. As more people started to contribute to the Linux project, and as even more users began trying out the software on different hardware configurations, only the very best contributions survived scrutiny to be added to the next release. The result is an operating system that is probably second to none in terms of stability, availability and compatibility.
Linux began as a Unix clone designed to run on low-power Intel processors with little memory (Torvald?s first system had 4Mb of RAM), but the open and evolutionary approach has meant that enthusiastic programmers have now produced versions for the Digital Alpha chip, Sun Sparc processors, the Mac and many other architectures.
In fact, Linux already offers a full 64-bit operating system, something that Microsoft is only now beginning to talk about for Windows NT, sometime in the future.
Linux also excels in networking. Historically, Unix has always been strong in this area, with the TCP/IP protocols long provided as standard. The fact that Linux was developed across the Internet means that Internet support has been available since the earliest days.
As a result, Linux is probably the most advanced operating system in this field, already supporting IPv6 (the next generation of the TCP/IP protocols) and with work underway on high-speed technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM).
Partly as a result of this networking heritage, Linux is well-represented in Web sites. Both the home page of the UK Linux users group (at http://www.linux.org.uk/) and an independent umbrella organisation called Linux International (at http:// www.li.org/) have many links.
The Linux Documentation Project at http://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux is also interesting ? unlike most other software created by enthusiasts, Linux is notable for the quantity and quality of its documentation.
This combination of a robust, advanced operating system available for more or less every platform, and the fact that it?s free (it is released under something called ?copyleft? ? see http://www.gnu.ai.mit.edu/copyleft/copyleft.html for details) obviously makes it extremely attractive to businesses that want to save money without compromising on quality.
However, there are a other issues that need to be considered. For example, many companies are understandably reluctant to run mission-critical systems on software that has no single point of reference. Leaving aside issues of reliability (it is generally accepted that Linux is the equal of any commercial Unix), there is the question of support.
The distributed but public nature of Linux development is a tremendous advantage here. When clarifying problems or seeking updates, it is often possible to deal directly with the person who wrote the code, rather than with some anonymous support line.
And because Linux developers are driven by pride in their work rather than money (none of them is paid for what they write), the turnaround times for resolving problems are usually a day or less.
For example, when the security attack known as the Ping Of Death was discovered (where Internet sites are flooded with fake messages), the Linux developer responsible for that area came up with a solution in just a few hours and posted it on the Internet for all Linux sites to download.
Moreover, for companies that would feel happier with a more traditional approach to support, a company called Caldera (at http://www.caldera.com/) was set up last year (partly funded by Ray Noorda, the retired founder of Novell) to offer versions of Linux together with more traditional backup and support.
One area where Linux is definitely at a disadvantage ? not only with respect to other Windows, but even to other Unixes ? is in applications. Until recently, Linux was a developers? system, and end-user software was scorned.
However, the growth of an end-user base numbering millions has led commercial software houses to port their programs to satisfy this huge emerging market. There are numerous applications available, including Linux versions of Netscape browsers and servers, Wordperfect, Corel Draw, Adabas D and so on. Even Microsoft is porting some of its software to Linux.
More important for the longer term, Linux supports Java. This means that any of the new generation of Java applications can be run on Linux because, of course, the whole point of Java is that it is platform-independent.
Currently, Linux is probably computing?s best-kept secret. But it is already used by most large US companies (even though they prefer to keep quiet about it, so unconventional are its origins), and there is little doubt that Linux is poised to break into the business mainstream.
Its network-readiness and support for Java make it perfect for heterogeneous connected computing environments.
And because it can be obtained free (by downloading from one of the many sites given at http://www.linux.org.uk/Linux FTP.html) or nearly free on one of many cheap CD-ROMs that are available, companies have almost nothing to lose, and much to gain, by trying it out.
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