Feature Article
Linux 
 
Myths & mis-information 


By ; reprinted from the July, 2000 issue of the PC Alamode 

A few months ago. PC Alamode ran an article about the new and upcoming operating system - Linux. As a Linux aficionado (promoter, advocate, supporter, geek . . .. call it what you will), I was very interested when I saw the article advertised. But as I finished reading the article, I was mildly concerned. The article had a bit of misinformation in it and left me with a bad impression. So I thought I would try to dispel some of that misinformation, to help you better understand this growing force in the PC World, and let you know about an upcoming Linux event where you can learn more about this operating sys-tem.

What is it?
Now on to Linux. If you keep up with com-puter news, you've probably heard the story of its beginning by now — but allow me to review for those new to the subject. A col-lege student in Finland named Linus Torvalds was studying Minix, a UNIX type operating system. He wanted to study at home and wanted a Minix like operating system he could run on a PC. When he didn't find one, he started writing a basic operating system and released it on the Internet to anyone interested. Since then, the Linux operating system has been the biggest collaborative effort in computer history. Thousands of people around the world have written part of the operating system and thousands others have tested it. It usually boils down to someone getting a new toy for his computer and writing the drivers to make it work. That person then releases those drivers to the Internet community for free.

And that is one of the key points about Linux. Its license is known as the GNU GPL (General Public License), which means that the software is freely available to anyone who wants to use it, Including the source code. So you could take the existing program's source code and modify it to suit your needs or wants. But if you take GPL source code and modify it, you also have to release that software/source code as GPL software - free. You can get more information on this licensing .

Linux is basically a UNIX clone. If you know UNIX, you can handle Linux. Some people also describe it as "the equivalent of DOS before Windows came along". If you were comfortable with DOS and working from the command line before Windows made everything point ‘n ‘click, you'll be comfortable with Linux. That is because early versions of Linux were strictly com-mand line operation. But in the last few years, a GUI (Graphical User Interface) known as the X Windowing System (or X Windows or just plain X) has spread throughout the Linux world. So todays’Linux users have the option of using the GUI, the command line or a combination of the two

But Linux is best run from the command line — a la DOS. When working from the command line, those system CO"U and memory resources that would go toward pretty screens are used to perform other tasks. So from the command line, Linux will outperform any other operating system — even Windows NT (Linux’s equivalent in the Windows world). X Windows is a different matter though. When a computer is running Linux and X, its speed and performance will closely resemble a similar system running Windows NT. The result is that applications with both Windows and Linux X versions perform almost identically on similar hardware.

A few areas where Linux shines are secu-rity and stability (reliability). Although pos-sibly more difficult to configure securely than Windows NT, Linux is actually more secure. This is because the operating sys-tem and software is all Open Source. Vi-ruses can't hide inside of software whose source code can be obtained and checked out before installation. Also, exploits and hacks that are found are typically patched within a couple of days or hours. Compare this to other companies which release a "service pack" every six months or so. Linux's reliability is one of its biggest draw-ing points. There are servers on the Internet that have been up and running for more than three years without a single crash or reboot. 
The San Antonio Linux User's Group's pre-vious server was on-line for over a year be fore it was replaced with a new machine. During this time, software and drivers were installed, removed, and upgraded without having to reboot that computer once! That is stability!
The biggest problem with Linux is learning another operating system. For an experi-enced computer user, learning to use Linux from the command line is a major under-taking. It really is a whole new language and completely different from DOS. My personal experience suggests that for some-one not already familiar with a PC, the learning curve is similar between Linux and the Windows operating systems. This is es-pecially true if the new user uses Linux strictly inside the X Windows GUI. So learning this new operating system is really a matter of past experience, how someone intends to use the new system, and future expectations.

Will Linux run on my computer?
But can I run Linux you ask? The answer is definitely yes. Linux supports all Intel, AMD, Cyrix, and Winchip CPUs of the x86 family. Some versions of Linux even support Digital Equipment Corporation's Alpha and Sun's Sparc computer platforms, and even Macs. The only problems usually experienced trying to run Linux relate to newest hardware which hasn't been out long enough for someone to write drivers. So if you are the kind of person who likes to buy every new toy just as soon as it comes out, Linux might be a problem for you. On the other hand, Linux runs on and makes very efficient use of older equipment like 386 and 486 computers. An older 386 or 486 computer can make an excellent small web server, router, firewall, or file server when running Linux.

But should you run Linux? Well, that all depends on what you will use your com-puter for and how much time you are will-ing to put into it. Although there are Linux programs doing almost anything Windows programs can do, Linux still isn't as re-fined in program installation and setup as Windows programs. And of course, there is that "prior experience learning curve". So if you intend to use your computer as a general-purpose desktop workstation, especially when the users have different levels of ex-perience — Linux may not be the best system for you. If you are starting with people new to computers, Linux is a good alterna-tive. And if you want to use it as a server, a high power gaming station, or you are will-ing to put in some time learning Linux — it is definitely time to try it out.

Where can I get Linux?
OK, so I'm going to try Linux. Where do I get my hands on it? Linux is free and can be downloaded freely through the Internet. A number of companies collect Linux soft-ware, add nice installation programs, add a manual, put it all on a CD, and include support. These companies produce these "distributions" and sell them for a nominal fee — usually between $29 and $59. But the same software or even the actual CD image can be downloaded directly from the company, free. Downloading the software just doesn't get the CD, manual, or sup-port. There are also some companies that will download the CD image, produce CDS and sell them for $2 to $5 — no manual or support though. So pick your own method: free download, almost free CD, or very nominal fee for CD, manual, and support.

How do I install Linux?
Next comes installation — uh oh! We've all heard how difficult UNIX or Linux is to install! And that can be true. UNIX is usu-ally complicated to install. But that isn't the case with Linux any more. Some of those distribution companies like RedHat, PHT Turbo Linux, Debian, SuSE, and others have put together very easy installation programs. RedHat's latest distribution, version 6.1, actually loads and runs X from RAM to provide a completely GUI based installa-tion. And almost all of the distributions will boot and begin the installation right from the CD! So when sticking to the standard installations for either server or worksta-tion, installing RedHat Linux can be easier than installing Windows. Break away from the standard installation though, and cus-tomizing programs or partitions will get complicated. The degree of difficulty all depends on your experience, situation, and intended use.

Running programs
Once installed and running, there are Linux programs to perform almost any task. Almost anything that can be done with a Win-dows program can be done with an equiva-lent Linux program. Visit <http:// www.freshmeat.net> or <http://alpha1.linux.tucows.com/index.html> for searchable indexes to thousands of Linux programs. For people adamant about using their current programs, you may still be able to run them under Linux using a MSDOS emulator, a Windows emulator, or a virtual computer. The first emulator runs MSDOS programs and simpler Windows programs under Linux. The second emulator supports almost all Windows programs and is called "WINE". The WINE emulator is still being perfected and so occa-sionally has problems, but is very functional. And the last method runs a "Virtual Com-puter" inside your Linux system. The soft-ware from VMware isn't free as it's written for Windows NT and other UNIX systems as well as Linux. But it allows you to create a virtual computer inside your Linux system and load whatever operating system you de-sire. I can tell you from experience that it works and is actually easy to setup; not to mention very weird to see Windows NT run-ning in a window on your X Windows desk-top!

So all in all, Linux is growing up. From its beginnings as a weekend project for program-mers and geeks, it has grown up to a full--fledged, powerful operating system. The big-gest pushes in Linux today all seem to be making it easier to install and use for people who are not UNIX experienced. Its already one of the best server operating systems on the Internet, and these efforts will help it spread into the desktop computer area.

And anyone needing Linux help or just some information can join the SATLUG (San Antonio Linux User's Group) mailing list from their web site. It's the best source of Linux information for some-one in need. No question is too simple or complicated.


Chuck Tetlow has been a communications expert for the AF for 20 years and for the last nine years has worked as a Network Engineer for Randolph AFB. Now he is preparing for his retirement next spring. Chuck got his first computer in 1985 and learned on that Tandy 1000 for six years until he could upgrade to a 386. As an Internet user since 1990, he occa-sionally heard about this new operating system called Linux. In late 1994, he obtained a copy of the software in an"InfoMagic" CD set and installed it a few months later. But since he didn't know much about Unix or Linux at the time, the install was wiped a few days later. After attending a Unix class and security class in 1996, his interest in the system renewed. He has been learning Linux and experiment-ing with it ever since. His primary focus has been system administration, TCP/IP operations, system security, network security, and firewalls. When not glued to his keyboards, he enjoys time with his two sons, his wife and a few other hobbies. One of which is competi-tive shooting where he has won a number of state championships in pistol competition. And once in a while, he pretends to be the Treasurer of the San Antonio Linux User’s Group.