March 4, 2005

Very Basic Introduction to Linux

by roy

Are you thinking of trying the Linux operating system? Or, to ask a better question, should you try the Linux operating system?

We’ll look at this question briefly from several viewpoints, including stability, availability of software, development environment, security, support, and, oh, yes – cost. These are all factors you should consider before purchasing any software.

If you’re new to Linux and are looking for support groups and forums, here are some good places to start:

“Where the Linux Community Meets”

http://www.justlinux.com/

LinuxQuestions.Org

(Even if you’re not the techie type, you should at least have an idea as to what everyone has been talking about the past few years.)

Many businesses, large and small, are switching to Linux these days, or at least installing it on some of their servers, web servers or workstations as a “second” operating system. Monster corporations like IBM and Dell are adding it gratis to their PCs, and many small businesses are thinking about Linux as well.

It’s the purpose of this section to explore problems of administration, and configuring of Linux, and, as always, we welcome your feedback.

So what are the advantages of Linux? What needs does the Linux OS fulfill that Microsoft does not?

STABILITY

Because it is derived from the robust UNIX operating system, Linux seldom freezes, although individual applications may freeze. They can usually be restarted, however, without having to reboot the computer.

This is rarely the case with Microsoft, however. The “blue screen of death” still occurs in the NT/2000 OSes, and often the entire computer must be rebooted.

When Linux does crash however, it can be problematic. Linux’s “ext2″ file system mounts in an asynchronous manner, which means that it first caches the data and then writes it to the hard drive. For example, the CDROM drive and the floppy drive aren’t accessible until the user mounts it manually. If a power outage occurs while the system is caching, the file system can become corrupted because some of the data in the cache may not have been written to the drive. The next time Linux boots, it should detect this corruption, but sometimes it doesn’t and the system will fail to boot, so the crash destroys the mount. This results in the “kernel attack” message.

The newer versions of Linux, however, have a new choice in file systems. The Reiser FS performs file writes in a more efficient manner. If a power failure occurs, Reiser’s “journaling” system is able to detect partially written data, and can restore the data upon power reboot.

AVAILABILITY OF SOFTWARE

Linux runs Open Source software, which consists of programs and applications that have been developed by independent programmers.They are usually FREE of charge. You just download them from a web or FTP site. Unlike Microsoft’s closed-source products, the code is visible for anyone to modify.

There is, at present, only a fraction of the number of apps available for Linux as there are for Microsoft. For example, Sun’s Star Office Suiteis comparable to Microsoft’s Office suite, and is gaining market ground as Linux becomes more popular. The GIMP graphics program is the open-source answer to Adobe Photoshop.

The same situation exists with Linux drivers. Many, many devices – printers, modems, mice, etc – do not have Linux drivers and many manufacturers are reluctant to provide them – especially for free. Linux-driven hardware, therefore, must depend on open-source drivers developed by independent developers. Sometimes these aren’t reliable, because they haven’t been review for security flaws. Some vendors are reluctant to provide drivers because it forces them to release the source code.

DEVELOPMENT ENVIRONMENT

Linux and UNIX really shine when it comes to available software development tools, compilers, editors and the like. On the other hand, Microsoft’s operating systems provide very few developing tools. They must be purchased separately, often from a third party, and at a high price.

One interesting developmental feature of Linux is shell scripting. If the concept of shells is new to you, let’s – for this discussion – compare it with the user accounts in Windows.

Your “user” shell is activated when you log into a Windows 2000 machine, for example. The shell includes access to various directories, files, domains, servers and printers. However, the Windows “user” shell is non-programmable; i.e., your mouse can do only what Windows lets it do. Unlike Windows, however, the Linux shell really is programmable. You can write (or download) numerous shell scripts, which you can then modify to suit your needs. You can even create your own commands that work only in your own shell. It’s a little like the old DOS batch files, but much more flexible.

Or, you can hire a developer to customize your system to suit your business needs.

SECURITY

Linux is not always a secure operating system because its open-source code has the vices of its virtues. Because anyone can write code for the Linux OS, much of it is written without security in mind. There isn’t a lot of quality control, when it comes to security. There is a good deal of peer review, especially on the previously mentioned discussion boards and user groups, and sloppy code doesn’t make the grade. Security however is an issue that rarely comes up during such review discussions. Consequently, Linux code isn’t always secure, as witness the popularity of the buffer stack overflow, packet altering, and other hacking methods discussed elsewhere on this site.

As far as security is concerned, Microsoft’s legendary “blue screen of death” tells a lot. Obviously, many MS-compatible applications are rushed onto the market without proper review of security issues. These programs contain “holes” which enable hackers to enter your PC and install back door devices.

Because the code is all closed-source, no one can really tell where the security failures are, and we just have to trust Microsoft when they tell us that such-and-such a bug has been fixed.

SUPPORT

If you type “Linux support” into Yahoo’s search engine, you’ll get 135,000 web pages. There are dozens of forums, discussion groups, and local clubs where you can take your questions. And they’re all FREE. Microsoft’s support is available for a fee, which doesn’t include the phone call. The average waiting time is anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. Need we say more?

THE COST

Well, at this point in the discussion, many people bring up the fact that Linux costs a lot less to use than a Microsoft OS, like XP. Well, they’re partly correct. You can download Linux for FREE, as well as Apache, the Linux web server. You can also download numerous UNIX and Linux applications for FREE, and there are numerous user discussion groups, boards, etc., where you can get technical assistance for FREE.

On the other hand, the maintenance and administration of a Linux network costs just the same as any MS-run network would cost. Also, developers for customized shell scripts and other forms of necessary programming would probably cost as much as Microsoft-oriented developers would charge.

CONCLUSION

So the question remains: “Should I Be Using Linux?”

Well, if you’re technically inclined, if you don’t mind a learning curve, and if you can afford to experiment a little, knowing that there are definite advantages in the long run, the answer is: “Yes.” But do it step-by-step: first, install the OS in a “lab” environment; i.e., on a workstation not connected to your network.

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