Mad Dog and Linuxmen

When, in 1991, Linus Torvalds sent an email to 'everybody out there using minix' to say he was creating a free operating system 'for a hobby', he told readers that the project wouldn't be big or professional. He could hardly have known that, whilst staying free, his Unix variant Linux would come to boast three million users worldwide - or that it would be creeping into contention as a corporate OS.

“Hello everybody out there using minix — I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like GNU) for 386 (486) AT clones ... I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat.”

In 1991, this email was sent out over the Net by Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of the Unix operating system Linux. Despite the fact that Torvalds didn’t envisage anything “big or professional”, Linux now boasts 3 million users world wide. One thing hasn’t changed however — Linux is still a free operating system, the source code is free and software developed from source code modifications is free.

What is changing is the Linux user base. Right now 75% of Linux users are in the education sector but the OS is slowly making inroads among the corporates, according to visiting Linux guru Jon “Mad Dog” Hall. Hall, who’s passionate lecturing style earned him his nickname, is executive director of Linux International and leader of Digital’s Unix software group.

He is working on Linux For Dummies, to be published by IDG (publisher of Computer-world) and hopes the book will help clear up some of the misconceptions about the OS.

“There’s a lot of fear, misinformation and doubt, partly because Linux is free,” says Hall. “And yet it is because Linux is freeware and because modifications have to be given away that its development has been driven forward at an amazing rate. Today it’s a 32-bit, multitasking, SMP OS which is widely used as a Web server and runs on Intel, Digital Alpha, Sun Sparc, StrongARM, HP-PA, Motorola and MIPs hardware.”

Hall disputes assertions that Unix operating systems are complex and difficult to use. “I totally disagree. Years ago when I was at Bell Labs, we had secretaries who learned to use Unix by themselves. I’ve tried to install Windows 95 to my notebook about four times, and every time something goes wrong. Microsoft has created a very nice illusion that Windows is easy to use. For the most part nobody actually ever installs Windows — it’s done by an OEM. You can get the same thing if you go to a proper Linux vendor. Also there are so many people around who use Windows that it adds to the illusion. Although the Linux community is smaller, it’s great — very enthusiastic and always willing to help. There is also a document called The Commercial How To which has a link to it from the Linux International Web site.”

Hall says while most Linux systems are single-user, there are some large organisations, apart from universities, using the operating system. “There are documented cases where Linux systems have been working for more than a year without being re-booted. The city of Garden Grove in California uses it to run its municipal system, the University of Sao Paulo uses Linux to administer 1000 Windows 95 machines distributed around the campus.

“The US Post Office developed an OCR [optical character recognition] system on Linux and then deployed it to 4000 PCs. Because it didn’t have to pay for the OS, it saved $US1.2 million.”

“There are certain avenues where the commercial Unix systems are preferred. Some are a bit ahead in things like high availability and clustering support but there are Linux projects promising things along those lines. There are also some interesting commercial products available for the Linux market which give high availability capabilities.”

Another issue is the low number of Linux applications, about 700 in all.

However, market research company IDC is also optimistic about the future of Linux. An August IDC report says, “Linux will play an increasingly visible role in research, engineering and the small business market segments. IDC believes this can be attributed to its effective support of low-end commodity hardware, the availability of the Linux source code, the wealth of developers and support personnel on the Internet, and Microsoft’s business model that declares systems dead long before they are fully amortised.”

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