Down to the Wire: Small companies cash in on Linux for mainstream use

The brain works in very mysterious ways. For example, when I recently had the flu that was making the rounds at InfoWorld, the fever it gave me kept me up all night, with the Beach Boys' song 'Kokomo' (as sung by Kermit the Frog, no less) running through my head. If you think that's weird, here's something even crazier. I still think Linux has a good chance of becoming a mainstream server OS.

The brain works in very mysterious ways. For example, when I recently had the flu that was making the rounds at InfoWorld, the fever it gave me kept me up all night, with the Beach Boys' song "Kokomo" (as sung by Kermit the Frog, no less) running through my head. If you think that's weird, here's something even crazier. I still think Linux has a good chance of becoming a mainstream server OS.

Hey, I'm not the only loony. Internet service providers have already discovered Linux, and some people are finding out Linux makes a great low-cost, high-performance file and print server because it can serve up native file and print services to Windows and Macintosh clients.

A number of small companies are making good money by stripping away the excuses IS managers usually give for passing over Linux. For example, a company called Cosmos Engineering, in Los Angeles, is making it impossible to complain that Linux is difficult to install. Cosmos is selling a product called Linux on a Disk - a Fujitsu Enhanced IDE drive with Red Hat Linux 4.0 and a lot of extra Linux software pre-installed and pre-configured.

The only reason you would ever need to muck with the out-of-the-box configuration is if you wanted to use a high-resolution driver for the X windowing system. This is the one remaining hole in the Linux on a Disk product. It relies on XFree86, which has limited driver support and can be difficult to configure.

You can get around this limitation by spending a little more money and getting X Inside's X accelerator software (which costs US$99, see http://www.xinside.com) or Metro-Link's Metro-X accelerator (also $99, see http://www.metrolink.com). These alternatives are easy to configure, and combined, they support just about every conceivable video card. Cosmos is considering bundling the X Inside accelerator in future versions of its product.

I tried Linux on a Disk and nothing could have been easier to set up. I added it as my second drive, but it doesn't matter if you pop the drive in as the first, second, third, or fourth drive in the system. The boot floppy that comes with the system will detect the location of the drive and set up Linux accordingly.

Don't worry if you want to keep Windows on your system. Linux on a Disk installs the Linux boot manager and lets you switch between Linux and any operating system you had installed before you added the new drive. Better still, I was delighted to find that Cosmos provides simple instructions for using V Communications' System Commander to switch between operating systems.

Linux on a Disk comes with a ton of pre-installed client, server, and application development software. Even the window manager is pre-configured to run some of the best GUI utilities for file and program management available for Linux. That alone eliminated the most time-consuming task I've found in setting up a new Linux system.

Cosmos says it now ships Linux on a Disk with a boot floppy that doubles as an intelligent recovery disk. Cosmos is also planning to include a backup CD-ROM, for those rare cases when you completely hose the contents of the drive.

Linux on a Disk costs $269 for the 1.2Gb model, $339 for a 2.1G-byte, and $349 for 2.57G bytes. These prices are basically the same prices you pay for bald drives, making this perhaps the most phenomenal Linux offering on the market. For more information, check out http://www.cosmoseng.com.

AN UNCOMMON DESKTOP

Besides the Linux authors and distributors themselves, X Inside has done more to make a professional operating system out of Linux than just about any other company I know. Now X Inside has removed yet another of the remaining roadblocks to Linux acceptance -- the nonstandard, difficult-to-configure window managers.

X Inside recently ported the Motif-based Common Desktop Environment (CDE) to Linux and FreeBSD (both come on a single CD-ROM for $200). I've been using it for several weeks now and find it to be a faithful port. It is also remarkably stable -- it hasn't crashed once, which is something I can't even say about the version of CDE that runs on Solaris x86.

CDE has some distinct advantages over the Windows 95 interface, but, realistically, its features won't win converts. It simply isn't Windows, which will keep much of the Windows market away. But it makes Linux much more accessible and viable as a server OS because it provides a standard GUI for server management. And it will be an instant hit for users who have one brand of Unix at work but use Linux at home. Finally, it will be a must-have for the many Unix programmers who use Linux as a cheap way to develop Unix applications for other Unix platforms.

(There must be more loonies out there. Send your email to nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com and visit my forum on InfoWorld Electric at http://www.infoworld.com.)

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