OS News

13 Oct 1997

Lovely Linux: Introducing our Regular Linux Column

By Jeff Windsor

Linux is, perhaps, the greatest accomplish-
ment of the computer age
Linux users see these poor deluded Lears wandering, blind, in the rain, and can only hope for the storm to end.  
Some of the best technical support in the world is available on Linux newsgroups  
The average Linux user is intelligent, brave, and employed  

This is first in a regular series of articles about Linux. It will continue until Linux ceases to exist or we do.

Linux is the free Unix written from scratch by Linus Torvalds with assistance from a loosely-knit team of hackers from across the Internet. Linux aims towards POSIX compliance, and has all of the features you would expect of a modern, fully-fledged Unix: true multitasking, virtual memory, shared libraries, demand loading, shared, copy-on-write executables, proper memory management, and TCP/IP networking.
-Linux Frequently Asked Questions with Answers; Robert Kiesling

In New York, I attended the local Linux Users Group meeting, LXNY. It was a standing-room-only affair, and we were going to see a demo of Corel's WordPerfect 8 for Linux, and hear Bryan Sparks, CEO of Caldera speak. In all, a rather boring evening, but no one in the room seemed to care.

For all intents and purposes, the mood in the room was bauccic. People shouted, interrupted, mocked, whistled, oooh-ed and aaah-ed, yawned, cheered. Hubris, third virtue of a great programmer, is chief in defining a Linux user. At least they've got reason.

Linux is, perhaps, the greatest accomplishment in the computer age. Compared to other operating systems, Linux is faster, smaller, more robust, more stable, more flexible, and cheaper. On paper, it's almost too much to believe: all the power (etc) of Unix, none of the cost. Where's the catch?

The catch, if you even want ot call it a catch, is that it's terribly addicting. People who use Linux love Linux. They know they're using the best OS for the money, and feel the weight of the hegemony pressing down upon them. They are the Shakespearean fools of the Internet: they have the answers, but nobody will listen. There's one mantra: NT, NT, NT. And Linux users see these poor deluded Lears wandering, blind, in the rain, and can only hope for the storm to end.

Linux began six years ago, in Helsinki. Linus Torvalds released version .02 of Linux: a Minix knock-off that Torvalds intended to be more full-featured and, well, cool. It was a hobby and a project, and not intended to turn into a major philosophical movement. In 1994, Linus (as he's commonly called by those of us who've never met him) released 1.0 of Linux. Currently, the most stable release is 2.0.31.

In its most rudimentary form, Linux is a kernel: the small piece of software the runs the machine. Piled on top of that kernel are all sorts of utilities, many of which are distributed by the Free Software Foundation. (You've just got to love any organization with a name like that.) These GNU (GNU = Gnu's Not Unix) and other free utilities do everything from adding users to a system (adduser), to paging text (more or less), to edit text (vi), to get mail (mail). It doesn't take long to see that these backbone pieces of software are created by people who love to write good software, but aren't very creative when it comes to naming stuff. I wonder if they'd name their children things like Child and Offspring? A collection of these utilities with the kernel is called a Linux distribution.

It is possible, and highly likely, that you'll take whatever distribution you get, install it on your computer, and instantly have a fully functional web server. Email, ftp, gopher (why would you still want to run a gopher site?), and web access, straight out of the box.

Getting involved with Linux typically involves purchasing one of the dozen-or-so books on the subject. Many come with a distribution included, so you can pretty much just pop it into your CD drive and install. If you're not ready for that investment, but still want to give it a shot, there's a number of freely downloadable distributions available over the Net (be prepared for a long download, though).

What you're saving in money, however, can quickly make up its cost in time. Users inexperienced with Unix will have a steep learning curve. If you're installing it on your home machine, or a machine that you control, you'll probably need to learn some basic system administration, too. It's not rocket science (at least not at this level), but it's harder than, say, minesweeper. You'll have to do a little hardware mucking to get X-windows running (X-windows is a gui interface to Linux. As Windows95 is a gui interface to MS-DOS, X-windows is to Linux. Got it?), and installing software often requires you to compile it yourself (don't worry, compilers are standard in every Linux distribution, too).

A number of companies are doing their best to make it easier. Chief among these are Caldera and Red Hat, both of which take advantage of RPMs -- Linux executables in a no-brainer installation format. Caldera has significantly improved the install process, and plans to make the sys admin part easier with their new CAOL. It'll be GPLed (distributed with the Gnu Public License, sometimes called copylefted, i.e. it's free) once it's released. Caldera is also working with a number of application developers (like Corel, Appgen, and Netscape) to be sure that professional standard applications run on Linux, as well as other platforms.

You'll want to spend some time in the newsgroups, and you'll find answers to virtually every question you might have. Some of the best technical support in the world is available on Linux newsgroups, where charitable souls scan postings for newbies in distress. The Experienced Linux User is, at the same time, teacher and historian and trailblazer. She helps new users come up to speed by offering assistance via newsgroups. She writes her techniques, discoveries, modifications in the Linux Documentation Project. She writes patches, utilities, applications, fixes for Linux and gives them away.

At the LXNY meeting, the people assembled were a perfect cross-section of the computer industry. There were multi-national corporations and small businesses, sys admins, and home users. The president of LXNY, a man with long grey hair and a beard to match, whose clothes were dirty, coming unstitched, and didn't fit, paced in front of the group like a junkie needing a fix. He ranted about the battle for the desktops of America, and the insidious methods of the Enemy. He slurped when he breathed in, and told us that our grassroots band would roll forth to overtake the world, etc., etc. (standard raving lunatic rantings). He was everything you'd expect a Linux user to be. Heck, he even smelled bad.

But, for the most part, the room held a very different sort of person from the I'm-crazy-for-Linux type. The average Linux user is intelligent, brave, and employed. He does what he can for Linux because he knows it's better than what his boss makes him use, and hopes that somehow his efforts to strengthen the Linux community will give him the strength to recommend it to his boss without getting fired (no one was ever fired for buying Microsoft). And, mostly, he does it for the same reason Linus wrote Linux in the first place: it's a heckuva lot of fun.

What's holding you up? Are you afraid of a learning curve? Scared of someone recognizing your superior cognitive abilities and intellect? Nervous about the potential increase of mental activity? Paranoid that the Redmond Secret Police will revoke your computing license? Just chicken? Chances are, someone you know already uses Linux, a website you visit often is running Linux, and your current hardware can support Linux (in addition to that crummy OS you're running now). It's new territory; it's communal activity, it's free.

Vive la resistance.

Jeff Windsor designs commercial software for Linux. Though he doesn't smell bad, he has been known to rant on occasion. If you've got an idea for our Linux column, email him at windsor@osnews.com.

See also:

Yahoo: Linux
Linux Organization
Linux International
Linux Documentation Project
Linux Source Navigator
Wired -- The Best OS That (N)ever Was
linux general faq
Linux Gazette
Press release for Corel's new network computer, which uses Linux

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