The whispers of a growing number of Linux desktop platforms have reached many an IT managers ear, and as the community continues to grow and blossom it will become a point of hot contention as companies seek to justify switching to Linux. As a recent article at LinuxWorld (Gael Duval, 2003, Subheading 3, Paragraph 1) points out “More and more companies are migrating parts or all of their infrastructure to Linux. They need a system that is more efficient, more flexible, more open, more robust, and more customizable. In these challenging economic times, businesses also need to reduce their total cost of ownership. Linux is certainly the best solution for all of the reasons stated above, and more.” However as with anything new to your IT infrastructure there are many factors to consider before migrating to Linux.
Opening up to Linux and Open Source
So what makes Linux different from every other operating system? The answer is that it essentially is 100% free. Richard Stallman an AI worker for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was offended by the idea that companies could prevent people from freely distributing software and source code, founded this concept of free software. Stallman is famous for his quote “Software is information” and “All information should be free!”. From Stallman evolved the General Public License (GPL), which permits software to be freely distributable, and its source code freely accessible. What this means for IT managers everywhere, is that they can download a completely free fully licensed operating system and distribute it amongst as many computers as they wish. The implications of this license are profound when you factor that a single licensed copy of Windows 2000 Professional can cost anywhere from $170 and up. So the savings even for a small business with 10 computers is easily over $2000.
Many companies have invested in creating their own Linux operating system, which are described as Linux distributions. Although there are many smaller companies and individuals that provide distributions, the main distributions are Redhat, Mandrake, and SuSE. Each of these three vendors provide free downloadable copies of their latest operating systems and purchasable packages for businesses or individuals who wish to acquire technical support or a larger more robust system administration feature set.
Every distribution also comes with a hefty amount of bundled software that you would never find in a Microsoft based operating system. Openoffice.org has recently produced an excellent office program that is freely available, and features a full-blown Microsoft Office compatible word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing suite as well as database access and MYSQL support. Ximian Evolution features basically everything that Microsoft Outlook features, and at no cost. Project management and programming software is also available freely with every distribution. Another great addition is GIMP, which is a graphical manipulation program similar to Adobe Photoshop and offers professional grade graphical editing capabilities. For companies into digital movie editing/production, MainActor and Jahshaka provide professional grade multimedia editing capabilities, and are quite easy to learn. All of these pieces of software combined with many more make Linux a popular choice for anyone looking to decrease their bottom line. Though some of these programs are not quite as intuitive as their windows counterparts they are certainly still more than adequate.
Perhaps one of the biggest areas Linux has powered into is the server environment. Imagine the ability to have your own Web server, DNS server, SQL server, or your own file and print server readily available at your fingertips. For a fully featured server in the windows environment with the same services an IT manager would be looking at spending somewhere between $1000-$2000 depending on which version of Microsoft Server you decide to purchase. Configuring these servers although not trivially simple is no more difficult than configuring them in Windows. In fact in my own experience, configuring Apache in Linux was much faster than trying to get Tomcat to work in a Windows 2000 Server environment. Some distributions such as Redhat provide simple tools to aid the user in configuring these services, thus greatly easing the pain of manually editing certain files.
Arguably the largest benefit of running a Linux system is security. Although there are tens of thousands of viruses for Windows with new ones produced every day, there is only a couple hundred viruses for Linux most of which are not nearly as severe as their Windows counterparts and are produced on a much more infrequent basis. Customized security programs such as Bastille can lock down your system into a very secure state within a couple of minutes, and provide much better security than the default servers built into newer version of Windows. Even though viruses on the Linux platform are very rare, for peace of mind there a number of organizations that continue offer free virus scanning software.