Is Linux right for you?

From all the hype, you probably know that Linux is open-source software - which means that Linux users can download, test, use, alter and copy it as much as they want. Among its benefits, open-source software is supposedly more stable than proprietary, or closed-source, software. The reason is simple: peer review. When something goes wrong with open-source software, any programmer can go "under the bonnet", analyse what's wrong, and offer solutions for all users.

Windows users will find the willingness of the open-source community to respond to bug reports downright astonishing. For instance, when I found a bug in a third-party Linux ICQ client, I e-mailed the author about it, and - voilà! A new, corrected version appeared within 48 hours.

Like the Internet, Linux isn't controlled by a single company. Linus Torvalds created the "kernel" - the core of the alternative operating system - in 1991 while he was still a student at the University of Helsinki, and he chose to make it available to everyone. Developers are free to change the kernel source code for their own purposes, but all of the modifications they introduce must be made public, and many are submitted to Torvalds for incorporation in later versions of the kernel.

Torvalds himself works for a company that doesn't even produce a version (or distribution) of Linux for PCs. Instead, that job has fallen to such firms as Caldera, Corel, Debian, TurboLinux and RedHat. Each of these companies adds its own embellishments to the Linux kernel - a unique graphical user interface (GUI), various applications and applets, a customised setup program, system utilities that keep everything running smoothly, etc. As a result, distributions of Linux differ.

Although anyone can download the latest kernel for free, Linux distributors generally charge for their particular add-ons and technical support (see "Pick Your Flavour of Linux").

People who've adopted the OS - from staff members of corporate IT departments to end users - say Linux is a stable operating system that rarely crashes. That news surely gives pause to companies considering an upgrade to Windows 2000.

Frohwitter, an international patent attorney firm (based in the US), had considered upgrading its network operating system from Windows NT to Windows 2000 but opted for Linux instead.

"We wanted Linux for its stability and also to preclude the need to upgrade to Windows 2000," notes Ronald Chichester, a lawyer with the firm. "One of our staff attorneys ... discovered that Windows NT crashed up to three times per day. But now that we run NT on top of Linux, her computer has not crashed in weeks."

Like most businesses, Frohwitter depends on an array of Windows-based applications and didn't want to lose access to them. By using VMware's $US299 VMware for Linux ($US99 for individual, non-business users), the firm can get the stability of Linux while still using Windows apps. Corel will be adding similar functionality to its Corel Linux OS, thereby enabling users to access and display Windows applications running on networked servers. Although Linux currently enjoys a 25 per cent share of the server market, it commands only 4 per cent of desktop operating systems sold, according to figures provided to International Data Corporation.

Corel, which is probably best known for desktop PC apps such as CorelDRAW and WordPerfect Office, is banking on the anticipated Linux juggernaut. The company is reorganising itself and has merged with software giant Inprise/Borland in an attempt to become a Linux powerhouse. According to Derik Belair, director of strategic applications for Corel, Linux's stability and versatility are its central strengths. "Linux can power a handheld device or run a cluster of very powerful machines. And [because the architecture is open] we can make all these devices talk to each other," says Belair.

Other Linux developers share Belair's opinion. Bob Young, the chairman of Linux distributor RedHat, notes that the operating system is ideal for thin-clients (for example, PCs used exclusively to run a Web browser) and for Internet-connected appliances such as the RedHat Linux-based TiVo set-top box for television. Even Royal - a business machine maker since the half-forgotten days of the manual typewriter - is porting Linux to its line of low-cost DaVinci handheld personal organisers.

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Matthew Newton

PC World
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