A free operating system supported by volunteers around the world poses the first real threat to Windows.

A long time ago, in a country far, far away, a shepherd boy named David smote a giant to the ground with a stone, and made Biblical history in the process. Years later, we find history repeating itself in that hotbed of technology we insiders like to call SillyCon Valley - except that, this time, the stone-thrower is Linux, a free operating system [OS] for computers, the goliath in queston is Micro$oft, arguably the world's most powerful software development company, and the battlegound is, as always, the hearts and minds of the digital community at large!

Linux [pronounced lih-nucks] has been responsible for quite a few dead trees in the past couple of months. Eminent publications like PC World, PC Computing and Wired! have written thick treatises simultaneously praising Linux's features, stability, reliability and open-source-code model, and at the same time confidently predicting the demise of Bill Gates' Redmond empire. So this week, we thought we'd take a look at just why Linux is so hot, together with some of the best Web sites for Linux news, information and software...and we won't even have to decimate the rain forest to do it!

Let's begin at the beginning, with the story of how Linux was introduced to an unsuspecting world. If you haven't heard it, sit back and relax - if you have, it certainly bears repetition!

In the early days of August 1991, a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland posted a message to the comp.os.minix newsgroup with the words:

Hello everyone 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.

That student was Linus Torvalds [our erstwhile David] and the hobby he refers to ultimately became what we today call Linux - easily the most impressive achievement of free software development to date!

From that modest beginning in 1991, Linux has grown into a complete UNIX-like operating system, capable of turning that decrepit 386 with 2 MB of RAM into a fully-fledged networked workstation. Corporate houses are using Linux to manage inventories and records, hospitals are using it to maintain medical records, universities are using it to network their academic departments together, hackers are using it to learn more about the guts of an operating system, and home users and network administrators are eyeing it closely as an alternative to the ubiquitous Windows platform. And while Linux was originally written as a small, fast and inexpensive alternative to the expensive UNIX system, today it has an installed base of close to 5 million users...quite impressive for something that began life as a ‘hobby'!

Geeks like Linux because it is what they snottily refer to as a full multi-tasking, multi-user operating system. Since we try to stay as far away from geekdom as we can, we'll tell you that all that means is that multiple users can use the system at the same time, and run multiple programs simultaneously.

Network administrators like Linux because of its built-in networking support. Don't forget, Linux is primarily a network OS, designed to connect computers together in strange and wonderful ways. It boasts full support for the TCP/IP set of protocols, the standard used to network computers over the Internet. And even if you don't plan to get on the Internet [why ever not?], you can use it cobble a home, office or university network together without too much trouble. And you can even use it to wire an entire network up to the Internet using a single Internet account ! [just BTW, TCP/IP stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol - try saying that with your mouth full ;) ]

Windows diehards like Linux because, in addition to it's own [extremely stable] ext2fs filesystem, it also allows you to access DOS and Windows files, and read data from CD-ROMs, floppy disks, Zip drives and other devices not even invented yet ;) And Linux also comes with something called the X-Windows System - essentially a graphical interface to the operating system, similar to Windows and using many of the same familiar menus and buttons.

The eternally-searching-for-Mr.-or-Miss.-Right-breed like Linux because it is extremely compatible with all existing standards...and although it can sometimes reduce you to tears, it'll never give up on you ;)

Misers like Linux because it's free - everything you need to get started with Linux, from the operating system to the software applications to the documentation and technical support, is freely available off the Internet. And Linux is also freely distributable - you can give it away to anyone you like without worrying about the copyright issues involved, or even sell it at a profit ! [if you're not impressed yet, this should do the trick ;)]. We'll talk about this unique licensing policy a little further down the line.

Programmers and hackers like Linux because source code for every aspect of the operating system is publicly available, free of charge. If you have the inclination, the time and the expertise, you can tweak the OS to suit your specific requirements, or even write your own software. As a matter of fact, programmers from all over the world have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the development of the Linux kernel [the kernel is the core of the operating system] and the applications that run on it - one of the reasons for Linux's reputation as a hacker's OS ;). And Linux also provides a complete programming environment, with tools, compilers and debuggers for programming languages like C, C++, FORTRAN, Pascal and Perl.

The terminally helpless like Linux because there are an immense number of Web sites, USENET newsgroups and mailing-lists [staffed by Linux wizards, might we add] devoted to solving Linux problems. And there is also a large amount of documentation available...this is one operating system where you definitely need to RTFM ;)

And the terminally bored like Linux because of the tremendous number of software applications available for the platform. Virtually every possible type of application has been ported to the Linux platform - you have text editors [vi and emacs], command shells [bash and ksh], email clients [pine and mutt], Web browsers, image editors, screen savers, CD players and much more...not to mention tons of online documentation. And since source code is available for each and every application, you can customize each application to your specific needs!

One of the more interesting things about Linux [not to mention an important reason for the success it currently enjoys] is its peculiar licensing policy, called ‘copyleft'. Under the copyleft licensing mechanism [also called the GPL or General Public License], users are free to do whatever they wish with the software, including redistributing it, reselling it, changing it or copying it. However, this freedom must be passed down the line - so even if you sell a copylefted program, there is nothing to prevent the person you sell it to from modifying it, reselling it or giving it away free to a million people...just as Linus did in 1991. And another proviso of the license is that source code must accompany all copylefted software.

If you possess a few grains of imagination, it should not be hard for you to see why Micro$oft is so worried about Linux and the threat it poses to the Windows platform - particularly in the areas of price, technical support, multitasking capabilities, compatibility, licensing and the open-source-code model. Take a look at our handy feature comparison:

Feature | Windows NT | Windows 95 | Netware | Linux

Multi-processor support | Yes | No | Yes | Yes

Multi-tasking |Yes | Yes | Yes | Yes

Multi-user | No | No | Yes | Yes

Windows/DOS support | Yes | Yes | No | Yes

Licensing | Per user | Per user | Per user | Free

Server Cost | Yes | N/A | Yes | Free

Client Cost | Yes | N/A | Free | Free

Web server | Yes | No | Yes | Yes

FTP server | Yes | No | Yes | Yes

Mail server | No | No | Yes | Yes

TCP/IP | Yes | Yes | Yes | Yes

IPX/SPX | Yes | Yes | Yes | Yes

Now take a look at the Linux column...do you discern the beginnings of a pattern there? ;)

There are numerous pre-packaged versions or ‘distributions' of Linux available off the Internet - the one we use is called Red Hat Linux, available free of charge from the Red Hat Web site at http://www.redhat.com. Since the complete distribution is in excess of 500 MB, it's usually a better idea to buy the CD-ROM version, which is sold by Red Hat for about US $50.

The reason we like Red Hat Linux so much? Well, there are actually two reasons - one, we haven't had an opportunity to experiment with an alternative; and two, we like the straightforward installation process and the Red-Hat-specific RPM utility, which could teach Windows a few things about installing, uninstalling and upgrading software applications quickly and easily!

Much as we would love to, it's not possible for us to explore the depths of Linux in this newsletter. However, what we can do is direct you to some excellent Linux resources available on the Internet. Here goes:

http://www.linux.org

The pre-eminent site for Linux information, linux.org is your portal into the world of Linux. You'll find comprehensive information on Linux distributions, documentation, support, mailing-lists, current projects and book reviews...and that's just the tip of the iceberg ! Whatever you're looking for, you're sure to find it here!

http://metalab.unc.edu/LDP/

This is the homepage for the Linux Documentation Project, an online group of volunteers developing documentation for the Linux operating system. Their goal: to produce the most complete set of online and printed manuals covering topics such as installing, using and troubleshooting Linux.

http://www.gnu.org

The GNU project began in 1983 as a way of bringing back the cooperative spirit that prevailed in the computing community in earlier days, and to provide a reliable and free alternative to proprietary software and technologies. The Linux operating system uses a number of free utilities from the GNU project, and is distributed under the terms of the GNU General Public License [which is also available for your perusal on the Web site - you should read it because it has some interesting things to say!]

The marriage between GNU and Linux was a match made in heaven, as the following excerpt from the GNU Web page should prove: ‘Every computer user needs an operating system; if there is no free operating system, then you can't even get started using a computer without resorting to proprietary software. So the first item on the free software agenda is a free operating system.

An operating system is not just a kernel; it also includes compilers, editors, text formatters, mail software, and many other things. Thus, writing a whole operating system is a very large job. It took many years.

By the 1990s, we had either found or written all the major components except one--the kernel. Then Linux, a free kernel, was developed by Linus Torvalds. Combining Linux with the almost-complete GNU system resulted in a complete operating system: a Linux-based GNU system.'

http://www.redhat.com http://www.debian.org

The two most common Linux distributions around are Red Hat and Debian. Check out their sites for information on how to obtain your copy of Linux. And, while on the topic of Red Hat, their site also has links to other Linux resources on the Web, in addition to Linux mailing-lists, support forums and a press archive with some extremely interesting articles on how Linux is changing the face of computing. We strongly suggest you take a look...you won't be disappointed!

http://www.linuxapps.com http://www.freshmeat.net

There are a million software applications out there for Linux. These two sites simplify the job of finding the one you need. And along the way, you're sure to find something else you like - we know...it's happened to us :)

http://www.happypenguin.org

This one's for all the game freaks out there. Arcade games, strategy games, role-playing games...you'll find them all here. And for all you Quake fans, you can play Quake under Linux too; point your browser to http://www.linuxquake.com

http://www.slashdot.org

A site devoted to Linux news and views, SlashDot has quite a following in the exalted circles of Linux wizards. It's updated daily with the latest news from the Linux community.

http://www.apache.org

They say that 50% of all the Web servers in the world run on Apache, the free Web server that ships with every Linux distribution...and we think that should be enough of a reason to visit this site! And, IOHO, we think that it's simply amazing that a free Web server has the features, the stability and the wherewithal to snatch away market share [and a huge chunk of it too!] from Micro$oft's competing offerings.

http://www.sendmail.com

Sendmail sets the standard for all mail transfer agents - it's so common that we're sure that this newsletter has passed through a sendmail daemon somewhere on it's way to your mailbox. Sendmail provides mail routing services, mail forwarding, spam filtering and flexible configuration.

http://www.xfree86.org

The homepage for the X Windows system for Linux machines. The X Windows system allows you to access the power of Linux via a graphical mouse-driven interface similar to Windows. Like Windows, you have a desktop, menus and icons...but that's where the similarity ends. There are numerous 'window managers' for X Windows, which allow you to completely change the default desktop settings...you can turn your desktop into an alien landscape complete with sound effects, or an abstract painting with menus that spin out from nowhere and icons that change shape when you click them. If you liked the 'themes' in Micro$oft Plus!, you'll flip over X Windows!

http://www.vim.org

The home of one of the most impressive text editors ever built. VIM or Vi IMproved is an updated, feature-rich version of the 'vi' editor that comes standard on all UNIX systems. Imagine multiple windows, multiple levels of undo, visual highlighting of text blocks, advanced pattern recogition, command history, filename completion...the list goes on and on ! And it's even been ported to DOS and Windows 95. We've found that once you take the time to learn it, you'll never go back to NotePad ;)

http://lynx.browsers.org

Lynx is a text-only web browser that lives up to it's name - it's small, fast and gets the job done ! It's the standard browser on most UNIX systems, and we use it quite often in our daily travels across cyberspace!

And what of Linus, the man who started this quiet revolution ? Well, he's currently working as a software engineer at Transmeta Corp., a chip design company in Santa Clara, California. You can read a recent interview with him by ComputerWorld at http://www.computerworld.com/home/features.nsf/all/980817linus

And that's it for this week. There are many more Linux sites out there..and most of them are very, very good! If you come across any you think we would be interested in, send us some mail...we'd love to hear from you!

Till next time...stay healthy!

This article was first published on 15 Dec 1998.