Next year we celebrate 20 years of Linux. For servers, scientific calculations, and some other specialised areas, Linux was the
big new thing, the
magic bullet to solve all computer related problems but on the world's most common computer, the desktop, Linux remained the
next big new thing. Now Linux is running neck and neck against Windows, with Linux winning in some countries. The last three years of progress really made a difference.
I am throwing out a log book for test configurations of Linux and other operating systems back in 2007. back then I tried all the popular distributions of Linux and none was suitable for anything other than simple hardware configurations.
2007. Small desktop workstation. Ubuntu 7.10 is out. I tried creating a simple workstation with some of the disks joined in a RAID array. There was no user friendly option to install RAID. I followed some complicated Unix style command line instructions and the software failed. Linux and Unix users laugh at people who use DOS then they tell you to use primitive DOS style command line instructions to make simple changes to a Linux installation. Bah! Back in 2007 Linux was ready for only the simplest desktop configurations and only of the hardware was a year or more old.
I tried CentOS and it worked for a desktop machine with one disk. Configuring a desktop workstation for multiple disks was a real pain.
One page notes that one commonly used distribution of Linux required 24 installations to create a working system. Each attempt was required to experiment with a poorly documented or undocumented option until a working combination was found. The testing used 12 hours per day for two days. The next step for that computer was to install Samba and Samba could not be made to through the existing installation steps or any of the administration facilities. After two days on Linux and another two on Samba, all the work was thrown away and the project switched to another Linux distribution. The other distributions were easier to installed but could not make Samba work.
SE Linux is a security extension to Linux to compete against the NT/NTFS based security in Windows and other operating systems with ACL style security. Back in 2007 I made several attempts to use SE Linux with several Linux distributions and in every case, the SE option made the installation process fail for Linux or one of the required applications.
Today Linux distributions are close to up to date with hardware with half of the hardware suppliers now creating Linux drivers for release with new devices. Easy RAID installation is still missing but is a far easier and can be accomplished without the DOS/Unix command line.
A quick history
1991. Linux Torvolds writes Linux as an alternative to Minux. There were lots of little operating systems around at the time. The DOS alternatives were drying up because DOS was fading away to Windows. I threw out the last of my operating systems because it was easier to add their special features to other operating systems than to maintain my own. At that stage Linux was not the module system of today and extending other operating systems was more productive.
1998. Mandriva, then known as Mandrake, started producing a really well documented user friendly distribution of Linux. User friendly only in comparison to existing Linux distributions. Many years would pass before Mandriva developed from
friendlier to friendly.
2004. Ubuntu arrives. Ubuntu is the easiest Linux distribution and half of the world's Linux users use Ubuntu. Ubuntu effectively doubled the world market for Linux.
2008. OpenOffice 3 arrived and helped a lot of people switch to Linux.
Linux is unique
One of the common lines from Linux lovers is
Linux is unique. When you ask what is unique, they mention their favourite features. Every one of those features is available in other operating systems. What makes Linux unique is only the combination of all the features, not any one feature.
Linux is modular. You can choose difference file systems, different user interfaces, and a whole lot of other things. Linux is really only the little layer in the middle. The same file systems are available for Unix. The user interfaces and other features are either available for other operating systems or have a close equivalent in other operating systems, often sharing underlying code.
Collectively the other operating systems have as much development work invested as Linux but that other development work is fragmented over a lot of projects and most of the other operating system projects are dead ends slowly being replaced by Linux. IBM decided to back Linux because Linux is the way of the future and IBM can make money by supplying services.
The one thing keeping some other operating systems alive is their use of the BSD licence instead of the GPL used by Linux. A BSD style licence lets big commercial companies stick their own brand on top and pretend the operating system is theirs so they can charge you money. Many years after IBM adopted Linux, Apple woke up to open source and decided to use a BSD licensed operating system so Apple could charge loyal Mac users for the free operating system.
Microsoft Office was one of the big roadblocks to switching from Windows to Linux. About three years ago, OpenOffice became a practical alternative for people working in a mixed environment. You could switch your company to OpenOffice earlier if you did not have to swap files with suppliers and customers. Now most of your suppliers and customers have some people using OpenOffice. Those organisations make their Microsoft Office users work with compatible releases. Compatibility issues are almost non existent.
This is an application level decision, not an operating system decision. Linux lacks nothing needed for an application of that size. Years ago you would also have problems making printers work in Linux and that problem is evaporating. Many years you would have had problems with some of the large displays used for presentations and that problem went away. The small residual problems with displays are mostly related to high intensity games.
Microsoft Publisher and Project
Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Project are two applications that are still hard to replace on Linux. Organisations switch from Publisher to Scribus and equivalents to prepare for a switch to Linux. The problem is not really the applications, the problem is the proprietary file formats they use. When proprietary software uses complicated proprietary file formats, the open source alternatives may take years to develop ways to read your existing files.
Again this is not an operating system problem because you can access the files on Linux. Some Linux file systems can handle all the variations of file types, file structures, file names, and every option except ACL style security. Linux now has an extended security system that should be equivalent to ACL style security and Linux trails behind only in the area of user interface applications to manage the security.
Linux for backup
Linux has a long history of use for file storage and should be useful to create a small backup server for your office. Back in 2007 I tried unsuccessfully to create a backup file storage computer using desktop oriented distributions of Linux. Server oriented distributions created horrible primitive systems without a decent user interface for the management of the files. Desktop distributions created the user interface and failed to easily create the connections from the storage server to the rest of the computers. Desktop distributions also failed to create useful disk configurations for more than one disk.
2007 was the year when I removed 80 GB disks and replaced them with larger disks because the 80 GB disks were reaching end of reliable life. Affordable new disks were in the 200 - 300 GB range. You could easily have a million files on a backup system. Who would want to manage a collection like that with a command line? Not me.
You could backup an 80 GB disk to a bluray disk but not a 300 GB disk. By the time you remove temporary files and other space wasters from an 80 GB disk, the result fits into the 50 GB of a dual layer bluray disk. Your 300 GB disk requires several bluray disks for a backup, a big expense back then, and 300 GB disks were so cheap, backing up to another disk was cheaper than using bluray disks. Linux network attached storage devices were attractive but not practical without a resident Linux specialist.
Real time audio and video
Linux has internal delays that make real time audio and video processing a problem. The delays are now removed by special add on code that will eventually be moved into the base Linux code. Today you can use special editions for real time audio and video editing. Ubuntu has the Ubuntu studio edition.
2007 included some attempts to use Linux on handheld devices. 2010 included the big release of Google Android Linux version 2.1, the first really successful Linux for handheld devices. All the major mobile telephone brands, except Apple and RIM, are switching to Android for their smartphones.
A really useful version of Linux exists for every type of computer and the only limitation for your use on existing computers is the ease of installation. RAID configuration and some hardware drivers are problems. If your hardware is at least six months old, you use only one disk, and do not want to play expensive games, you can now use Linux.