Web Informant #133, 9 December 1998:
Learning to love Linux


Quote of the week: [Linux] is like a good, old pickup truck. It's not pretty, nor does it have the latest bells and whistles, but it starts and runs when you need to haul some firewood.
-- Letter to the editor, PC Week this week.

The announcement this week that Sun will deliver its computers running both Solaris and Linux caps an extraordinary year for Linux. To my knowledge, it is the first time that Sun will sell anyone else's operating system:

It is almost like IBM selling its servers with NT installed, or supporting Apache, or delivering their own software as open source. Wait a minute. IBM is selling NT, supporting Apache, and delivering open Java code. Well, that just goes to show you how the landscape has changed this past year.

Linux has become everyone's darling because of what it isn't. It isn't created by the folks in Redmond, it isn't prone to periodic crashes, and it doesn't cost a lot or require you to add more memory or computing resources when it comes time to upgrade to a newer version. But being the anti-Windows isn't enough to win the hearts and keyboards of users everywhere: witness what happened to OS/2 and NetWare.

OS/2 had lots going for it as a developer's operating system. It had stability, as IBM tried in vain to make clear. It had depth. It had some impressive number of people in various IBM labs all over the world coding applications. It came with its own IP software that was pretty good at the time. And OS/2 even had the early ear of Lotus (before IBM bought them) and some other leading edge companies, including Microsoft (prior to the divorce which created NT).

NetWare also had a lot going for it back in the early 80s. It once was considered the place to develop database and network-aware applications. Every network had a NetWare server at its core, and no one made a faster file and printer server. The company bought one of the better TCP/IP vendors and produced some quality IP products back then. But NLMs were too hard to create and Novell didn't make things easier by charging lots for its tools. When NetWare 4 came out, tools to help people integrate their applications into NDS were buggy, incomplete, and expensive.

NetWare and OS/2 declined because they failed to deliver the goods, and because they both failed to incorporate and embrace the web. IBM never had a solid web server that was feature competitive on OS/2, and while there were others who created OS/2 web servers, they haven't been popular. Novell misfired on the web server side as well: their web server software was half-hearted, despite their solid grounding in IP protocols.

Linux, on the other hand, plays off the web and comes with one of the strongest web servers around from Apache. Apache in some form or another is running on about half the public web sites on the Internet, and continues to grow despite some heavy Redmond competition. And both Linux and Apache have gained momentum from being truly open software products.

I think open systems is a good idea, and I am glad to see that its time has finally come. I still have an article written by Mike Azzara, who ran the publication Open Systems Today for CMP. Four years ago, Mike wrote that open systems have specifications freely (or nearly) published, with multiple vendors developing and supporting multiple implementations, along with testing to ensure that products meet the specifications and interoperate with each other.

The idea of open systems is never having to say you were sorry you chose the wrong technology: if you have to replace something, you can do so with a minimum of pain and suffering by going to another vendor. Linux and Apache fill this bill admirably.

But enough theory. How does Linux work in practice? Bringing up a copy of Caldera's Linux was an eye-opening experience in many ways. First off, I should tell you up front that I am not a Unix-compatible kind of guy. It took some effort to get it running, including a phone call to Caldera technical support and typing in some commands that I have since forgotten. But I now have a server that runs web, ftp, email and the Samba Windows networking utilities. It doesn't take long to install, and indeed is easier to get onto a new machine than NT or even Windows 98. Once you get it set up to your liking, the system will run like a top, and keep running forever. Like an old pickup truck. That's the good news.

There is more good news: all those web applications that run with perl scripts and other utilities will work just fine with Linux. That is the strength of this operating system. Unlike the dearth of OS/2 and NetWare-native applications, Linux is coming into the party with a large installed base of web-aware programs. I could move my web site (which presently runs on IIS) to Linux with a reasonable effort. It wouldn't be effortless, and I would have some work to do. But that is the beauty of open systems.

The bad news is Linux is still Unix. There are command lines to type. Configuration files to edit and tweak. And odd bits and pieces to adjust. If you like tinkering, you'll like Unix. I needed some help from friends, and Fred Butzen's "The Linux Network" book was also invaluable, although it is geared towards Slackware Linux, a slightly different beast than Caldera's Linux. (Some of the files are in different places, for example.)

Getting Samba to work completely wasn't easy, and I also had to mess around with the chmod command along with others.

Personally, I like spending my time with applications, not making maintaining my operating system into another part- time hobby. Of course, I also don't like spending time watching the RAM counter and boot process of my PC, as yet another Windoze application crashes. My friends who run both NT and Unix machines don't even remember the last time they had to reboot Unix, even down to the approximate year. I can tell you the last time I rebooted Windows: yesterday, when something went wrong between Word and Navigator.

So would I use Linux/Apache as my production web server? Not the Caldera stuff. Since I am not too Unix-compatible, I would go with a more pre-packaged server such as the Qube from Cobalt Networks. Operating system, web server, and other servers are already installed and tweaked to run properly and securely so that a dolt like me can deal with them.

What about the fear of not having anyone to call for support? Well, the folks at Caldera were nice enough to help me, even though I should have purchased a support contract. But this isn't any different from paying for support at Microsoft, Lotus or IBM, and indeed my call was answered within a minute of being on hold.

Linux isn't going the way of OS/2. Sun's support is just the beginning of other announcements, and Linux will continue to thrive because it a solid web platform. If you don't know Unix, this isn't the place to start learning. But if you have some Unix expertise on staff, then I recommend you take a look at building your intranet and Internet applications on Linux.

David Strom
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