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Legitimizing Linux

Jon "maddog" Hall

"Mr. Hall, I have only one question...". It happened to be a question posed to me by the Director of the computer center of Sao Paulo University. He had just finished telling me about the way they used the Linux Operating System.

It seems that São Paulo, Brazil is the second largest city on the face of the earth, joined from several other cities. As a fast-growing megalopolis, the University had far-flung campuses, and on each one of these campuses existed some portion of the University's administrative staff. Each administrative staff used Windows 95, and from time to time, not only would Windows 95 crash, but it would refuse to reboot. This caused some member the systems administration staff to have to jump in a car, drive for an average of four hours (rush-hour traffic in New York City is a breeze compared to São Paulo), spend 10 minutes fixing the Windows problem, then drive for four hours to get back to the campus - a full eight-hour day to repair one problem. After much deliberation, the staff of the computer center formulated a policy of putting Linux on each and every Windows 95 computer, then giving the user a boot floppy with an emergency boot procedure on it. When the user of the computer called the center, they were told to insert the floppy and boot Linux. Then the administrator would ftp to the Linux system, transfer a whole new copy of Windows 95 into place, and reboot the machine.

I thought that this was rather a unique way of solving a problem, until I started talking with other systems administrators at other schools. "Oh, we have been doing much the same thing for a year or so," one sysadmin told me, "but we use it to re-install a new copy of Windows to our lab machines every night, to help keep down trojan horses." Other system administrators did it just to bring the machines back to a "known state", still others to deliver new text material for each day's laboratories. In most cases, Linux was on the machine in a dual-boot mode to help with courses on UNIX technologies, but the system administrators used it to help maintain the Windows environment too.

During the past year, Linux has "grown" to meet many needs. While still growing its market share as a server system for ISP-style activities, it has also formed projects to facilitate real-time, supercomputers, embedded systems, and ubiquitous computing. Major computer companies are now supporting Linux, and major application vendors (such as SAP and the database vendors) are now confident that Linux can supply their needs in various situations.

About four years ago, I was fairly despondent about UNIX. It seemed as if the major computer companies bringing out UNIX systems were giving away the playing field to Microsoft. Their theory was that they should cede the desktop to Microsoft, and they would use UNIX for the server systems. Then as Microsoft brought out Windows NT, the large companies said that they would use Microsoft for the desktop and low-end servers, and reserve UNIX for the high-end servers. At the same time, I saw universities move more and more toward having Microsoft products in their teaching labs and facilities. Students were coming out of college equating "Microsoft" with "computing". (I am also constantly amazed that Mr. Gates seems to have equated "Windows" with the term "PC" when he speaks to the press, despite the fact that many other operating systems run on Intel "PC" hardware, and that a lot of people even consider Apple computers to be "PCs"... someone should gently correct him.) If things did not change soon, I was going to start to pick up an NT book, as a lot of my contemporaries had.

Then along came Linux, and slowly the tide began to change. Students who were interested in how a real operating system worked discovered Linux. They began putting up their own Web servers, setting up their own mailing lists, and doing their own systems administration as they would on a larger, more powerful system. They started coming out of college with more knowledge of how to do systems administration and large-scale programming than even their predecessors of the Berkeley era. More importantly, UNIX was fun and exciting again, due to Linux.

Now some people feel that Linux is not ready for the "Enterprise Server" market. In fact, D.H. Brown (a New York-based analyst firm) recently finished a report that compared Linux to several commercial UNIX operating systems and Windows NT, and found Linux lacking in several high-end features needed for 24-hour/never-stop computing. I have no quarrels with the findings of their report. In fact, I look at the report as a shopping list of new Linux projects for the Linux community to tackle, a glove thrown as a challenge for the Linux community to pick up and run with. I also look at that report as a good positioning report for the Linux operating system as a server - that it can immediately move into the space that Windows NT was trying to penetrate. The difference between Linux and Windows NT is that Linux has much the same programming and systems administration interfaces as high-end UNIX systems, not completely different as Windows NT demonstrates. Linux recognizes other operating systems (through different file system mappings, compatibility features, emulations), and does not ignore them as certain other operating systems do. In short, I can believe the theory that Windows systems can exist on a desktop with Linux and commercial UNIX systems sharing the load of the server space. It makes sense. It "feels" right. Despite all the tools, interfaces, and Band-Aids that people have tried to put between Windows NT and UNIX to have them cooperate, I have never had the same feeling.

Now, before I have 15,000 Linux people write to me and question my integrity about leaving Microsoft on the desktop, that is not what I said. I have a great deal of confidence that Linux will reclaim a lot of the desktop also, as projects like GNOME and KDE continue to mature and become integrated into distributions and as additional applications are ported. But in the meantime, the greater seamlessness of Linux integration into the UNIX server marketplace makes a great deal of sense.

I still owed an answer to the Director of the university, however. His question was: "Is our use of Linux to fix, maintain, and administer Windows systems a legitimate use of Linux?"

I replied: "Mr. Director, any use of Linux is a legitimate use of Linux," I believed it then, and I still believe it today.

About the Author

Linux is a trademark of Linus Torvalds.

Jon "maddog" Hall is the Executive Director of Linux International. He can be reached at