by September 6, 2001 0 comments

Although Linux has been around for a while now and many
corporates have switched to Linux as their e-mail or Internet servers, some still
hesitate. There are several questions and myths that seem to hang around Linux and unless
these are answered, people will not consider it seriously. This FAQ is an attempt to
dispel some of the myths, and answer some of the more commonly asked questions.

Q. What is Linux?
A. Everyone seems to be talking about it all of a sudden, though it has
been there for several years. It’s a lot like what has been happening to the
Internet. For years the Internet has been around but few knew or bothered about it. And
then came a great interface, the World Wide Web, and suddenly things changed. The boom has
been so great that it has not been possible to keep up with it. Well a very similar thing
seems to be happening with Linux.

So, what is Linux? Basically, it is a Unix clone that
started off as an experiment and now has turned into a very reliable Network Operating
system.

Linux was considered very difficult to install and set up.
But things have changed drastically. Over the past few years, Linux has reached a point
where installation with more services that you can imagine is possible in less that 20
minutes.

There are many versions of Linux available. Some of them
are packaged as good as any commercial product and yet available free of cost. The
distribution with this issue is a very popular one called Red Hat Linux which is free for
download.

Q. How does it compare with
commercial stuff?

A. When one buys a software package commercially, the main issues one
looks at are price and support. On both counts Linux scores really well. Most versions are
available for free and the support is great. During the setup and testing at PCQ Labs we
ran into some hardware related problems and decided to check how well this support works.
A single question posted in the wee hours of the morning got five responses in almost no
time at all and a solution as well. What else can one ask for?

Q. Will I get sacked for
setting it up?

A. This will probably be the most difficult part of setting up Linux in
your organization. After all, the viewpoint that if it’s free it can’t be all
that good
is difficult to change. The most critical factor here being that Linux is
not really the product of any one company and that you can’t call back someone and
say it doesn’t work anymore. Well that too has changed, the commercial
versions actually build in a certain amount of free support, and apart from that the Net
and the new groups provide tremendous support. In fact, it actually has better support
than most commercial products I have come across. With almost five millions users now
using Linux, I don’t think you are making a wrong choice.

Q. Can it handle
mission-critical tasks?

A. In fact, the surprising thing seems to be that almost every single
Linux server installed on low-end PCs lands up being the most mission-critical system in
the entire organisation. Most organizations that we work with have actually decided to
invest in better hardware just to make sure that things continue to run smoothly.

Q. What all does it offer?
When installed out-of-the-box, Red Hat Linux can do almost everything you would want a
network server to do. At PCQ Labs, the server we installed had so many services running
that even we were amazed. It acted as a file and print server with support for all Windows
clients. It even pretended to be an NT domain for them. An Internet gateway and server
complete with firewall, dial-on-demand, proxy server and more. An Intranet server with an
excellent Web server product, Apache. A comprehensive e-mail server since POP3,
SMTP, and IMAP4 are all part of the standard installation, with lots of additional tools
for various kinds of e-mail related tasks including listservs, majordomo, and mail
management programs. With few minor additions it could be turned into a complete
nameserver, a DHCP server, a SQL server, and so on. Q. What is the Total Cost of
Ownership?

A. One of the major concerns of management is the much-bandied
Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). In this area Linux turns out to be a great choice. From
some of the figures about the TCO of a Win NT system, estimates are that it actually costs
about US $4000 for an enterprise edition (more than 25 users). Once you add all the
components, such as
e-mail, Web server, and so on, it can be even higher. In comparison Red Hat Linux will
cost as less as
US $50.

Q. Who all use it?
A. There seems to be this major misconception that Linux is used only by
the geeks and hackers and not for mission-critical stuff and definitely not
by large corporations. Well, hold your breath, Linux has gained so much popularity in the
past two years that there are actually few corporations left that are not using it. For
starters, companies like Mercedes Benz AG, Sony Worldwide Networks, Cisco Systems Inc,
Byte Magazine (McGraw Hill), several ISPs, and many more use Linux. For a quick check on
who all are using Linux try the  website.

Q. What does it cost to buy and
maintain?

A. Whenever one buys a network operating system there are two major costs
to consider: first the cost of the package itself and then the cost of maintaining it.
Most of the time people tend to forget the second part. But in both the cases, Linux turns
out to be a very cost-effective solution. In fact, in many cases it’s so cheap that
people don’t take it seriously enough. Since Linux is inherently a multi-user
Unix-based system, it does not have the concept of number of users. You can have as many
users as you want. This brings the cost down compared to a lot of other operating systems
where a per seat/user charge is levied.

Q. What support is available?
A. With over four million users, Linux has a great support structure. If
you buy commercial versions of Linux, you are entitled to the vendor’s support. If
that’s not enough, then the support you get from the various websites and news groups
is tremendous. We found that the support was actually better than most other commercial
software. Apart from all the support groups the documentation for Linux is really vast.
Every Linux distribution comes with huge amount of documentation on CD-ROM, normally
available in two or three different formats: HTML for quick and easy viewing, and
PostScript for easy printing.

Q. Is installing and
configuring Linux really a nightmare?

A. Most Linux distributions have really neat installation programs. In
fact, at PCQ Labs when we were installing Linux (which we did several times), we managed
to get a basic installation up and running in 20 minutes. The process was completely menu
driven, and all one had to do was answer a few questions and the rest of the process was
taken care of. When it comes to configuring the system, the biggest difference is that
most other non-Unix operating systems do not even allow themselves to be reconfigured. You
only have some user-controlled options. In Linux one can reconfigure and recompile the
kernel to do precisely what you want it to do. A very good example recently came up with the US Postal
Service: they deployed over 900 systems throughout the US to automatically recognize the
destination addresses on each mail item. In order to do this some customisation was
required. The basic kernel was recompiled with only the essentials, and then a special
device driver for the scanner was compiled into it as well. According to John Taves, the
person who conceived and executed this project for USPS:

"Linux was an excellent solution for this. To make the
OS and OCR software run in 32M with no swap, the kernel was recompiled to only the
essentials, which wouldn’t be possible with brand M. Because Linux is free, I didn’t
have to worry about the brand M licence fees either. The device driver for the custom card
was relatively painless to develop, and I must say Linux product support was far
superior to anything else. When I had trouble allocating large amounts of real memory in
the kernel, I just e-mailed a question and got a response quickly."

Q. Do I get enough
everyday-software after installing Linux?

A. Well, after installing most operating systems you don’t get
enough software to do all your everyday tasks. But to assume that you get less with Linux
is quite wrong. Linux has a lot of functional software. If you intend to use it as a
server, then in most cases nothing extra needs to be added, but if you intend to use it as
a desktop, then an office suite is what you would require. And believe me, there are some
great ones available for Linux-Applixware and Star Office being prime examples.

Q. Is Linux multitasking
capability as good as Windows/Mac?

A. Definitely, yes. The reason being that only Win NT does preemptive
multitasking. Win 3.1, Win 95 and Mac OS do only cooperative multitasking. So when you
compare that with Linux which also does preemptive multitasking then Linux turns out to be
far better. In fact, better than Win NT. Cooperative multitasking is more like task
switching rather than full multitasking. A good test of this is to format a floppy while
doing something else. Most operating systems give a lot of trouble with something as easy
as that. Linux will handle that really well.

Q. How often does Linux crash?
A. Well, given proper hardware, the system will almost never crash.
Often, Linux is installed and tucked away in a corner, even without a keyboard and
monitor, and the system just keeps running. No reboots, no general protection faults.
A very stable and reliable system.

Q. Is it easy to integrate
Linux into an existing network setup?

A. That’s something Linux can handle really well. It has support for
all the popular protocols. And can even emulate an NT, Netware, and Appletalk server.
TCP/IP is native to Linux, so setting it up to access the Internet is a really simple and
quick task. In many cases, the only way to integrate a mixed environment would be to use
the Linux box as a common server.

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