by September 6, 2001 0 comments

you have heard about Linux. Anyone who has anything to do with computing, or is interested
in contemporary events would have. You would even know that Linux had its beginnings in
the efforts of a Finnish University student who goes by the name of Linus Thorvalds, and
that thousands of developers across the globe have contributed to its growth and
evolution. You would also know by now that Linux is free and that its source code is
available to anyone who wants it. And if you have been a regular reader of PC Quest,
you have had more than a fair chance to get your hands dirty with Linux. After all, this
is the fourth time we are bringing Linux to you on our CD-ROM.

So again, what’s Linux? Is it any different from other
operating systems? And more importantly, what is it about Linux that’s making it so
popular and making it grow so fast?

Many are apt to say, without thinking twice, that the increasing
acceptance of Linux is because it doesn’t cost you much. Sure! The fact that Linux is
free has made it easier to distribute–like we do every year. But that’s hardly
the prime reason for its success. Let’s take an example. There are a million free
mail newsletters out there. Do you subscribe to all of them just because they are free? A
good number of free newsletters, printed on high-quality paper in attractive colors would
be arriving on your desk every month. How many of them do you even bother to flip through?
Obviously, the cost has nothing to do much with the Linux momentum that we are witnessing

To understand Linux’s success, first we need to understand the
Linux model of operation, and how it has evolved.

First, there’s no single owner for Linux. Linux is the combined
effort of many a thousand programmers. But then so is Windows, and NetWare, and Mac OS and
Delphi, and VB, and any other software that you may care to add to the list. But
there’s one very significant difference. In the case of Linux, you have clear
ownership of what you have created, enhanced, or even corrected. There’s no umbrella
brand name that hides your contribution. And you don’t have to resort to Easter eggs
to tell the world that you exist as individuals hidden away by the brand. Your name is up
there, clearly visible for all to see. This acknowledgement–and even
idolization–of individual contribution has acted as a very powerful motivator for
programmers to contribute their very best to the Linux effort.

The second cornerstone of the Linux effort has been the peer review,
that not only the software but the source code itself is subjected to. It’s one thing
to put out betas for evaluation and feedback. It’s an altogether different ball game
to put the code itself out for evaluation and correction. Companies regularly put out
early versions of their binaries as betas for feedback (and of course, for the publicity).
The feedback, in this case, is at best limited to what problems were encountered.

In the case of Open Source software, the feedback doesn’t end
there. It goes beyond, to improve the code, as the reviewer has access to the original
code and can work on actually improving the software. The starkest example of this is
perhaps the Mozilla effort of Netscape. For those who don’t already know the story,
Netscape opened up the source code of Navigator in March last year. One of the objectives
of this opening up was to refine the layout engine (the part of the software that actually
renders in the browser the text and graphics that you see in a Web page) of Communicator
4, and then develop a new layout engine. The end result was not quite what Netscape had
expected. Halfway through, the “volunteer developers” had abandoned the revision
effort, and instead came up with Gecko, a smarter, compact layout engine. Shocking? Before
you pass harsh judgement, think of the advantages you get as the user–a better,
smarter, more compact product. Third comes documentation. Linux’s documentation—the
how-tos as they are called —is some of the most extensive hands-on guide that you can
get. It literally guides you through the full process—right from a simple install,
all the way to adding the most esoteric of peripherals and functions. And the
documentation comes in multiple languages. Again, documentation is more often than not
done by someone other than the programmer, and you can be assured that it’s well

Fourth, Linux is customizable like no other software. Not only that,
you can pick and choose what you want, and use just what you want. You want to run it off
a floppy with just network support? You can have that. There are many single floppy
distributions out there including the Linux Router Project that we brought to you in
January (page 80). Want to run a fully configured enterprise server with RAID and
high-bandwidth Internet gateway and firewalls? Take any good distribution of Linux,
including the one you have in the accompanying CD-ROM, and you can have it. Want a
supercomputer running Linux? BeauWolf will give you that too.

Fifth is support. One of the stated plus points of commercial
software is that there’s a structured support program that you can avail of. But
reality is often different. Those of you who have had occasion to ask for help would know
that often it’s not from the structured support programs, but from non-structured
ones like user groups and Internet news groups that you get more precise and faster help.

The informal channels of Linux support have now matured to such an
extent that last year the Infoworld magazine awarded the best support award to the
Linux user groups. For last one year or so, the Linux-India news group
<Linux-india@grandtedon.cs.uiuc. edu> and various city user groups like those in
Bangalore, Delhi, Cochin, Chennai, etc, have been instrumental in providing support to
many users in the country, both individual and corporate. The advantage of such a support
system is that your question goes out not to one or even twenty support technicians, but
to hundreds or even thousands of users. Chances that at least one of them has actually
encountered and overcome the situation, and is willing to share the solution with you are
extremely high.

Sixth, Linux doesn’t need the latest, fastest, hardware to run
on. Hardware that you brought last year or may be the year before, and are now in the
process of replacing can happily run Linux. Your ancient 386 and 486 can become routers on
your network. The Pentium 100 that you are about to junk could perhaps become your mail
server. At PC Quest we run our mail server on a P133 with Linux. So, especially if
you are on a tight budget—and who is not these days—you should be taking a look
at Linux, like a lot of corporations are doing.

And last but not the least, because it’s free, it gets into
schools and colleges, into the hands of a generation that’s eager to experiment. And
some of you, gentle readers, are possibly amongst those students of yesterday who already
have a few machines up with Linux, running critical functions for your organizations.

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