The Linux Phenomenon
By Tom Yager
Linux is an amazing work: a robust operating system designed and written by far-flung groups of engineers, working for free. Recent attempts at commercialization notwithstanding, Linux is clearly the best 32-bit OS you can get for $25. Somewhat oddly, it seems to be attracting more development than commercial PC Unix systems, at least among those developers who contribute their wares to the public. And Netscape, that mother of all Web browsers, eschews all other PC Unix versions to run on Linux.
How good is Linux (and its counterparts FreeBSD and NetBSD)? Good enough, some think, to deserve use in critical applications. For example, Internet provider FastLane Communications operates on PCs running NetBSD. Like FreeBSD, NetBSD has its roots in code developed at U.C. Berkeley -- code that is commonly used in commercial Unix releases, including System V Release 4. Linux borrows its networking innards from BSD, so in that regard, at least, it earns the right to be taken seriously.
For the Unix faithful, Linux and its BSD cousins have relit the flame that commercial software giants nearly extinguished. While purveyors of pricier Unixes for Intel-based PCs have failed to deliver a binary application standard, Linux has become a standard of its own. Big-name applications (except for Netscape) are lacking, but the Internet offers an abundant selection of tantalizing free applications. You may be frustrated by the lack of precompiled public applications for UnixWare or Solaris. Linux users suffer no such frustration. Indeed, most typical Linux distributions include four CD-ROMs packed full of software. And let's not forget the always-standard complete source code, which is at least educational and, for some, a glorious road to self-sufficiency.
Defenders of Linux and FreeBSD/NetBSD reserve their most potent venom for those who suggest a noncommercial OS shouldn't be trusted for critical applications. Linux users in particular seem united in the belief that all commercial OSes are junk. Linux, they say, has gotten a raw deal in the Microsoft-cowed press. That's certainly true, but only to a limited extent. Linux and its BSD cousins still have some very rough edges. Getting the software installed isn't hard now that interactive install scripts are standard. Getting past that point, however, often calls for a hobbyist's devotion and love for long hours. Nearly all the Linux faithful are people who, if they couldn't rewrite the kernel in their sleep, could at least tell you where every key configuration file is squirreled away. That kind of skill takes time to acquire, and for Linux and FreeBSD and NetBSD, it is the minimum price of admission.
Perhaps that's as it should be. As one Linux aficionado put it, "If you don't understand how it works, and how to fix it when it's broken, you have no business using a computer."
Tom Yager used to be a BYTE technical editor covering Unix and multimedia. Now he's a freelance writer and consultant who runs his own research lab in North Texas. You can E-mail him at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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