The Linux RevolutionBy Rebecca Eisenberg
August 4, 1998People want to believe they get what they pay for. Be it a new car or a television set, a leather jacket or a toaster oven, spending more money is supposed to get you a better product.
In the world of software, though, this equation does not always hold. The Linux operating system may prove that, sometimes, the best things in life are free.
Linux is an operating system that runs on Intel-based (and other) computers and that works a lot like proprietary versions of UNIX operating systems and Windows NT. It was invented about eight years ago by Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki.
Dissatisfied with his choice of operating systems, Torvalds wrote one that he liked. After he had made the source code publicly available on the Internet, a community of developers arose that has built on, improved and expanded his work.
As Linux was slowly ported to more and more computer environments — from Intel machines to Sun Sparc and DEC Alpha workstations, and even to Macintoshes and Palm Pilots — its popularity grew. And as its market share continued to rise, so did its quality.
Currently, an estimated 7 million users run Linux on machines. It also is installed in commercial environments ranging from HotWired to Wells Fargo to the U.S. Postal Service.
In fact, it runs on so many corporate systems that there may be hundreds of Fortune 1,000 execs who don't even know it's running their companies.
Linux is 'what works best'"Many management types distrust Linux because it is free," explained one systems administrator who preferred not to name his employer. "But they put me in charge of running their servers, and I am going to use what works best. What works best is Linux."
"The irony," continued the administrator, "is that they also did not give me enough money to purchase proprietary server software. So it is a big secret that we are using something they like to think of as untrustworthy — free software."
What makes Linux so attractive to the computer professionals who choose it?
"Linux is powerful, easy to install and free," said Jim Ausman, 33, a systems administrator and network engineer for almost a decade in San Francisco. He has run Linux on computers for clients and employers, including the University of California and Wired Ventures.
"Linux also lacks the bugs and glaring security flaws of Microsoft bloatware like NT," Ausman continued. "And it is compatible with a large amount of Intel hardware as well as a large number of chips, drives and network cards. I have run almost every OS in the book, and Linux met my needs the best. It worked."
Linux works for so many people largely because so many people work on making it better. "It all comes back to the idea that the Linux source code (the internal instructions that make up the software) is publicly accessible," said Larry Augustin, founder and president of VA Research Inc. in Mountain View, the largest and oldest provider of pre-installed Linux workstations.
"The fact that the source code is free and available may not have a direct impact on the ordinary user, who is not going to toy with the code to improve it to suit their needs," Augustin said. "But where it does make a difference is that it increases the number of people working on the software at any one time. While Microsoft Corp. may have a thousand developers working on Windows 98, Linux has 10 times that number working on the code as a result of the fact that the source is freely available."
Constant upgradesHow often do new versions of Linux — including patches, upgrades, drivers and fixes — become available?
"If you look at what goes on at Red Hat Software (a developer and distributor of Linux products, including more user-friendly installation applications and desktop environment applications), five or six new releases will become available on any average given day," Augustin said. "The result is a tremendous evolutionary pace that has never been seen before in the software world.
"If Linux does not do what a company wants it to do," Augustin said, "all that business needs to do is hire programmers to improve it — which is possible only when the source is free."
This makes Linux the OS of choice for millions of business users who trust it with their company systems far more than they would the one-size-fits-all, imperfect, expensive proprietary software offered by companies like Microsoft.
"If someone wants to add a feature, they can," Augustin said. "With Linux, you are not limited to the interests or features of the software vendor. If you have a particular problem, you have a way to have the problem solved."
That is also why, even though the source code is free, a booming industry is developing around the distribution and support of Linux systems.
Numerous companies, such as Caldera and S.u.S.E. (www.suse.com), bring in respectable revenue solely from providing technical support packages for corporate Linux users.
Even competing software vendors — such as Digital Equipment Corp., which sells a version of UNIX to run on its Alpha chip-based computers, and Sun Microsystems Inc., which sells Solaris UNIX OS to run on its Sparc workstations — are starting to realize that many of their hardware customers are buying the machines to run Linux rather than the proprietary software.
"Companies are making money from Linux," said Augustin.
Because of Linux's commercial potential, in fact, several high-powered Silicon Valley businesses, including Sun, Digital and Adaptec Inc., have signed on with the Linux vendor group Linux International over the past three months. The organization now boasts 27 members. Augustin, who sits on its board of directors, said he expects Intel Corp., Oracle Corp. and Informix Corp. to join within the next few months as well.
To be sure, enterprise, database and productivity software vendors are starting to take notice, and each week it seems that each week another is announcing plans to release Linux-compatible versions of popular products.
Over the last month, in fact, a whole slew of traditional software publishers — including Corel (maker of WordPerfect, a popular word processor), Netscape and Interbase, as well as multimillion-dollar enterprise software manufacturers such as Informix, Computer Associates and even Oracle — all announced intentions to release products for the Linux Operating System.
Not surprisingly, the only company that seems completely unwilling to offer Linux-compatible versions of its productivity software is Microsoft.
"The real (added value) of Microsoft isn't Windows; it is their office suite, Microsoft Office," said Augustin. "Thus, I would be extremely surprised if Microsoft offered a Linux version."
"In fact," he said, "if Microsoft offered Office for Linux, there would be absolutely no reason to have a Windows machine anywhere."
Alternatives to Microsoft Office for Linux already exist. Applix' Applixware and StarOffice are both complete office suites available for Linux. In addition to WordPerfect, Corel has announced that its complete Perfect Office Suite will soon be available for Linux.
If you can go without Microsoft Office, you may want to pick up a user-friendly Red Hat Linux product for $49. You may find that Ausman, Augustin and Torvalds himself are right — sometimes the best things in life are (virtually) free.