Linux, an Alternative to Microsoft Windows, Shows Value of Free Software

By Lesley Helm, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

August 24, 1998

Several years ago Donald Dabdub, a UC Irvine atmospheric scientist, developed a powerful computer model to study smog in the Los Angeles Basin. His only problem: The simulation took eight days to run on his engineering computer and he didn't have several hundred thousand dollars to buy a supercomputer. So one day last October, Dabdub found himself ripping open boxes of cheap personal computers. By the end of the day he and a colleague had cabled together 16 of the machines and built a homemade supercomputer. The system cost just $50,000 and zipped through his simulation in four hours.

What made the project feasible is Linux, a free operating system for PCs that includes NASA-developed software for turning multiple PCs into a supercomputer.

Such sophisticated capabilities and its low cost have made Linux a favorite among programmers around the world who are rallying behind it as the best candidate for challenging the dominance of Microsoft's Windows.

Like Windows, Linux is an operating system that takes charge of a computer's hardware components with commands such as print and save. Linux takes much of its power from Unix�an operating system that is a favorite of programmers and was once available only on expensive workstations from IBM, Sun Microsystems and others�and makes it available for low-cost personal computers.

Although Linux is far more difficult for the novice to use than Windows, it already boasts an estimated 7 million users and has developed a cult-like following.

Venice-based production studio Digital Domain, for example, chose Linux to do the special effects for the film "Titanic" because of Linux's price and flexibility and because it offers much of the power of Unix.

The growing base of Linux users has recently begun to attract serious attention from leading software developers. Database leaders Oracle and Informix recently decided to develop versions of their products that run on Linux. Netscape has also made Linux a core part of its strategy.

"We think Linux is an important platform," says Tim Howes, chief technology officer in Netscape's server products division. "If you look at the rate of adoption, it's the front-runner. There is a tremendous amount of momentum."

Howes says Netscape customers like Linux's reliability and the fact that it is more compact than Windows NT and can run on older, slower personal computers.

What has brought new respectability to Linux in recent years, experts say, is its penetration into large organizations such as NASA, Boeing and Cisco, where the software is used in critical applications.

"Most of the technology isn't being developed by hackers anymore. The software is written by serious engineers at serious organizations," says Bob Young, chief executive at Red Hat, which sold 500,000 copies of Linux last year as the leading distributor of the software but also makes the software available over the Internet free. (In addition to offering Linux free, Red Hat and other commercial vendors charge about $50 for a version that includes additional software plus technical support.)

Thomas Sterling, a senior scientist at Caltech, led a group at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., that came out in 1994 with the key networking software that made it possible for UC Irvine's Dabdub to make his 16 PCs work as a single supercomputer.

"Linux is like a sandbox in which people can try new ideas out," says Sterling, who is working on ways to further increase the power of his software.

At the heart of the rising Linux movement is a deep distrust among many programmers of Microsoft and its culture of market dominance.

Microsoft software is developed at the company's facilities by programmers motivated by lucrative stock options. Linux was built by a 21-year-old Finnish student named Linus Torvalds with volunteer help from thousands of programmers around the world whose main reward is the respect of their peers. Microsoft closely guards its code, while Linux is free and open.

"Linux satisfies the ABM [Anything but Microsoft] people," says Dan Kusnetzky, a director at IDC Corp., a Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm.

Linux was born of the same "freeware" movement that spawned the Internet. It's called freeware because the source code�the instructions written by the programmer to direct the machine's operations�is freely available under a special license that makes it easy for programmers to add new features and requires those features to also be made available to others at no charge.

When a security problem cropped up endangering computers used to host Web sites last fall, Linux programmers had a fix available on the Internet within hours. It took days for Microsoft to respond to the problem.

"With Linux, people have their ego in their code," says Phil Hughes, publisher of the Seattle-based Linux Journal, which covers the Linux community. "If something is wrong, they want to fix it."

The most successful application available for Linux by far is Apache, which is used to run more Web sites than software from either Microsoft or Netscape. The product was put together by a diverse group of programmers that kept adding new patches to the system, thus giving it its name: "a patchy" system.

Jack Tackett chose Apache running on Linux for the bank of 150 computers he runs at Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based Nortel Information Network to handle the Internet service operations of several dozen small phone companies. Tackett says the systems are far cheaper and more reliable than they would be on Windows NT.

Companies that once dismissed the freeware market as interesting but unprofitable are now having second thoughts. IBM was so impressed with Apache that the company made it the mainstay of its new Websphere Internet commerce product.

But for all the attention Linux is getting, it still remains a system for geeks. Go to any Internet discussion group on Linux and you will hear the cries of anguish from experienced computer users having trouble trying to get Linux to run on their systems.

Once the system is installed, there are programs available that are easy to use. Provo, Utah-based Caldera sells a software package called StarOffice, developed in Germany, that includes a word processor, a spreadsheet and other programs that look and work a lot like Microsoft versions. There is a free graphics package available for Linux called GIMPS that is similar to Adobe's Photoshop.

The problem for software developers is that there is no single Linux standard. Take the effort to develop a simpler opening screen for Linux. The Linux community is bitterly divided between support for the K Desktop Environment, a Windows-like system that is well-developed but costs money, and the Gnome Project, an alternative system that is being offered as freeware.

Even if that dispute is resolved, Linux could still find it difficult to create the consistency and ease of use of Microsoft Windows.

"Hackers won't spend weeks writing documentation or collecting data they need to make a program easier to use," says Jakob Nielsen, a Silicon Valley usability expert.

Another problem is distribution. Computer makers get a better deal from Microsoft if they commit to shipping Windows on all their computers. Consequently, many are reluctant to offer their machines with alternatives such as Linux.

Until those problems are resolved, Linux's main use will continue to be in applications such as Web servers, in which cost and performance are key issues and the technology-savvy are happy to plunge into the guts of the system to tweak it when necessary.

But those obstacles don't stop Linux devotees in their quest to weaken Microsoft's grip on the software world.

Says Alan Feder, president of UniForum, a Columbia, Md.-based association that promotes Unix systems: "I'm no Don Quixote, but I'd like the Linux people to at least show that there is another way to go."

Times staff writer Leslie Helm can be reached via e-mail at

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