Linux: With great power comes great responsibility

In recent tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media outlets you may have heard me refer to any or all of the following: Linux, Debian, Unbuntu, Mint, CentOS, Sabayon, and, my personal favorite, Slacko-puppy. What, you may ask, am I talking about? (Go ahead…ask…you know you want to) Each of these arcane sounding terms is a different distribution of the Linux operating system. Still in the dark? Well lemme enlighten you.

Back in the bad old days of data processing, maybe 30 years bw (before Windows). Computers were the domain of the rich and corporate. Huge main-frame processors did the heavy lifting and data was entered using punch cards. These are semi-stiff card stock with 80 columns and 12 rows. Small square holes are punched in the cards in various patterns. EACH CARD REPRESENTS A SINGLE CHARACTER AS IN A LETTER OR NUMBER. You can imagine how many hundreds of cards it would take to enter even a single paragraph of text. In 1969, at Bell Laboratories, a group of individuals developed an alternative to this clumsy method of data entry in the form of an OS (operating system) called UNIX. It stands for Uniplexed Information and Computing System. (So named because it replaced Multics or Multiplex Information and Computing System) It was initially Unics but Hey! you know those wacky L33t computer guys love to play games with spelling.

About two years after the end of Reaganomics, (1991) a young Finn named Linus Torvalds, working with a system called Minix, developed an operating system patterned on the Unix Kernel. He wanted to call it Freax, but an FTP admin on the server he was using renamed the project without asking him. Thus the operating system LINUX was born. (Background info courtesy of the “History of Linux” Wikki).
This might be just another interesting (well sort of…) footnote in history except for Linus’ philosophy on what software, and computing should be. He proposed the idea that software and computing in general should be FREE!! This is where things get interesting.

Today Linux has made the jump from interesting (sort of) and geeky to mainstream corporate for just this reason. It is still FREE! I don’t mean just “no cost” to download and install. I mean that the code that makes up the system is available for download. You can modify it. You can market it. Once you get it, you can change it however. (Don’t try this with Microsoft. Reverse engineering Windows will land you in court and maybe even jail) You can do anything within reason. Now, the average Windows license for Windows 8.1 (the only version you can buy right now) will set you back about $75 (if you happen to have bulk license purchasing. If you go to Best Buy it will run three times that much) If you have ten or a hundred, or, like GM, more than 200,000 employees, most of which have to have access to their own individual licensed copy of an operating system on a PC, you can see why Linux (which is still FREE!) could generate some excitement. Couple that with a large (and growing) number of FREE applications (Libre Office, web browsers like Firefox (Iceweasel – almost as wacky sounding as Slacko-puppy) and lots of other business oriented apps and you, as well as many financial officers in corporate America, can see a huge incentive to work Linux into your business model. It also gives you lots of street cred and makes you look all edgy and cool.

Linux has the richly deserved reputation of being absolutely rock-solid stable (depending on which distro you choose – we’ll get to that shortly) and almost immune to malware. (The latter is NOT true. There are several viruses, Trojans, etc that can infect Linux. The intense and consistent testing and patching that Linux distros go through as well as the lack of root access in most distros keeps bad code invasions to a minimum) Until this year, more than half of all Internet Web servers (25 million on hosting alone) ran Apache web server on a Linux frame…and it’s still FREE!!

I have been experimenting for the past few days with different Linux distros and trying to determine which is the easiest and best. The jury is still out on best but ease of install and configuring should have bearing on the “which is best” category. I can tell you, without hesitation, that Debian 7 (code name Wheezy – I LOVE these computer guys) is far and away the easiest to install. It has gone smoothly into Dell, Compaq, HP, servers, desktops, laptops, old systems, new systems, single or multiple processors, lots of RAM, little RAM, or just about anything with a chip. It does not balk at NVIDIA video drivers. In short, it works right out of the box, every time, with no hardware limits that I have found. I am a Debian (and its various forks and incarnations) fan. Unbuntu and Mint ranked near the top but I had trouble on different systems with each of them and when I dropped Debian (with KDE or XFCE) all my difficulties vanished. (GNOME can be an annoying little resource hog at times but even that works with enough RAM).

What, you may ask, distros did NOT make the cut? Well I am not very impressed with Sabayon 14 (or 13 for that matter). It balked at most video drivers and has got to be the slowest system since Windows Millenium. (Now THERE was a bad practical joke on computer users at large.) I have yet to get the latest Sabayon to install on a single system and run like I think it ought to. (I expect it to run like Debian.)

Slacko-puppy (and all the slackware distros) definitely get points for having the coolest name. Next time you are in a conversation, use the words “slacko-puppy” and see who looks up. I got it to run on a Dell laptop and a desktop but it balked at a Compaq with an AMD processor. It is cool but slow and seems to me like a system in search of a purpose. (The best I have come up with is to use it as a rescue disk for other systems that get malware and won’t boot. You can run it from a USB stick or CD and boot the drive up and clean out whatever nastiness you find.)

CentOS is a very light weight (read that as runs best as a server with no GUI and only command line access) and, supposedly, reliable system. I tried loading it on a Dell PowerEdge 700 and got no where. Debian went on like a glove and when I had configured NFS and SAMBA I found myself in possession of a multiple platform capable domain file server/DNS server/mail server.

Netrunner was also a No-Show. Tried it on a couple of Dell OptiPlex desktops as well as a Compaq Presario. It would not play nice. Red Hat Enterprise would load but took forever to download. It also looses points for not being completely without cost. (Debian is FREE and reliable)

There you have it. The results of my (decidedly) unscientific research into Linux. I have 3 new functional computers that cost me nothing. (I had the old systems laying around) They will edit MS Office documents, view PDF files, watch videos on Youtube and send and receive email. Outside of some fairly specific video compositing applications, I don’t need Windows at all. (If Adobe ever ports After Effects and Premier Pro to Linux I will bid farewell to Redmond, WA forever). Does this mean anything to anyone other than myself? Can any conclusions be drawn, other than that I am more familiar with Debian than other flavors of Linux? No. But I encourage you (especially if you have an old PC laying around that you want to repurpose to say… a home file server or a kid’s computer) to experiment. You can go to Google and search out any of the popular distros (use that word..distro…and you will sound MUCH cooler) and download it. It should (if it is Debian or one of the forks. Debian has more forks than the place setting at a state dinner) boot up and give your old PC new life. I wish you luck. (And remember…It’s FREE!!!)