Migrating to Linux, Part 1

Linux—not just for hackers anymore...

How much does Linux cost? Of course, every introduction to Linux points out that Linux is free to everyone. It costs nothing, because no one “owns” Linux in the way Microsoft owns Windows or MS-DOS. To simplify things, a basic installation CD can be purchased from a vendor or retailer for $30 to $60 US. Plus, to get off the ground, one should really own one of the several fantastic books currently available for the novice Linux user for $20 to $60 US.

At the risk of being branded a heretic, I make the following assertion for the SOHO Linux user: using Linux is more expensive in the short term, but in the mid- to long-term, Linux provides a dramatic cost savings and rewards you with an attractive return on your investment of both money and time.

How can it be more expensive when it is free? Simple—the short-term opportunity costs are higher for the SOHO user who is currently using a commercial OS and is heavily invested in software made for that OS. This is one of the growing pains I mentioned earlier. For a cost comparison and a true story, see the sidebar. What's the moral to that story? For me, Linux is by no means free. I have spent hours learning to use Linux and tweaking my system when I could have been performing billable work. Remember, though, I have yet to lose a client's work or to be forced into redoing tedious tasks at my own expense while using Linux.

Plus, hardware can be used longer under Linux and quite often works much better as well. My aging Pentium 90 with 32MB of RAM is a bit sluggish when running current versions of MS Windows, but chugs along quite spryly under Linux. Linux has given new life to that computer, and I will be able to keep it up and running far longer than with MS Windows.

With all of these considerations, the economic value of Linux is clear. The mid to long-term return on investment more than pays for the short-term opportunity costs of switching to Linux from a commercial OS. Therefore, migrating to Linux is a sound business decision.

Available Applications

Right now, I run my business with a mix of commercial and free software. I am on my third Linux distribution, which I buy on CD due to the high opportunity costs of downloading large package files. I write direct marketing copy for my clients with a commercially licensed copy of Applixware. I dial my ISP using a dialing tool under the GPL. Right now my GUI environment is KDE. I send e-mail and browse the Web with the recently freed Netscape Communicator 4.04. All of these programs work as well, and often better, than their counterparts designed for MS Windows.

So far with Linux, I am able to do almost everything I used to do in MS Windows, with only a few high-profile exceptions. Right now I lack a good WYSIWYG page-layout tool like PageMaker or QuarkXPress, and I cannot get any of the freeware FAX managers to work for me as well as my commercial FAX program works under MS Windows. There are programs like WINE and Wabi that emulate MS Windows and allow you to run 16-bit MS Windows applications on Linux, but I have no experience using these emulators and cannot comment on their use.

What's the bottom line? Are there as many high-quality applications available for Linux as you will find for commercial operating systems? No. Is this situation changing every day, with more and more top quality freeware and Open Source software, as well as commercial Linux applications, released all the time? Emphatically, yes. Developing quality applications for Linux is a consuming passion for many developers worldwide, and that fact gives me the most hope for the future of Linux as a viable SOHO computing environment. With the level of excitement surrounding extremely high-quality programs like GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), commercial vendors are learning they can profit handsomely from porting their products to Linux.

In short, migrating to Linux means more than just getting a stable OS. It means access to a collection of top-quality free and commercial applications, with more on the way each day.

One SOHO User's Experience

To summarize this first installment, I'll review the practical impressions I've gained during my migration from MS Windows to Linux:

  1. Linux is more stable than commercial operating systems, eliminating the time and expense of redoing lost work.

  2. Linux is more difficult to learn in the very short term, but has a better support system in the long run.

  3. Linux—while “free” in the absolute sense—brings with it a host of opportunity costs in the short term but pays for itself many times over in the long term.

  4. Applications for Linux are growing in number and quality each day.

Now we have a basis for a continued and more detailed exploration of migrating to Linux from a commercial OS for the SOHO user. In the next installment, I'll get into the details of migrating, discussing such vital matters as basic system administration and making reliable backups. I'll get more specific about some of the software that is available for Linux and compare it to software available in the commercial OS world. I'll also discuss how to interface and share work with our colleagues and clients who are stuck with their commercial operating systems.

Comparing Costs for a SOHO Setup: Red Hat Linux 5.0 vs. Windows NT

Norman M. Jacobowitz is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Seattle, Washington. Please send your comments, criticisms, suggestions and job offers to normj@aa.net.