Migrating to Linux, Part 1

Linux—not just for hackers anymore...

Linux? That's just for hackers and computer science students, right? Most experienced Linux users have heard that one a time or two. Over the past year or so, I have discovered that the answer is a resounding “no”—for Linux has something to offer everyone. You see, about one year ago, I took my first experimental plunge into the Linux world. I installed Linux on my home office computer, dual booting with MS Windows 95. Now, I run my home-based freelance business entirely from the Linux OS, using both free software and commercial products to get my work done.

This is the first in a series of three articles about my experiences migrating to Linux. I hope they will shed light on the techniques, methods, benefits and perils of using Linux as the primary OS in a small or home office (SOHO) environment. While these articles are written primarily for the non-technical end user who runs a very small business or works from home, hopefully everyone will have something to gain, regardless of their level of experience. In order to implement some of the specific suggestions contained herein, you should have a working Linux installation and a general understanding of Linux basics. If you are a complete novice interested in how Linux could potentially work for you, read on. Just one year ago, I was in your shoes. Now I'm running my business from Linux.

Why Migrate to Linux?

Just about every SOHO user would appreciate better performance from their OS. Yet switching to a different OS for your work is not a step to take lightly—you can expect a few growing pains. If you are in need of a better OS and are aware of the effort migrating may take, Linux is the first place to turn.

We'll now examine some of the pros and cons of Linux, based on the needs of a SOHO user. Personally, I'm looking for stability, ease of use and administration, low cost and a wide range of available productivity applications. Gaming, Internet and network services (other than dial-up PPP) and other capabilities don't fit into my equation. Your requirements, of course, may differ. Here's a more detailed view of each of these requirements.

Stability

What do SOHO users need from their OS? To put it simply, we've got work to do and no time for a flaky OS. We don't have time to reboot every half hour or to retype a document lost due to the failures of an inadequate operating system.

That's why Linux is so attractive. Linux is far less likely to suffer such frustrating failures. The underlying OS is more stable and the Linux development model sees to it that bugs are exterminated rapidly, with extreme prejudice. Commercial OS vendors have already sold you their wares and cashed your check by the time bugs are discovered. This means there is no pressing economic incentive to resolve difficulties on a timely basis.

As far as viruses are concerned, they are not a problem in Linux. The way Linux works, it is difficult, if not impossible, to propagate a virus. So-called “Trojan Horse” programs are still an issue, but viruses are not.

The combination of instability, viruses and bugs can make it impossible to get your work done while working in some of the mainstream commercial operating systems. Have you ever had MS Windows inexplicably freeze in the middle of a budget calculation? Have you ever lost two hours of work when a “General Protection Fault” crashes your word-processing session? I have had bad experiences ranging from mild frustration to major loss of income due to system crashes.

However, I have never—not once—lost data due to an OS failure in Linux. Well, once I completely hosed a perfectly good Linux setup, but that was my own fault. We'll discuss how to avoid and recover from such self-imposed disasters in the next installment.

Ease of Use

The first time the login prompt came up after my first Linux install, I was frozen like a deer in headlights. What, no GUI? No little “start here” buttons? Yet in just a matter of hours, I was cruising around the file system with no trouble and had the X Window System up and running. Next came the ISP hookup, and soon I was quite comfortable in Linux, learning more with each login session.

You may be saying, “That's great for you, but I expect quality support for my OS installation.” Veteran Linux users—as well as InfoWorld Magazine—know that the Linux community provides the best technical support currently available for any OS. Yes, I have had many problems with my Linux setup, most minor and some major. However, whenever I have posted a message to the Linux newsgroups, 90% of the time I have received several viable solutions and some good suggestions. Sometimes the answers come in just a few hours. This beats my experience with MS Windows NT by far (see sidebar). Even better, free Linux support does not expire, as does the free support under commercial operating systems.

Still, there is a long way to go towards making Linux more user friendly and a lot less scary. Yes, commercial GUI operating systems are prettier at first. Yes, on the surface they are a bit more intuitive. And yes, they are far less daunting in the beginning than Linux. Documentation and help systems for Linux applications are famous for being poor or nonexistent. That's why more and more Linux developers and vendors are rightly focusing their efforts on making Linux more friendly for the new user.

What I have discovered is that along with the very visible support from the Linux community, there is a “hidden” advantage to using Linux. To me, Linux exhibits a unique continuity to its learning curve. For example, I have spent several working hours learning to edit certain configuration files to my liking. Over time, I realized that the same methods often applied to editing files that pertain to a completely different part of the OS. When you first start to pick up on Linux, you may find each new piece of knowledge, each new skill, lends itself to easing the next task. In my experience, MS Windows does not share this continuity. Sure, the MS Windows learning curve is less steep, but there is a less reliable pattern to learning it.

In terms of usability, documentation and the quality of the user interface, Linux does need improvement. Still, the thousands of Linux developers worldwide are making dramatic progress towards putting Linux on par with many commercial operating systems in terms of usability.

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