Linux vs. Windows NT and OS/2

We continue to see media blurbs and ads for both Microsoft's Windows NT and IBM's OS/2. Both promise to be the operating system that we need and to take advantages of the capabilities of the Intel 386 and beyond. In the mean time, development and use of Linux, another system that takes advantage of these capabilities, lumbers along. In this article, Bernie Thompson explores these as three alternat

Picking an operating system is a dangerous business. You're committing yourself to a couple hours, certainly, or maybe a couple days of manual-reading, file-editing, and hassles. If your real goal was just to get some work done, maybe it would have been simpler to stay with Windows 3.1 and never embark on an adventure in computing.

But, then again, there seems to be a substantial body of computer users who are dissatisfied with DOS and Windows. Some are moving to OS/2, Windows NT, or some other Comdex wonder. Some are even daring enough to wipe out DOS in favor of an anti-establishment system like Linux.

Before you take the plunge, you should know up front what you stand to gain. More importantly, too, what you stand to lose. Here's what lies ahead for you if you want OS/2, Windows NT, or Linux to be part of your future.

Hardware is the First Issue

Don't even think about switching systems until you know what your hardware supports. The wonderful features of a new system won't be compelling if your system doesn't work.

You must have a Intel 386 or better to have any 32-bit choices. Then you need memory. Linux needs 2MB RAM to try out, OS/2 needs 4MB, and NT needs 12 MB. And you need disk space. You need to set aside at least 15MB for Linux, 32MB for OS/2, and 70MB for NT for a good trial run. A full working system will require even more resources.

If these requirements are satisfied, you still have to determine if all the pieces of your machine are compatible. If your machine uses the Microchannel bus (all IBM PS/2s), Linux doesn't support you. If you have a Compaq QVision video board, OS/2 won't use it. If you have a network card with a 3Com 3c501 chip, NT can't talk to it. And these are just samples of some possible compatibility problems. The full list changes often. Incompatibilities constantly recede as better hardware support is added. But a constant stream of new, incompatible hardware is always hitting the market.

Why are computer users put through this ringer? Well, The PC hardware market has few solid standards. IBM-compatible hasn't really meant anything since IBM stopped leading the industry. These nightmares can be avoided by getting your 32-bit operating system the same way you got DOS and Windows—buy a complete computer system with Linux, OS/2 or NT pre-installed. Companies which do this are rare, but you'll save trouble by seeking one out. Let them find the best hardware to fit the operating system you want.

If buying a whole new system isn't an option, you'll have to take the path most Linux, OS/2, and NT users have taken. Just start installing. If you have trouble, be prepared to find out more than you ever wanted to know about the pieces of your system.

Why Operating Systems Matter

Operating systems determine which applications will work, what those applications will look like, and how they will work together.

For example, if you want to run Microsoft's application suite (Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint), you're out of luck with Linux. They won't work. With OS/2, they work for now, but the burden is on IBM to keep up since Microsoft abandoned OS/2 in 1991. In the end, Windows 3.1 and Windows NT are the only safe choices for using Microsoft applications.

How applications look and how they work together are determined by the operating system, too.

Table 1. Disk Space Required

Windows NT uses the same program manager—file manager—print manager interface as Windows 3.1. This interface is not elegant, but it has one very significant advantage—it is simple. And because it's not very configurable, users can't do much damage by moving icons around and changing settings.

OS/2 takes the more radical route of a completely object oriented interface. Data and programs are objects which can be arranged in any manner. Clicking on a data object starts the associated application. Dragging data to the printer object prints it. Although OS/2 has a notoriously bland color scheme and layout when first installed, every detail can be re-configured.

With OS/2's flexibility comes a daunting depth of detail for first-time users. It is too easy to get lost. With dozens of windows open, it's a pain to locate and manipulate things. However, these disadvantages fade when the system is used for a while. The detail, power, and regularity of the interface become persuasive.

Linux uses the X/Windows system. X/Windows is a graphical chameleon, able to look and act many ways. The advantage is flexibility and choice. The disadvantage is complexity. Applications may not look and act alike. Many different interfaces are available. This makes user instruction and support more difficult.

Linux is primarily a command-line system where programs are typed in by name, although program managers and file managers are available to ease the transition of a novice user. The same tasks done with Windows and OS/2 are possible under Linux, but they generally require more knowledge and skills. If one knowledgeable user configures the Linux system, most novice users will be comfortable starting and running applications.

Table 2. Features Required

All three systems have a wide variety of books and tutorials available which can help novice users. Although Linux is a free system, it still has a library of books written about it—any book about Unix will apply to Linux. So finding assistance on the use of these systems should not be difficult.

If the issues of interface are surmountable, Linux has many positive characteristics that are not shared by OS/2 and NT. Linux enjoys the advantage of having no guarded secrets, no technology owned by a single company. The source code is freely available, which means it can be inspected and improved upon by any corporate or individual user. And, surprisingly, this common knowledge was used to build a system which is more miserly with memory and disk space than either OS/2 or NT. IBM and Microsoft would actually have much to learn from Linux if they cared to look.

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