Perceptions of the Linux OS Among Undergraduate System Administrators

A look at the themes, myths and clangers reported by the next crop of system administrators.

At the start of this academic year (September 2001), I was asked to teach a new module in my Institute's B.Sc. degree program in Information Technology. This final-year undergraduate module, entitled “Network and Systems Management”, covers a wide range of system administration technologies, practices and principles. In effect, students of the module are the system administrators of the future.

As is probably the theme at the majority of third-level educational establishments, student's exposure to OS technology at the Institute of Technology, Carlow is Microsoft-focused and desktop-based. This is easy to understand, for the desktop is very much a Microsoft stronghold, and if an institution can use the same PCs to teach business undergrads Excel and science undergrads programming, then they will. However, what many of my students often fail to recognize is that, as system administrators, they will find themselves managing servers running OS technology other than Microsoft's.

So in an attempt to expose my students to a more realistic view of the technologies in use in the real world, I try to deemphasize Microsoft's technologies in favor of the alternatives. As you can imagine, Linux features quite heavily.

At the start of this academic year, I informally surveyed the 31 students enrolled in the module about their exposure to Linux. Most (if not all) had some exposure to the OS. I probed further and asked how many students had used Linux as the basis of their third-year project (the previous year). One or two hands were raised. Then the first shock came: someone blurted out, “nearly everyone who used Linux last year went on to fail their project”. It came out that a number of individuals were missing from the final year due to failing the project element in year three. When I probed for the root cause of the project-failing problem, I got my second shock: “Linux is too hard to install”. I was shocked not because these two statements were necessarily false but because these 31 students had pretty much convinced themselves that success was tied to Microsoft and failure to Linux.

While I covered Windows 2000 and Linux as case studies, pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of each OS, I gave the class an assignment that would require them to do some simple research and, as a consequence, allow them to learn a little more about Linux. The task was simple enough. I stated: “Despite considerable success as a server platform, Linux will never threaten Microsoft Windows as a desktop operating system.” I asked the students to research the subject area, form an opinion as to whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, and then present their case in no more than three A4 pages of typed text. As I marked their assignments, a number of themes recurred. Additionally, numerous myths became evident, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—a number of blatant untruths presented themselves. These I classified as clangers. In the remainder of this article, I present the themes, myths and clangers uncovered, in addition to my own personal commentary.

Note: for this purpose, I define a theme as something that is generally agreed to be true. If a comment occurred repeatedly throughout the students submissions, and it was true, it became a theme. A myth is defined as something generally held to be true but is, in fact, not true. Even if a myth occurred repeatedly throughout the submissions (and many did), it can't be a theme as it isn't true. A clanger is a statement that is just blatantly wrong.


The majority of my students felt that “more desktop applications are required for Linux”. No argument here, the more the merrier. And, Microsoft obviously has a distinct advantage in this regard. This theme appeared in many different forms in the student submissions. The most depressing (but still true) form was: “The average user does not care what operating system they are using, just so long as it runs Microsoft Office.” And Microsoft knows this. The real crown jewel in the Microsoft arsenal is the Office Suite. The fact that Redmond and Cupertino engineers have already ported (most of) the Office technology to Mac OS X indicates that a port to the X Window System would not be too difficult. But let's face it, porting to Mac OS X on the PowerPC-based Macintosh will never directly threaten the Windows monopoly. Porting to Linux on x86 is an entirely different matter. Were this to occur, the implications would be huge. This theme was further generalized by one student as follows: “The desktop operating system with the most third-party software wins.”

The students felt that “The KDE/GNOME choice confuses most newcomers to Linux.” This frustration was also expressed as follows: “A commonly-agreed upon GUI environment is needed.” Most felt Microsoft has a definite edge here, as Windows 9x/ME/NT/2000 and now XP look essentially the same. There's an argument that the choice of GUI (or desktop environment) is a good thing in the Linux world. However, I'd have to side with my students on this one, as I'd really like to see one single, coherent GUI environment combining the best features of both KDE and GNOME. There is nothing inherently wrong with all Linux desktop GUIs looking the same, is there? And I suspect such an environment would be welcomed by the vast majority of Linux GUI trainers.

The students had plenty to say about the (lack of) reliability in Windows. An eyebrow raising comment said, “for the sake of convenience and familiarity, most users will put up with Windows crashing on a regular basis. In fact, everyone knows it's quite normal for PCs to crash.” A more general observation, along the same lines, was, “People like predictability, and they don't like change, so they will put up with Windows' shortcomings.” This is a shame but it is true: it has become okay for a PC (running Windows) to crash once a day (or more often). One student referred to this as “normal” behavior. Like it or not, the average user expects their PC to crash and are trained to switch it off then back on again.

Compared to the infamous reliability of Windows, Linux did well: “Linux is technically superior to Windows: it runs longer and consumes fewer resources. Linux also has better security, stability and scalability.” No argument on this front from me, either. Unfortunately, the PC world is littered with dead technologies that were technically superior to the alternatives available at the time of their launch. Or perhaps I should have said “dead companies”. Of course, it is not a company (like Netscape) that Microsoft is trying to kill with its attacks on Linux, it's a community (which is a little harder to kill). So, Microsoft's past tactics may not (hopefully, will not) work.

A number of students highlighted the market perception of Linux as a problem to be overcome: “How can Linux really threaten Windows on the desktop when the vast majority of PC users haven't even heard of it?”. Another slant on this was, “The Windows brandname is too strong to threaten”, and “The Linux community are no match for the marketing machine that is Microsoft.” This visibility problem isn't helped by the fact that the mainstream computing press have all but stopped covering Linux since the dot-com bubble burst. The Windows brandname is as strong as Coca-Cola, but the Coca-Cola brandname didn't stop Pepsi from having a go (and doing quite well, too). Again, I think the strength of the Linux community has bearing here, despite the fact that a lot of my students thought that “which desktop OS dominates has more to do with marketing than technical expertise”. Nearly every student agreed that “Linux needs to shake its image as the techie/programmer's OS”, and that “Linux is seen as a geek's OS. Programmers love it and that puts everyone else off.” Yes, image (market perception) is everything, and Microsoft knows this. This helps explains the anti-Linux FUD campaign coming out of Redmond these days.

The fact that Linux tends to run well on any old PC came in for praise, typically as follows: “Newer versions of Windows tend to obsolete todays hardware. Linux, on the other hand, runs quite well on older PCs.” Yes, the new version of your chosen operating system shouldn't require a major upgrade (or replacement) to the hardware it runs on. If only more people would realize this, and act on it.

More than one student had this warning for Microsoft: “The new XP licensing arrangements may result in many IT shops reassessing their allegiance to Microsoft. Coming on the heels of the recent economic downturn, this may hurt Microsoft to the benefit of Linux.” Yes, we should all be screaming this from the tallest buildings we can find: users (i.e., IT managers) need to resist Microsoft's attempts to “lock 'em in” as much as possible!



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Re: Perceptions of the Linux OS Among Undergraduate System Admin

Anonymous's picture

I agree with your students that linux is hard to install. This isn't rubbish - it is one of Linux's major problems to general acceptance.

Try the following experiment:

Get a copy of Linux-Mandrake and a copy of Windows 2000. Install Windows 2000 and then install Mandrake. I think that you will find Mandrake's install procedure both easier and faster than Windows 2000.

What a cute example!

Anonymous's picture

I did that very recently, installed windows 2000 then mdk8.1 on the same machine. Windows 2000's installation was way faster. No typo there, it was way faster. As for easiness, I didn't have a problem with either, but selecting all rpms I wanted to install, and unselecting all that I did not takes a lot of time. Also boot scripts, hdparm and other hardware settings, customizing gui to look half decent all take whole lot of time.
Things are improving, that is a fact, but not enough to beat windows. I couldn't even install redhat 3, configuring X with redhat 6 was a nightmare, redhat 6.1 essentially redhat 6 in this respect, redhat 7 installed fine but as with mandrake 7.1 without drivers to support my printer and vid card. mdk 8.0 and 8.1 was breeze to install, with above reservations. OTOH I never had to play any tricks to get windows working, from 3.0 to 2k.

Package Selection?

Anonymous's picture

As for the comment on the selecting of certain software packages to install and not to install, you should feel lucky to even be given that option. Depending on the edition of Windows 2000 (Professional, Server, etc.), most every available package, save those few that you do have an option on, is installed and activated on installation. While this may save actual installation time, it cuts down on system resources and overall system security (IIS, anybody?) until patches can be applied.

And although this another point entirely, I have to bring it up... many of the major packages that you have to go through and decide whether to install or not in Mandrake 8.1 are courtesy packages, packages that are not needed on a "normal" desktop computer, but are nice to have if you want the option (MySQL, Apache, OpenSSH, Sendmail, etc. ). To add to this, some of the services these "extra" packages offer are not even possible under an installation of Windows 2000 - to get these packages under the Microsoft name, an additional purchase has to be made. Last I checked, Microsoft SQL Server does not run cheap... upwards of $20,000 a license depending on the edition. But wait... MySQL is free? What a concept.

RE:Package Selection?

Anonymous's picture

Umm, MSSQL Server is not $20,000 per license! You'll pay $3,000 to $4,000 for an Enterprise edition License of the latest MS SQL. Or you can buy the Standard version which is what most need for about $400.00 per License. Now, CAL's are what kill you and always have with MS!

As for My SQL, it doesn't support recursive deletes of Foreign fields and as such will never be an all in one solution. PostGRE SQL is actually what people should be comparing to MSSQL.

I did that too. 3 hours ago.

Anonymous's picture

However my result was different from yours.

Installed Win2k. Then RH 7.2. The Red Hat install ask you a few questions (trivial that you just hit next serveral times) Choose workstation. It went on to copy all the files. Ask you two more question. Reboot. And I have a working RH.

Now compare that to win2k. Customizing the partition in Win2k is troublesome. Choosing the local and language options freezes for quite a while (10+sec) that I almost thought it hanged. The win2k installation was longer and need 2 reboots.

After that I have to d/l w2k SP2, reboot, download IE sp2, reboot, security fixes, reboot, a few more fixes reboot, reboot, reboot,..... It was quite a while until I can have a working system, and it was definitely longer than installing RH.

To be fair, they both detect all my hardware and were easy to install. I just want to point out that the RH install was easier, takes shorter time to finish, and include word processers and many useful apps. With W2k you have just the OS.

Re: What a cute example!

Anonymous's picture

Windows 3.0? Hell up until W2K, Microsoft did not have all the drivers for my hardware. Linux installs have always been faster on my hardware because it has all the drivers. The constant rebooting when installing applications and drivers really slows down install times in Windows. But as usual this always comes down to the hardware you have.

So I to think you have a cute example because it just means that with *your* specific hardware Linux was slower than installing Windows. Other than that it doesn't mean anything, just like my example.

Go ahead, pull the other one!

Anonymous's picture

Win3.0 had all the drivers you needed built in? You never had to edit config.sys and add a line so your CDROM drive could work? Win95 had all the video drivers you needed and you never had to download an updated one? You never installed an NT box and tried to make the root partition >2 Gig and couldn't get it to reboot?

There are war stories for each OS. I've just about wrestled an oscure linux 2.4 networking problem to the ground and am about to fix it after a month of head scratching. I did the same for all versions of Windows. If you never had to configure anything from the command line or download a driver in Windows you never installed it on your own custom hardware, because only OEM distros have all the drivers you need for the box their on.

W2K install faster?

Anonymous's picture

I did that very recently, installed windows 2000 then mdk8.1 on the same machine. Windows 2000's installation was way faster. No typo there, it was way faster.

Faster for equivalent applications installed, or faster for installing just the core + Solitaire?

Another question: was Mandrake doing full disk scans during installation? Scanning takes *forever*, esp. on a laptop drive.

Re: W2K install faster?

Anonymous's picture

Maybe so.....

Back to the ease of install, did you enjoy the W2k text only screens while partitioning your harddrives or did you prefer the 100%, apart from some boot up messages, GUI installation of Mandrake 8.1.

I believe you have to do a reboot of W2k after all those ugly blue screens before you can see a GUI, n Mandrake, the first reboot is the last. Did you include this pre-setup time of W2k in your tests, Of which I personally disagree

Windows being easy to install may have been true for windows 95, but thats only because it didn't partition disks, you had to do it yourself with fdisk CLI.

Comments Welcome

Re: Perceptions of the Linux OS Among Undergraduate System Admin

barryp's picture

Thanks for the comments. Re: the "rubbish" comment, this reflects my own frustration at the "it's hard to install" excuse for not considering Linux (which I hear a lot from my students). I agree that there's still a bit of work to do here, and I should have made this fact clearer in the article. Re: the reliability question, I remain unconvinced. Certainly, NT/2000 is a lot more reliable than the 9x/ME Windows, but the fact that the GDI can bypass the NT/2000 kernel still gives me the quivers due to the fact that an misbehaving app can bring the OS down (if it crashes the GDI, typically causing a "blue screen of death"). This still happens far too often on NT/2000 (IMHO). As for Windows ME (which I use a lot on my laptop - including right now), it's awful and it crashes too often and for no apparent reason. It's an OS that I've cursed more than once, and I really should not put up with it (but, like a lot of other desktop users, I still do). Is the root cause the OS or apps? Doesn't matter - the entire thing crashes requiring a reboot. It remains a fact that apps on Linux have a much harder time bringing down the OS.Thanks again for your comments.

Re: Perceptions of the Linux OS Among Undergraduate System Admin

Anonymous's picture

Why are you using Windows so much, so that you are able to see it crash "far too often"? If you are using it so much, and are a linux advocate, why do you criticize others that use it instead of linux.

And as for the the previous comment says, Windows NT and 2000 are NOT unstable. I use them every day, all day long for everything including VB development, SQL Server, Oracle, web browsing, napster, etc etc, and I RARELY EVER get a crash....can't remember the last time actually. Is windows written in a way that it can be crashed easily? Perhaps. But if there is no software exploiting this poor design, then it matters only as a matter of principle, pragmatically it makes almost no difference, and this shortcoming will NOT unseat windows. The way microsoft is going to beat Linux is, advocates get so excited about certain technical superiorities of Linux and think these advantages will soon overcome Microsoft...well, they won't,and until you (the linux community) realize this, you will continue to be an also-ran.

As for installation being easy....maybe it is for you, but as of about a year ago, I didn't find it easy, and I am an experienced computer user. Perhaps it has improved, who cares, I don't really see ANY reason to find out. whether or not it is easy for you is not the point you realize that?

The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you say

Anonymous's picture

If we can't get past this one basic point we'll never get anywhere. The command line interfaces is not as intuitive as a GUI. Its not a matter of intelligence either. If you sit someone down in front of two PC's one with Windows and the other with Linux (a Linux without xfree86 already up and running) then they will be at a loss as to what to do. You also cannot suggest that this is because most people have experience with Windows first. What are you going to do, intercept all babies straight from the womb and indoctrinate them in the ways of the CLI?

Pictures and shapes convey information very efficiently without the need for typing in words. When you can move your mouse to click or drag something you are getting something done. When you are stuck at a bash prompt without a clue as to what to do you aren't getting anything done. I mean if you yourself cannot figure out this simple thing then your entire exercize is a waste of time.

Its not like GUI's were designed on a whim. If they weren't so great everyone would still be using DOS or Unix. Imagine 100 million American households with computers without GUI's. Its just not going to happen. If you think this is actually possible than I give up.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

I beg to differ. What do most people due when they do not know something -- ask for help!

Sit at a linux CLI and type "help". gets you to info to get started the 4th line gets those intuitive enough to figure "info" something will get you to "man" something.

Sit at a windows CLI and type help

"bad command of filename"

work that out!

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

We'd try our best to work together to educate our children to forget about the microsoft *****. It's stupidifying all coming generations about everything in the computer world, plus a wrong myth that MS is the No.1 power.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

its true. When I want to go to a webpage, I intuitively think "I should point an arrow at a picture of a blue "e" with an oval around it. When I want to write a letter, I look for a blue "W". And I see 4 pictures of computers on my desktop, but when I want to change my computer settings, I click on one of them, then click on the manila folder, that if someone were to tell me, I'd realize that yes, it does look like the head of a hammer and screwdriver(?) in front of it.

Icons do help a little bit, but if it wasn't for the text menus, I'd be lost. Computers were run with text menus before GUIs, and most of what a GUI does is provide color and shape cues on top of a plain old text interface. And if there was a (F1) label next to the blue "e", it would be just as intuitive to press F1 as to move the arrow over it and push a button.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

The CLI is only harder to learn if you refuse to read

a book or manual. It is harder to explore in a random

fashion, but I don't recommend that as a way of

learning the use of computers even with a nice

set of GUIs. The CLI is easier to use than

some GUIs once you have learned how to use it.

Remembering, or documenting which option of

which window gets you yet another window of

which the appropriate option will get you to another

window which requires remembering yet another

option to get you to yet another window... where

at least some of the time you finally end up

with a text area and you have to remember

a string of text to type in the end, is often much

more difficult than remembering, writing down

or cutting and pasting, a text string (sometimes simple,

sometimes more complex) in the first place.

What's more, with UNIX shells, the CLI is easily

customized to make remembering easier without

cluttering, with obscure icons, a finite area that is

already too cluttered.

You really should give a customized CLI a fair

test before you make such absurd statements.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

The key point of this discussion is the fact that you have to remember so much to use a CLI, whereas you can navigate and explore a GUI. Yes it can be more productive once you've learnt it, you can customise it to your own requirements, once you've learnt how to, but you cannot (reasonably) get anything useful done without climbing a fairly steep learning curve. A decent GUI (Windows, KDE, Gnome, I don't care which) on the other hand can be used straight away by virtually anyone.

The people we are talking about convincing here are not those of us that use computers on a daily basis, perhaps earning a living from them, and who are willing to (and even enjoy) getting to grips with something new and technical. They are the 100 million Americans or 10 million Britons who have a PC at home that they use to surf the net, read e-mail and play games. Windows does this very well, out of the box, with very little hassle. They don't care about productivity or customisability (beyond being able to put a photo of their kids on their desktop) or any of the other things that are great about Linux, any more than they care how their TV or their Microwave works. PCs have become a domestic appliance, that is why Windows has such dominance, and I don't believe the fact that the massive rise in home PC use coincided with the release of a windows with a decent GUI was entirely accidental.

What is really needed is a stable, standard environment that people can become familiar with quickly.

People may put in some effort to convert to another GUI based system that does all the things that Windows does for them, just as easily, and also is more reliable. What I don't think they will do is go through the pain of having to choose which distro to use, then which GUI, then which applications they've never heard of etc. etc. before they even get to the point where they can begin to do what they want to do.

I don't like the dominance that MS has, anymore than the next person, but we've got a very big mountain to climb and I'm not sure the community is necessarily going the right way about it at the moment.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

I cut my teeth on ibm 3x. your comment points to the fact that MS has done just that. Our children have grown up in a Microsoft world and we have been apathetic in providing an alternative. The command line is no harder to learn than a GUI. DOS was a command line interface. Win16 had to be started from the command line. We are having this conversation, only because those of us who have been arround a while, failed to teach the new users to use a computer in the proper manner.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

Sigh. It's true that the command line is not for everyone. But, I don't think anyone was proposing that.

Contemporary Linux distros often take care of XFree86 setup during install and autoload it upon boot. Combine this behaviour with booting into a full-featured window manager like KDE/Gnome, and the user need never know a command line exists.

So, not only do you get a great GUI in the two managers I mentioned, but you also get a great CLI. Windows forces you to use the GUI, not always the best tool for the job, IMO.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

Windows has a command line, not as good as linux's, but it does have one, you are not forced to use the GUI for everything.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

can you explain to me how you install - uninstall programas from the command line in windows? You are certainly FORCED to use the GUI in many many cases.

Re: The CLI is harder to use/learn no matter how many times you

Anonymous's picture

We have installed Linux x-terminals in our schools and have replaced entire Windows student labs with Linux. Teacher's like it, students love it - the project thus far has been very successful and we hope this success continues as we convert other schools. In fact, we get teachers asking us whether they should install linux at home because they like what they have seen. I quickly discourage them to do so simply because it does require technical expertise and most individuals can't figure out how to get their appliances to stop flashing 12:00. Linux/Unix has a ways to go to get to home use. But in business, schools, and of course server environments it is supieror. If you are a system/network administrator and find "Linux" difficult then that's unfortunate. (for the most part) Network admins who use Linux/Unix have a much better understanding of Network Protocols, Security/Firewalling, and services (http,ftp,DNS,dhcp,etc) than do their Window's counterparts. It's not the CLI that's the problem but the inividual's unwillingness to learn a system that demands "behind the scenes" understanding. In my experiences most people who have put in the effort to learn Unix switch to it (as a server environment). Those who come from strictly a Windows background have the most trouble. Well, "You're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy" & just like you can't expect to learn Calculus in a few days you can't expect to understand & appreciate linux in that short time - anything worth while in life requires effort and a little "sweat & tears"