Migrating to Linux, Part 1

by Norman M. Jacobowitz

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.

Costs

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.
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