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Last Updated: Thursday 25 February 1999  NETWORKS

Wrestling with the Penguin

The Vancouver Sun

Nicholas Carroll Vancouver Sun


The Linux operating system is reliable, fast, and cool. Mainframe and Web server owners love it, since a computer running on Linux might crash only once a year. Geeks love it because it's technical.

Some say Linux is the operating system that will replace Windows, and end the Microsoft monopoly. A product of the open-source software movement -- in which thousands of independent programmers share computer source code --Linux has spread rapidly since it was created in 1991.

But before Linux can push Windows aside, it has to become something the average computer user can master. Is Linux truly ready for the desktop now?

Recently, I set out to get Linux up and running on my home computer. I did so with some foreboding. I remember the harsh days of DOS installation. And Windows 3.0 was no picnic, either.

Linux promised to be different; its mascot is a loveable little penguin. Or is it little? Hard to tell from the logo. An Emperor penguin weighs in at up to 40 kilograms of muscle and fight. Further, they bite. With that in mind, I performed the mother of all file backups and moved on to installation.

To give Linux a full test, I assembled five different Linux packages: Caldera Open Linux, Red Hat Linux, Slackware Linux, SuSE Linux and WGS Linux Pro. Since the core of the operating system -- the "kernel" -- is free, Linux doesn't come packaged as a complete interface but in CD sets called "distributions."

I'm one of those people who puts the manual on the shelf and then whips through the installation process. So, I stuffed a boot disk into my floppy drive and started setup.

This was over-optimistic. The installation program immediately demanded Linux "partitions." For many users, dividing the hard drive into partitions (much like the sections of an LP record) will be the biggest single hurdle. It's unavoidable, because Linux needs at least two new partitions outside the DOS/Windows area of a hard drive.

Rational solution number one was to buy an extra four gigabyte hard drive and install everything.

Rational solution number two was to get a commercial program like Partition Magic and make do with the available space on my hard drive. This is less pleasant; operating systems don't like sharing a hard drive. I chose solution two. Repartitioning took about an hour, and gave me 400 megabytes in which to install Linux.

I tried the five Linux distributions one by one to see if any offered easy installation. The first suggested otherwise, when the opening pop-up screen showed the ominous message: "Have a lot of fun!" Clearly the penguin was ready for a scrap. I began making selections and hitting the Enter key. Linux installation proved similar to primitive DOS: You start the setup, confront incomprehensible menu choices, take your best shot, fail completely, and try again. With each failure you advance a step further.

Some 30 tries later I was up against the last barricade. Linux was running, unquestionably, but all I could see was white text on a black screen with the unpromising phrase: [root@localhost/root]*. Remembering the dawn days of PCs, I typed "help", and got a screen of command choices such as "hash", "unmask", and "unalias."

Recalling something about "startx" launching the graphic interface, I tried that. Error messages surfaced like penguins from the sea. I was instructed to set up the interface with the "Xconfigurator" before running "startx."

The geekish of heart may feel a faint thrill at typing the "startx" command, since it is followed by dozens of scrolling phrases like "Ramdisk driver initialized!" However, I wanted a bit more, like the ability to do something useful. I got up the next morning fresh and went through another round with all five packages, hoping for a graphic interface.

No luck. This was an even longer job than partitioning or setting up the operating system. I developed a ritual: install, despair, take a nap, read the manual again, install again. At last an interface popped up, looking for all the world like ... Windows 95.

As it happened, the first interface to pop up was the Red Hat version. The look and feel was a bit crude. On the upside, the configuration options are clearly more flexible than anything offered in Windows or Mac and the choices tend to be laid out more cleanly.

There are no pesky tabbed dialogue boxes. Linux interfaces hew toward one big configuration window, with everything laid out in view. The language is unfamiliar, though, with choices like "Dismiss" instead of "Close" and the variety is daunting. This interface needs to have the choices clearly marked as "necessary" or "optional."

I sparred with the penguin for another hour, most of the time spent getting my mouse to slow down. With the mouse under control, I wandered through the desktop, and soon found familiar utilities, such as Find and Calculator. Despite our differences, the penguin and I were now talking the same language.

One can only spend so much time tuning desktops. Then you have to open an application. When Netscape Communicator snaps up, the difference is startling. A familiar, commercially polished application appears. Likewise with WordPerfect for Linux, and the Gimp graphics application.

There is not really much to say about Linux applications. They are what we're used to. Netscape on Linux looks and works exactly like the Windows version.

It took about 30 hours total until I had useful applications up and working. Much of the time was spent struggling with limited disk space, or trying to do it easily. A methodical computer user with some DOS experience and an empty four gigabyte hard drive might do it in five hours by patiently working through the manual.

In short, the penguin can be whipped, but not without a fight.

Linux isn't quite ready for the consumer market, not if consumers have to install it. On the other hand, it's not far; perhaps a year. Or perhaps only six months, as open source software is developing with mind-boggling speed.

Using Linux is another matter completely. The average user could start using Linux applications within an hour if the system was already set up.

Of course, one might ask: Why bother?

Fewer crashes, for one. In two weeks the system never crashed at all, compared to Windows 95, which crashes my Pentium two-three times a day (usually while online.) This should be highly appealing to most Windows or Mac users.

Computer security is another bonus. Even network Linux computers have been curiously free of viruses. Partly this is because Linux computers aren't yet a big enough target to tempt malicious hackers. In large part, though, Linux is simply a more secure system. It was designed with networks in mind and security was built into the design.

Speed is a third. Linux boots and exits in half the time of Windows. Other operations also seem consistently faster. Yet, like most users familiar with an OS, I have reasons to stay with Windows.

One is the learning curve. Gimp is a real graphics program, but I won't be giving up Photoshop right away.

The other is my files. WordPerfect for Linux will import my Word files easily enough. However, spreadsheets and databases are another matter. I have hundreds of each, designed in Excel and Access. Importing the files won't recreate the interfaces and macros.

For now, I'm keeping Linux just to surf the Net, meaning I am one of those sophisticates who "dual boots." If I feel like Windows, I enter "dos" and then "win." If my mood says surf, I enter "linux" and then "startx."

Yet I'm already part-way through the door. Switching from DOS to Windows 3.0 wasn't that pleasant, either. For a year I used both.

As I upgraded to Windows applications, the reasons to change eventually became compelling.

If or when Linux becomes the mainstream operating system, it may not need a "killer ap" to get there. The reasons may be simpler.

Saving time is one good reason.

Money is another. Linux applications cost less than their equivalents in Windows or Mac. This is a serious consideration for new users.

The downsizing of Web servers may be a third reason. It's already possible to run a sizable commercial site off a $1,500 Pentium. If fast Internet connections become affordable, many small businesses will be hosting their own Websites and they'll want reliability. With pre-configured Linux Pentiums now dropping below the $2,000 level, in-house servers become realistic.

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