The Zen of the Platform

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The Zen of the Platform

Linux vendors produce different operating systems based on the Linux kernel and various other software, such as the GNU tools and libraries. Frequently, however, you hear people in the IT industry refer to "platforms" in various ways. Occasionally, sometimes you can even hear someone refer to the different Linux distributions as platforms. Before we delve into the remainder of the book, it's worthwhile to take a moment to talk about platforms.

The term platform is an overloaded buzzword, but in the end it's just a word people use to refer to an overall system that allows them to get their work done. So, the term platform encompasses both hardware and software. Microsoft Windows running on an Intel processor is a platform (sometimes called "Wintel"), and a Linux system running on an Intel is another, different platform, even though it could be the same hardware.

An interesting thing to note is that a platform is both the operating system, as well as the hardware running the operating system. For many platforms (and most Unix platforms), the hardware manufacturer also makes the software. For example, the typical Solaris platform consists of Sun Microsystems' Solaris running on a SPARC processor, also manufactured by Sun.

However, Linux is an exception to this rule. Recall that the Linux kernel has been ported to an amazing number of hardware architectures. The first version was for the Intel architecture, and that's still where Linux is strongest. However, it also runs extremely well on Compaq's Alpha, IBM/Motorola's PowerPC, and Sun's SPARC processors, as well as many others.

So what, you ask? Well, you may have noticed by now that one of our recurring themes is that your computer should do what you need it to; if it doesn't, it's just a waste of time and material. If you just need it to work, do you really care how it works? Does it matter if you have the latest MHz processor, or the best video card, or the biggest hard drive, if all you want to do is check your email and browse the web while running a web server in the background? Do you need to upgrade to the latest hardware every time it changes?

Well, maybe the answer is yes; only you can decide that for yourself. However, for many—perhaps even most—of us, the answer is a resounding "No!" For these people, it doesn't matter what the computer is actually made up of—it could be Windows running on an Intel chip, or it could be Linux running on a SPARC. As long as the email client and web server run when you need them to, most people won't even notice the difference.

Again, you ask, so what? How is this relevant? It's relevant because it illustrates one of the important, almost Zen-like qualities of Linux systems: that as long as the system works, it doesn't matter how. Once you've mastered an operating system, it doesn't really matter what the "platform" is. The author's primary workstation is Red Hat Linux running on a 533MHz Compaq Alpha 21164PCA. With only two exceptions, every single topic covered in this book works on that system, as well as the Intel-based testbed system used to develop the content. The reason is because a Linux system is a Linux system no matter where it runs.

Once you've mastered the material in this book, you'll be self-sufficient on Linux systems. Moreover, you'll be self-sufficient on any Linux platform, and it just won't make any difference to you anymore. It's quite refreshing to be able to step out of the rat race in the mainstream PC world, and be able to make your system work, the way you want it to, with a minimum of fuss.



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