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Since you have used Windows and are now at least thinking about moving to Linux, it might be prudent to compare the two operating systems. What does one offer that the other does not? What do they have in common? Why would you move from Windows to Linux? Let us first set aside some of the operating system wars that you find in Internet discussions. Those of you who are not familiar with the raging Internet debates between proponents of different operating systems are probably fortunate. Many an Internet discussion group or chat room has become bogged down with proponents of Linux/Unix and proponents of Microsoft hurling accusations and insults at each other. At times these arguments get quite nasty. The purpose of this book is not to bash one operating system or to exalt another. Both Windows and Linux have their place. The author has both a Windows XP machine and a Red Hat Linux machine at home and a dual boot on his laptop (dual boot means you have both operating systems installed, and at startup you are prompted to pick the one you want to use). Some people seem to have an almost religious fervor regarding their operating system of choice. That is not the tone of this book. Still, there are significant differences in the two operating systems. Differences that should be examined thoroughly.
First, let’s take a look at the advantages of using Linux as opposed to Microsoft Windows. The most obvious advantage is cost. If you purchase a commercial version of Linux, you can expect to spend about $50 for Red Hat 9.0 Personal Edition®, as opposed to about $200 for Windows XP Personal Edition. You also can download several versions of Linux for free from the Internet. Simply by purchasing Linux rather than Microsoft Windows, you immediately save money. You also don’t have to worry about licensing fees. If you are using a Windows 2000 or XP server in your small business, you are required to purchase a license for each machine that will connect to it. With Linux, the number of machines you connect is irrelevant—you don’t need any licenses. This is an something that gets many small businesses in trouble. If you set up a Windows server and connect 10 employees to it, you are supposed to purchase 10 licenses. If you don’t, you are in violation of copyright laws and subject to criminal and civil penalties. With a Linux server, you can connect as many machines as you want.
You also can install your copy of Linux on multiple machines. This is not the case with Windows. When you buy any version of Windows, it is illegal to install it on more than one machine at a time. Linux has no such restriction; you can install it on every machine in your office if you want.
To continue our scenario of an office with 10 machines and one server, this could all be done for about $50 with Linux. With Windows, you need 10 copies of Windows XP at $200 each, one copy of Windows XP Server (over $500), and 10 licenses for the 10 machines to connect to the server. You need well over $3,000 worth of software and licenses! That is a lot of money, probably as much as you spent for the computers themselves or very close to it. Clearly, using Linux saves you money.
You also save money on applications. After you have purchased Microsoft Windows, you then will need to pay for a variety of applications to run on it. You will need to purchase Microsoft Office (about $500) in order to do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, small database work, and so on. If you need large-scale databases, you have to first purchase Microsoft Windows XP Server instead of the Home or Professional edition, and then purchase Microsoft SQL Server® for about $3,000. With Red Hat Linux 9.0, you get Open Office® for free. Open Office has a complete office suite, including word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tools. You also get MySQL®, which is a complete large-scale database server. You can purchase Star Office® for under $60 or Corel Office Suite® for Linux for $150. It would seem that even after buying the operating system, you save even more money on applications with Linux. Linux is the most cost-effective solution for the home user or small business operator.
Saving money is obviously a good thing, but it is certainly not the only criterion you should consider when choosing an operating system. Another consideration is the operating system’s stability, which includes a number of factors. The most obvious factor is uptime. How much of the time is the operating system actually running and performing useful work, versus downtime due to crashing? The Linux operating system is stable. Will it work when you need it to? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, by every standard, both Unix and Linux are far more stable than Windows. You can have a Linux machine running for months and never need to reboot it or defragment it.
Some readers may wonder what is meant by defragmenting a hard drive. You may have heard this process called optimizing a drive, and it is periodically necessary because of the way files are stored. Your hard drive has multiple spinning platters, and when you save a file, segments are saved to the hard drive. These fragments may not be contiguous. This leads to file fragmentation, which means that a single document might be found in pieces scattered all over your hard drive. This fragmentation can make your computer run much slower because it must search throughout your hard drive to find all the pieces of the document, rather than finding them all in one place. When you defragment your hard drive, you will often find that it will run faster.
The way in which an operating system handles the files on the computer depends entirely on the filesystem used by the operating system. A filesystem is exactly what its name implies, a system for storing and accessing files. Put another way, a filesystem organizes the files on your computer. You have lots of files of different types on your PC. You have documents you save, spreadsheets, programs, and so on. All of these are files. The problem for the computer is organizing them in such a way that you can easily find them. This is where the filesystem comes in. It is simply the method the computer uses to organize the files stored on your computer. The filesystem used by Linux, Extended File System (ext), is more robust than the systems used by Windows (FAT, FAT32, and NTFS) and does not need defragmenting.
In Windows you would go to the Start menu, choose Programs, select Accessories, then go to System Tools, where you would find the defragmentation tool, as shown in Figure 1.1.
Figure 1.1: Finding the Windows defragmentation tool.
All of the mentioned filesystems for Microsoft operating systems work on a table that relates specific file segments with addresses on the hard drive. The first of these is File Allocation Table (FAT). Windows 2000 and XP use a significantly enhanced filesystem called New Technology File System (NTFS).
It appears that there are some significant advantages to using Linux. It is a very stable operating system that is also very cheap. There also are a few disadvantages to using the Linux operating system, the first being the availability of software. You can get office products such as Star Office and Open Office (which will be explored later in this book). You can find robust graphics programs such as GIMP® (Graphics Image Manipulation Program, also explored in this book). You can even purchase a few games for Linux. However, you cannot get Microsoft Office®, Adobe Photoshop®, or many other popular applications for Linux. At least you cannot get them at this time. You will be able to do all the tasks you are used to, but you may need to do them with new software. You will probably have to seek out alternative applications for some of the products you are used to working with. Fortunately, many of these alternative applications are also open source. In fact, Red Hat 9.0 includes several of these on the installation disks. Even if you are not using Red Hat 9.0, you will find many of these alternative applications are available as free downloads from the Internet.
In addition to learning some new software applications, you will find that some applications simply cannot be found for Linux, and no suitable Linux analog exists. For example, many games have not been ported to Linux. This is changing, but you will still find a great many games that do not have Linux versions. You also will find that some hardware does not have a Linux driver. Most standard CD-ROMs, printers, NIC cards, and such will work under Linux, but more obscure brands might not. If you are using fairly common hardware, this will not be a problem.
One very significant disadvantage for small businesses using Linux is finding appropriate technical staff. Most computer companies that do outsourcing of PC support and repair are trained in Windows, not in Linux. It also is likely that most of your employees have significant Windows experience but little or no Linux experience. This may necessitate retraining your staff in the use of Linux (of course, you could start by simply buying them all copies of this book!). In plain terms, competent technical personnel trained in Windows are very easy to find, whereas competent Linux technical support can be much more difficult to find. This often leads to Linux professionals commanding a somewhat higher salary.
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