People choose to use Unix for a number of reasons, from control (on the legal and licensing side as well as the "getting stuff done" side) to economy (most flavors of Unix offer free or nearly free licensing) to power (experienced Unix geeks can do more with less effort on Unix than Windowsfor many things, at least. In the final analysis, though, most Unix people end up sticking with Unix because they tried it, slogged through the initial learning curve, then decided they like it. Using a Unix system is different from working on a PC. Using a PC, the computer's hard drive is your personal space, and generallyyou don't have access to what's on someone else's hard drive. With Unix, you have your own personal space that's located within a much bigger system. You might think of Unix as being an apartment building, with lots of individual apartment spaces, a central office, and perhaps other general spaces, like a maintenance office. With Unix, you have the entire system that houses dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of personal spaces, and private spaces(for, say, the system administrator, bosses, or computer department staff). You can access your apartment only, but the system administrator (or designated people with authorization) can access any apartment.
Different Types of Unix Access
So, the first question, then, is how you might access a Unix system to get started with all of this. Given that this is Unix, you have exactly 1.2 bazillion options. Let's look at these options:
Accessing a Shell Account
The traditional approach (back in the olden days, when we wrote the first version of this book) was to connect to a "shell account" provided by your dialup ISP. That's still an option, if you have certain ISPs (and even with some broadband connections). If your ISP offers a shell account, go ahead and use it; it's still a good option.
Accessing Your Company's System
If not (that is, if you have a cable modem, DSL connection, or dialup connection through any of the huge companies that provide Internet access, "not" is the case), you still have a ton of options. Check at work; many companies use Unix in a number of ways, and if you can provide the system administrator with appropriate quantities of cookies or other goodies, you may be able to get Unix system access.
Installing Unix On An Old or Spare Computer
Alternatively, if you'd rather keep your Unix explorations closer to home, you can manage that as well. If you have an older computer sitting around (say, anything that's a Pentium III or later), you can just install Unix (Linux, Solaris, or whatever) on that, and likely without hassles or problems. You could make it work on even older computers, but given how cheap new and used computers are, it's likely not worth the trouble. Either way, you'll download a CD or DVD from the Web, burn it onto a disc, and boot your system with the disc in the drive. The installation will start, and a few questions and few minutes later, you'll be all set.
Installing Unix and Windows Side by Side
You can also download the CD or DVD and install on your everyday desktop computer. Most of the time (actually virtually all the time, but we're making no promises here), you can install Unix onto your desktop right alongside your Windows environment without breaking anything. You'll get it installed, reboot your system, and choose Unix (Linux, Solaris, whatever) or Windows when you boot up. This option isn't bad, but it does require you to stop what you're doing in Windows or Unix to change to the other. If your desktop computer is relatively old, this might be better than the following options, though.
If you have a pretty beefy desktop computer (relatively new with ample memory and disk space), you could try using Vmware, which gives you a computer emulation (think "picture in picture" for your computer, but with one operating system within the other operating system).
Many of the examples and screenshots for this book were taken from Unix systems running under VMware on one of our desktop systems.
Cygwin provides you with a Unix environment that's actually part of your Windows system. It takes a bit of getting used to, but Cygwin is stable and reliable. The hardest part about using Cygwin is that it can be confusing to know if you're dealing with Unix or Windows at any given moment.
Different Unix Flavors
So, given all of those options on how to get access to Unix, the choice of which kind of Unix (which Unix flavor) must be clear and straightforwardright? Of course not.
If you're just getting started with Unix, we'd recommend having you choose the flavor that your most techie friends or the folks at work use. This will give you potential built-in tech support options.
If you're starting purely from scratch, look into the most popular and highly-rated Linux distributions. (Currently, the Web site www.distrowatch.com gives a great set of recommendations, but as you know, Web sites change, so you might want to also do some Web searching for recommended Linux distributions.)
A newly popular (or popular again) option is Solaris, from Sun Microsystems. For a while Solaris was a bit tricky (well, a lot tricky) to get installed and functional on a regular desktop system; however, it's now nearly as easy as the easier Linux systems, and it offers a tremendous amount of power and flexibility, in addition to some cutting-edge technologies.
That said, any option you choose will be pretty similar for the purposes of this book. Differences among the options primarily show up in more advanced applications.