Living with Linux

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Linux is a phenomenon.

There was a time, about ten to twenty years ago, when computers were fun things for people to play with, sort of the way you used to play with broken clocks and bits of car engine back when you were a toddler (if you were so inclined). Bits fell off and needed soldering back on; any setup that worked was an adventure.

Of course there were bigger computers in air-conditioned basements attended to by men in three-piece suits who used terms like "24x7" and "configuration management", but they didn't matter; they weren't fun.

Real computers were small boxes with lots of sphagetti coming out of them.

Some time between 1982 and 1984 that all changed. Small computers became business tools and the nascent industry started targetting their products on business people. Three-piece suits and air conditioned cubicles and spreadsheets. This was no longer fun, this was about money.

However, the age of home computers had accustomed most people -- except the guys who talked about 24x7 mission critical operations -- to accept a certain lack of reliability on the part of the toys. And when the toys moved into business, people just kind of got used to the idea that PCs or Macs crashed regularly and needed rebooting and ate your files then laughed at you.

This is bad. Because, as the mainframe guys can tell you, real computers don't crash.

Actually, though, the cause of the crashes is rarely anything to do with the hardware; modern personal computers are very reliable. They're also becoming increasingly powerful, doubling in performance every 18 months -- the outcome of a phenomenon known as Moore's Law, after the high honcho at Intel who first realised that as the resolution of chip etching processes increases (giving you smaller chicken tracks), the number of circuits you can cram onto a given area of silicon gets bigger, and the maximum speed also goes up. So why do the machines still crash, and why does a modern word processor take up a thousand times the space of a 1982 word processor (and not do anything essentially different)?

The answer's in the software. Most modern PC software is crap. Attempts to make it backward-compatable with programs running in 1982 have turned operating systems into mushy swamps of unmaintainable junk; and the companies who sell them make too much money off their existing customer base to be able to take the risk of re-designing the universe.

Enter Linux.

I have a PC, sitting on a rack up the road. It has currently been running for eleven days; the last time it shut down was due to a power glitch. It doesn't crash. That's because it runs Linux; and although Linux evolved from the hairy hacker community, it is the beneficiary of the mainframer's attitude to reliability: it better keep running, or else.

I'm not going to lecture you about why Linux is more reliable than most commercial operating systems. If you want to know more, there's a very good essay by Eric Raymond called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. High-ups at Netscape read it and decided to release their source code: it's that convincing.

For my part, I find Linux is fun. It gives me the chance to tinker around with a computer, just like the good old days; while when I'm working, it gives me mainframe-grade solidity.

I really, really like this combination of reliability with fun. In fact, I like it so much that I now live in a Microsoft-free zone. I don't see any reason to pay good money for software that crashes and gets bigger and slower faster than my PCs get more powerful.

But Linux ain't perfect. A typical out-of-the-box linux distribution from Red Hat or Slackware or Debian always leaves something to be desired.

Every Linux distribution I've met so far is missing one or more of the following:

Without all of these, Linux is going to remain the domain of techies like me. I'm not afraid of building and installing kernels, patching bits, compiling weird bits of software, and writing my own where necessary. J. Random Office Worker, however, needs a bit of hand-holding. One day, there will be Linux distributions that meet their need, installing either KDE or Gnome automagically, along with an office suite like KOffice (or maybe StarOffice 4.0) with a decent set of icons and mime-types preconfigured, so that the poor users don't need to think -- they can just drag and drop pretty pictures of files as if working on a Mac or Windows box. The magic distribution may have a expert system to handle administration, pruning logfiles, deleting aged corefiles, and rebuilding a kernel to make maximum use of the available hardware. It will have cutesy wizards to ask users who their internet service provider is, and will automatically set up their net connection for them.

But that day hasn't arrived yet, and probably won't for at least another six months.

In the meantime ...

I'm going to try to get into the habit of writing a thousand words or so every Friday, describing what I've been doing or discovered during the week when I was using Linux in the course of my work. Some of these essays will bore you to tears; others may give you useful hints. This isn't the Linux documentation project, and I don't work as a tech author writing UNIX Manuals Any more, so don't expect a huge Guide for the Perplexed.

See you around.

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