Linux is the open source replacement for Unix, Windows Web server, and a contender to replace the Windows desktop operating system. Linux started replacing my Solaris Web servers back in 1996 because Solaris required Sun hardware and Sun hardware was more expensive but no faster than competing hardware. I placed most of the Web sites on servers managed by Web hosting companies and they preferred the security of Solaris but some were changing to Freebsd and Linux. How useful is Linux today, 13 years after that first use?
Choice of Distributions
Windows used to be a simple choice, just the desktop and server versions. Now there is a huge range of confusing choices. Linux offers a huge range of confusing choices and I hope to simplify the choice on this page.
Linux variations are divided into distributions and many distributions are now on DVD with everything on the DVD, the desktop and server options installable from one menu. You can create any mix using the one DVD. This actually makes Linux easier to install than Windows.
The most popular Linux distributions are listed in Linux distributions.
Web site servers were the big new thing in the mid 1990s and Apache was the Web server software of choice. Apache ran on every useful operating system including Linux. Windows and Linux gave you the widest choice of hardware. Brand name replacements for Sun Solaris servers were from 20 percent to 50 percent cheaper than the Sun software and hardware combination. You could set up an effective Web server using generic components for about 70 percent less than the cost of a Sun Solaris equivalent.
Today you can set up Linux on almost any hardware. New hardware arrives with updates for Windows and the most advanced Linux distributions implement similar updates within weeks or a few months. If you are not at the bleeding edge testing unusual hardware, you can use Linux. You get the best choice of competitive hardware and an operating system with no licence management problems.
Occasionally you might have to wait a month or two to get new hardware working but that is not longer than tracking down all the weird errors in a new version of Windows. You never know how long Microsoft will take to fix an error and that is the same with open source distributions. If your Linux does not recognise the new network chip in a new computer, as happened to me recently, you can slip in an old network card for a few months or experiment with other Linux distributions. I will point you to the better distributions for handling new hardware.
Prior to 1996, my only use of Linux or Unix was in servers and dedicated devices with BSD style Unix dominating the dedicated devices and Solaris dominating the Web servers. Everything else was Windows or NT. Solaris was rated the most secure Unix and Netbsd second. To make Linux as secure as Unix, you had to run a procedure named Bastille and Bastille had limitations. Unix was the king of security.
Unix fell to Linux because there were many versions of Unix with few receiving adequate attention. There were a million people improving Unix and only a few tens of thousands improving Linux but everyone working on Linux was working on the same Linux. Some versions of Unix were so specialised that only a few dozen people, out of that million, worked on them. Linux became an easy option for replacing less successful versions of Unix.
Unix survived on dedicated devices because their BSD style licence is better for dedicated device developers. The Linux GPL licence is perfect for servers. Linux ate up the Unix share of the server market by replacing the least popular versions of Unix. There is always one Unix that is less popular than the rest and a target for replacement by Linux. Eventually IBM replaced their proprietary versions of Unix with Linux and contributed serious improvements to Linux. Big corporations shifted from Unix to Linux when IBM approved Linux.
Recently Apple copied IBM by throwing out their Apple operating system and adopting an open source operating system. Apple decided to use an operating system with a BSD licence so they could paste the Apple label on the free operating system and charge money for the result. That leaves just Apple and Sun trying to keep Unix alive on general purpose computers.
My first attempt at replacing a Windows system with Linux is not recorded. I recently threw out some old floppy disks and one was labelled as an Nvidia driver for Linux created on March 16, 2001. The actual floppy disk was marked as put into service on June 11, 1995, which was about the time a lot of Web hosting companies started offering Linux as an alternative to Solaris and I started using Linux on test servers.
Back in 1995 I probably used the floppy to download and install a driver for Linux because those versions of Linux were squeezed into one CD and one CD was not enough to store all the hardware drivers needed to get computers working.
Linux was rarely a replacement for an existing server and was usually an alternative for a new server. If I had to split a Web site off a general purpose server, I would set up the new server with Apache on Linux or NT. NT often won because NT had better installation procedures and a better default file system.
2001 is a long time after I started setting up NT and Linux based Web servers. 2001 is about the time I was deciding between an upgrade from NT to Windows 2000 or to put everything on Linux. Weeks of work on Linux produced really basic Web servers and desktop computers but nothing to the standard I required. What I could not achieve with a week of work on Linux, was easy to do in 30 minutes using either NT or Windows 2000.
I am still persisting with Linux today and, for 2008, I will get a Linux server running in my office for something other than a basic Web server. I will set up a workstation to replace my Windows workstation. I will use the latest hardware and I will set up all the reliability features I use in Windows. I will try to set up everything using normal installation procedures and not the Unix black screen of command line death. 2008 is the year of Linux.
Update January 2011. I have Ubuntu 10.10 running on several computers next to Windows XP on a computer with identical hardware. The Windows XP machine is used more than 15 hours every day. The Linux machines are used only a few hours each day. The XP machine is used with up to 60 applications open. The Linux machines are used with only one or two applications open. The odds are really stacked against the Windows XP machine. Each Linux machine crashes once or twice per day. The XP machine has not crashed for many months. The combination of Linux and applications supplied in Ubuntu 10.10 is as unreliable as Windows was back in the 1980s.
Black Screen of Command Line Death
The one drawback with Linux and Unix is reverting to the Unix command line. If I wanted to use a command line, I could use DOS from the 1970s. One of my teachers described working with command lines through teletypes in the 1950s. The earliest known computer, a mechanical device from over 2000 years ago, had a graphical user interface so why should I have to learn to use the command line today?
Unix and Linux users complain about something in Windows named the Blue Screen of Death, BSoD, but it is so long ago that I last saw a BSoD that I can not recount the circumstances. I frequently see Linux systems devolve to their command line form, the Black Screen of Death, BSoD and I often have to visit the same screen to fix problems created by errors in the Linux administration programs. You cannot heap rubbish on the Windows BSoD then expect people to convert from Windows to Linux when almost every Web page about Linux points you into their BSoD.
Fortunately there are Linux distributions where the use of BSoD is rare.
Windows has a home version that uses the FAT file system and a professional version using NTFS. NTFS offers full security plus improved efficiency and reliability. Old versions of Linux defaulted to a file system named Ext2 that was better than FAT but not as good as NTFS. Today most versions of Linux use Ext3, a great replacement for NTFS.
There are only three problems remaining with Ext3. The first is the lack of a space in file names. In Windows you can name a file caterpillars spring 2007 but in Unix and Linux file systems you have to replace the spaces with something else, caterpillars-spring-2007.
The second problem is that Linux and Unix do not understand case. In Windows you can type a file name as motheggs, Motheggs, MothEggs, or motheGGs, you still get the one file. When you type the file name with a different case in Linux or Unix, Linux and Unix look for different files. You can spend hours looking for a file in Linux if you do not know how the file name was typed. Fortunately some modern Linux equivalents to Windows Explorer are set up to overcome the lack of understanding in Linux and find files no matter how the file name is typed.
Your memory cards in your camera, telephone, music, and video players use the FAT file system instead of Ext3. The file names have to be translated when moving files from FAT to Ext3. Linux also detects the type of file by methods other than a file extension, which is different to Windows. Generally Linux will handle the movement of a file from Windows to Linux but may create files that will not work when moved to Windows. Ext3 will be more useful when the manufacturers of portable devices replace FAT with Ext3 and the manufacturers will not use Ext3 until Microsoft builds Ext3 compatibility into Windows.
When you create files in Linux, type all the file names in lower case so nobody has to remember the way you typed the file name. Use file extensions for all files that may end up on Windows. Change the defaults in your applications to create the right file extensions. Always use binary file transfers between operating systems so they do not try to change the data within the files.
All Distributions of Linux
Some distributions of Linux only give you control of the installation process if you use a special startup option. My comparisons of Linux distributions include features that may require those special startup options.
Linux is miserable at RAID on the desktop workstation compared to Windows. On Windows you get RAID free with the server versions of Windows and it almost always works exactly how you expect without any special configuration work. The desktop version of Windows usually gets RAID support from a hardware assist chip with a special driver and that type of RAID usually works exactly as expected without surprises.
Linux RAID has all sorts of problems. Some server oriented distributions have acceptable configuration tools but many do not and almost none of the desktop oriented distributions install RAID or provide an easy option for RAID.
The most common recommendation in Linux forums is to use dedicated hardware RAID instead of Linux software RAID. Dedicated hardware RAID uses a second computer to isolate the disks and perform the RAID work. You duplicate the software, processor, and memory on a special plug in card. What a waste of resources. Some of the add-on cards are more expensive than a whole desktop computer. Linux needs better software RAID configuration and management tools.
A few tiny changes to Linux would make Linux RAID workable and the changes appear to be only in the installation process, not the working software. Linux forces you to create partitions on disk then convert the partitions to RAID. You should be able to select RAID first then point to a set of disks and have the matching partitions created automatically. As an alternative, create native partitions on one disk then tell RAID to copy the set onto the other disks.
After you install Linux, there is nothing to add, change, manage, or restore RAID arrays. There might be some weird command line stuff for coffee drinking, pizza eating Unix buffs, with or without pony tails, but nothing for regular computer users. Debian is the best choice for RAID with Fedora and CentOS running a close second, just do not use the default CentOS or Fedora configuration because it is overly complicated.
Update October 2010. The Ubuntu 10.10 alternate edition is equivalent to the Ubuntu desktop edition and has added RAID plus an expanded Debian style installation process to let you use RAID. The Alternate edition installation process is slightly more complicated and not recommended for beginners who do not need RAID.
You need an MBR on your computer. Windows automatically creates the correct MBR, you do not have to know what an MBR is because it always works. In Linux you have to read hundreds of Web pages and forum posts to find out how to create a working MBR and the creation process usually requires the use of ancient command line instructions. Fedora comes closest to creating MBRs reliably but only if you use complicated options during the installation procedure.
Linux and Unix advocates are quick to dismiss Windows as
DOS with something stuck on top but then they tell you to fix everything in Linux by using the Linux equivalent to DOS, the command line. The Linux advocates need to replace the black screen of command line death with something at least as good as the 1970s style Debian installation process interface.
You should be able to specify where the MBR is created because most distributions of Linux place a new MBR on the wrong disk when there are several disks. You should be told where the MBR will go have the opportunity to select another disk.
Many Linux distributions do not tell you when they change an MBR. Some Linux distributions tell you they are changing the MBR but never actually make the change. This is one area needing drastic improvement because diagnosing the problems is extremely difficult and there is no easy way to fix the result. Debian and Fedora produce the least problems in this area and give you the most power to override their mistakes.
A boot loader is the fourth thing you need to start a computer after electricity, the BIOS, and an MBR. Modern Linux distributions use GRUB but the GRUB installation process is primitive and almost useless with RAID. You have to perform multiple complicated processes to get a working GRUB for anything other than a single disk based computer. You have to fix many of the GRUB problems using the ancient black screen of command line death. If I wanted to fix everything in DOS, I could go back to Windows 3.1. Fedora installs GRUB reliably on most occasions and gives you an override option to correct the few wrong choices made by Fedora.
When you install an operating system on many computers, you want to use the latest update but do not want to download a whole DVD every week. You could install a mirror on one of your servers then install to new computers using the mirror. Jigdo is the new alternative to network installs.
Jigdo downloads the whole DVD on the first download but instead of downloading a finished image, it downloads a template then all the components then builds the image. When you want an updated image, Jigdo can download an updated template then download just the components that change.
Debian offers weekly updates via Jigdo and Fedora recently started supplying updates using Jigdo but not as frequent. You do not save anything on the first download. Subsequent updates are only a few hundred megabytes instead of downloading the whole 4 gigabytes again. Use Jigdo if you have more than a couple of computers.
People keep telling me that Linux is faster than Windows. When I test Windows and Linux side by side with the same software and hardware configuration performing the same work, there is little difference. Read the details in Linux Speed.
Update October 2010. Ubuntu 10.10 has significant speed improvements over earlier versions of Linux on my hardware. It might be improvements to Linux or better hardware drivers.
Use Debian, Fedora or CentOS Linux for your Web servers. Use Debian or Fedora for everything else. Use the testing version of Debian for new hardware. Give Ubuntu to people who want to learn Linux at home and point them to the Ubuntu forums for support. Use Jigdo, where available, to download distributions then download just the updates for subsequent installations.
1 in 5 servers shipping with Linux is a stupid prediction by a local publication at a time when far more servers use Linux. Forget the predictions for 2011. Read the truth.
Amaya is a Web editor and browser used by the W3C to demonstrate Web technology. Amaya works on most of the popular operating systems and the source code is available to compile on other operating systems.
Android is Linux plus an open source compiler that accepts Java code and produces real programs. The efficient flexible Android outsells the Apple iPhone. The Android now outsells all other smartphones combined and that is with only half the models in the shops. The Android market is set to boom.
20 minutes work is shaping up to be several days work in Linux. Today I burnt up four hours wasted on trying to do something really simple in Linux and the progress is almost zero. The four hours achieved less than ten percent of the work.
Whil Hentzen, of Hentzenwerke, won Microsoft's Most Valuable Programmer Award eight times and received Microsoft's 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award. Whil is now dumping Microsoft software and using open source software including Linux. Why would a Microsoft software expert change?
goes Linux according to an article I read today and hundreds of articles before that. Conversion is possible and is common. Why do people change? What makes the change easy? What makes the change successful? Do you save any money changing from Windows to Linux?
Backup your computer. Everyone says so. Few people do it until they suffer serious loss. Most people drop their computer then ask me how to recover the unrecoverable. Here are the secrets to backing up everything. I use Linux as an example. Most of the secrets are the same everywhere.
My test machine has an SSD, Solid State Disk, for the system disk and three identical disks for a RAID 5 array. I want to use Webmin and Webmin recommends CentOS 5 for the operating system. Here is a run through a CentOS 5 installation in preparation for use with Webmin and for many other uses.
The Computer Janitor program provides a way to clean up Linux based computers. I experimented with Computer Janitor version 2.1.0 on Ubuntu 12.04 after changing desktop environments and liked most of the results, although there is still a way to go towards perfection.
Déjà Dup Backup Tool is a graphical front end for duplicity and works on Linux.
Fedora Linux is a version of Linux produced as a community project, sponsored by Red Hat, and using more recent software than Red Hat. Compare Fedora and Ubuntu for your first Linux.
One of my new computers worked with Fedora but not Ubuntu. Another new computer worked with Ubuntu but not Fedora. You may no get the chance to choose between Ubuntu and Fedora when installing linux on a new computer. When both Fedora and Ubuntu work on your computer, your choice is difficult because almost everything is available from both distributions. Lets look at some of the differences in a standard download and installation.
Updated for Ubuntu 11.10 and Fedora 15
Firefox works on a lot of operating systems including Windows and Linux. I used Firefox 3.6.8 side by side on Ubuntu Linux 10.4 and Windows XP. Is there any difference?
Gnome 3 is out. Gnome 3 is in the latest Fedora Linux and replaces the Gnome 2 most Linux users use. Have you used Gnome 3? What is your opinion?
This page is a work in progress to be updated each time I find a significant difference between GNOME fallback (no effects) and other user interfaces.
Gnome or KDE, which excites you most? The argument for Gnome is like the argument for Windows or Mac, it is the dominant choice. The main argument I used to hear for KDE was KDE is closer to Windows and an easier conversion. Today people tell me KDE has a superior application development approach. What did you choose when you tried them and why?
Linux uses memory, just like Windows and every other operating system. Linux uses spare memory to improve performance, just like every other operating system. Your requirements depend on what you do. Here are guidelines based on real life usage.
Install Apache 2.2, MySQL 5.1, and PHP 5 in Ubuntu Linux 11.4 desktop edition for local testing of your Web sites and for Webmin. This should work the same for Ubuntu 10.10 and 10.4.
How does the iPad stack up against a netbook using the Acer Aspire One AOD255-N551G25n as the comparison? The iPad looks great for those who want to brag
Mine cost more than yours. Where else does it win?
Slow and difficult to use. Now for the bad points about K9copy. K9copy is a Linux program that can do a number of things including backing up DVDs but this page is strictly about K9copy used for backing up DVDs and as a Linux replacement for DVDdecrypter.
Kubuntu 10.10 alternate installation on a desktop computer with RAID 1 is comparable to the Ubuntu alternate installation. The end result is completely different.
Linux 2.6.38 is the version of Linux to be used in Ubuntu 11.4, due next month. Is the upgrade worthwhile? Will you notice a difference?
Linux offers a huge range of confusing choices and I hope to simplify the choice on this page.
Ubuntu Linux 10.10 screwed up again, this time all menus and icons were missing after login. Similar to Windows and as bad as Apple Mac OSX. Almost enough to send me back to Windows XP. I found a solution and it is almost easy.
Linux Mint claim to produce the world's fourth most popular operating system after Microsoft Windows, Mac OSX Unix, and Ubuntu Linux. Ubuntu is based on Debian. Mint is based on Ubuntu and Debian. That makes Debian the base for most of the world's Linux.
Linux Mint Debian Edition, LMDE, is Debian with add extras similar to but different from Ubuntu. There is no Unity desktop to delete, you choose Cinnamon or MATE.
I chose the Ubuntu 13.04 based Linux Mint 15 to match my Ubuntu machines and MATE for a faster user interface. If the new MATE is good, I will propagate MATE to other machines.
There are many ways to build RAID arrays in Linux and Windows. Both Microsoft and the Linux developers work really hard at making RAID difficult for absolutely no reason. Linux is way ahead of Windows on both difficulty and uselessness.
I tried to write a positive happy uplifting page about the glorious RAID provided with Linux but Google and a million Linux bigots defeated me so hear is a rant. Hopefully the new breed of Linux converts will heal the situation.
Linux is safer than Windows because the open source development ensures there are none of the viral nasties installed in some proprietary software. Linux is safer than Windows because there are none of the artificial usage restrictions that stop Windows at critical moments. Linux is also supposed to be more reliable than Windows but Ubuntu 10.10 and many other Linux distributions are not showing the reliability of Windows.
Ubuntu Linux is a mix of the conservative stable Debian Linux and the latest software. Ubuntu is the Linux you choose when you want Debian updated with the latest hardware drivers. The latest software is often unstable and may make your computer difficult to use. Sometimes the best approach is to use the latest version of Ubuntu to get the new hardware drivers but then switch off other new features for stability.
People keep telling me that Linux is faster than Windows but when I test Windows and Linux side by side with the same software and hardware configuration, performing the same work, there is little difference. Is there a speed difference worth pursuing? Updated for Ubuntu 10.10.
After all the years of development poured into Linux, Linux is still a struggle. It is close to being less of a pain than Windows but that is mainly through Microsoft making Windows harder. Part of the problem is the lack of profit for commercial operators in the Linux market and the focus on Web servers. What challenges remain before Linux takes over?
Time is a critical element for your computer and is one of the easiest things to set automatically. Here is information about time, how to keep your Linux computer on time, and how to share the time with others. The exact details vary across Linux distributions. Unix computers have similar facilities and again the details vary across Unixes.
I am writing in Libreoffice 220.127.116.11 on Linux Mint 15 with Cinnamon 2.0. The combination beats all previous versions of Linux and Windows, except for Windows XP 64. Here the reasons why.
Linux can build nice workstations but protecting local disks with RAID is difficult. Read about my preferred configuration for my two disk workstation.
SETI is one of the world's largest distributed computing projects. If you want to see the potential results, watch Contact or perhaps Independence Day. Over five million computers are connected to SETI. SETI provide statistics on the computers connected to the project. Do those statistics show the success of Linux?
Next year we celebrate 20 years of Linux. For servers, scientific calculations, and some other specialised areas, Linux was the
big new thing, the
magic bullet to solve all computer related problems but on the world's most common computer, the desktop, Linux remained the
next big new thing. Now Linux is running neck and neck against Windows, with Linux winning in some countries. The last three years of progress really made a difference.
The London Stock Exchange is switching to Linux. The details are limited and claims of improved speed feature in the reports. is the switchover succeeding? Is it really Linux providing the speed? When we dig beneath the marketing hype and the wild claims, what is really happening?
Meld performs nice two and three way text file comparisons. Meld can compare directories and highlight binary files that are different but is slow and does not have all the nice features of Winmerge.
Warning: The partition is misaligned by 48128 bytes. This may result in very poor performance. Repartitioning is recommended.
This is a warning from Linux RAID. Help!
Theme development follows fashions similar to the clothing industry. Themes designed for big desktop screens waste space equivalent to to the 1980s big hair, big teeth, big dress with lots of ruffles style. Now we need sports skin slick themes for the small screens on handhelds, smartphones, netbooks, and Web connected microwave ovens. Unfortunately many professional Web theme suppliers are trying to sell their 1980s Dallas themes slightly trimmed to an Olivia Newton-John Physical style.
TimeVault is almost a backup application, an experiment in progress. TimeVault is a user interface for a bunch of Linux utilities and copies directories with the ability to copy only changed files.
The Tomboy notes application works on Linux, Mac, Windows, and other operating systems because Tomboy is based on the Mono alternative to Microsoft's .Net, making the combined Tombuy/Mono a resource hog if Tomboy is the only Mon application on your computer. Gnote is a clone of Tomboy and does not require Mono. Is Tomboy useful? Usable? Is Gnote better?
Updated Dec 2012. The Toshiba Z830 continues the Toshiba tradition of pioneering light reliable portable computing. With the introduction of the almost identical Z930, the Z830 was on sale at spectacular discounts and was the best buy in mid 2012.
Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux based on Debian Linux and Debian is based on two sound principles of open source operating systems, security and no licensing restrictions. The basic Ubuntu desktop edition CD is useful for simple desktop setups on old computers for people learning Linux for the first time. The Ubuntu alternate edition adds RAID and a more flexible setup.
What are the alternatives to Notepad++ on Ubuntu? What can I use to replace Notepad++ on Linux or Mac? Can I use the replacement on windows?
Winmerge is the best program for comparing files and directories in Windows. What is the equivalent in Linux? How do you compare your disk to a backup to find differences? How do you compare multiple disks to merge files without duplication? Winmerge does more than one job and here is the best replacement you can use in when you work on a Linux based computer.
Which is faster, Windows XP or Ubuntu Linux 12.4? One clearly wins and there are factors more important than speed.
Windows 8 created a new round of windows versus _____ where _____ is whatever fashion will attract the most readers. Windows 8 is bad, or late, or both in most areas. Time to clear out the Creative wRong Analogies of Products and look at the truth.
Are you looking at Linux or OS X as an alternative to Windows on your desktop or servers? Apple had no long term viable alternative to Windows until Apple released OS X. Some versions of Linux have long been viable alternatives as servers. A small selection of Linux's are now popular as Windows desktop alternatives. The current problem is finding independent advice from someone who has used both Windows and the alternatives, while performing the type of work you perform, and in an environment similar to your environment.
There are lots of Web pages comparing Linux to Windows and recommending you use Linux. They recommend a specific distribution of Linux, usually Ubuntu. Now read the comments. Every second comment says
Yes, use Linux but not that distribution! You then get a sales pitch for a Linux distribution no one has ever heard of. Why do people recommend these weird Linux distributions for first time Linux users?