Linux

Ready for prime time: Linux is now hassle-free and enterprise-ready

Linux has come a long way with regard to ease of installation and use. In an interview, Robin Miller, author of <i>Point & Click Linux</i>, and chapter author Joe Barr, discuss Linux in the enterprise.

Since its inception in 1991, Linux has been making inroads into the operating system space long dominated by Microsoft Windows. While the benefits of Linux have been touted and evangelized, the open source OS community has found that convincing entrenched decision makers occupying key enterprise positions to switch is a challenge. Much of the resistance expressed toward Linux revolves around the perception that it is a difficult OS to install, maintain, and use. Overcoming this preconceived notion is now being supported by concrete factual information.

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Point & Click Linux! Your Guide to Hassle-Free Computing
By
Robin Miller
ISBN: 0131488724
Publisher: Prentice Hall PTR (Nov. 16, 2004)
Pages: 288
Copyright: 2005


 

Point & Click Linux! Your Guide to Hassle-Free Computing, written by Robin Miller, and published by Prentice Hall, takes the preconceived perception that Linux is difficult to use and turns it on its ear with a simple, straight-forward guide to Linux basics. Following the simple instructions laid out in the book and using the CD-ROM that ships with it, you will get Linux up-and-running on your PC in just minutes. Can Linux on the office desktop be far behind?

The main emphasis of Point & Click Linux is on the desktop, but there is a chapter written by Joe Barr that covers some of the basics of the command line interface (CLI). IT professionals installing Linux on end user's desktops will most likely find this the most useful chapter, which is why TechRepublic chose it for the feature download, but if you are working a help desk for Linux in the enterprise, you will find the entire book very useful.

Where do we go from here

In an effort to gauge what an easy-to-install-and-use Linux means for the future of enterprise computing and the IT professionals who manage it, TechRepublic interviewed the author of Point & Click Linux, Robin Miller, and the chapter author for the download that accompanies this article, Joe Barr.

[TechRepublic] As your book illustrates very well, Linux has come a long way with regard to ease of installation and use. However, Joe Barr's chapter deals with the command line. One general school of thought has been that once Linux moved from a command-line alternative operating system to a more user-friendly GUI OS, widespread adoption would be just around the corner. Will the command line always be a necessary component of Linux?

[Robin Miller] The command line is no longer necessary for desktop Linux users, but it's great to have available for users who want to move beyond the "Point and Click" stage. Remember, when something in a closed-source program or operating system is broken or doesn't work the way you want, you can't fix it, while with an open source program or operating system you can—if you're willing to take the time and trouble to learn how to do it.

Even if you don't have the time or inclination to become a programmer or command-line guru, you can usually get someone in an appropriate online forum or IRC channel to talk you through whatever you're trying to do.

An example: I prefer not to have splash screens taking up space on my monitor while a program is booting. I particularly dislike the OpenOffice.org (OOo) one. I went to the OOo site, did a search, and easily found how to turn off the OOo splash screen by making a one-line modification in a program file. I didn't need to learn any programming to do this. I followed simple instructions. The change took me all of 30 seconds, and I used a point and click text editor (KWrite) to do it.

This was a command line task. Without access to those program files—and at least knowing I could use the command line to do this sort of thing—I couldn't have done it.

So is the command line necessary for desktop Linux use? No. Is it nice to have available? Yes. And that's why only one chapter in my whole book mentions it, and that chapter is toward the end—and is clearly marked as optional reading.

[Joe Barr] One of the strong suits of Linux—especially compared to the monopoly platform—is its flexibility. This gives it the ability to be "exactly right" for a wide range of users: from a rank novice using the Internet for the first time to a software developer, to an experienced professional running server applications or administering multiple systems.

For the less technically inclined Linux users—most often recently arrived from the Windows world—the CLI is not a necessary component at all. Everything they need to do can be done from the ease and comfort of the GUI.

For those with "geek fever," who like to get under the hood and tweak themselves silly, the Linux CLI provides just the tools they need. I'm certainly not a pro, not in the sense of being a system or network administrator, but as something of a "power user" of the modern Linux desktop, I find the CLI to be a powerful tool in getting things done exactly as I want them done, quickly and easily.

I spend almost all of my time in the GUI these days. But just like Pooh Bear deciding that he had 16 jars of honey at home instead of only 15, it's just more comforting to know the CLI is there if I need it, and it is continually stocked with new and upgraded tools.

[TechRepublic] Assuming we are on the cusp of a general migration toward Linux and other open source applications, how do you see that manifesting itself? Will retailers start selling Linux boxes to consumers? Or will Linux make its mark in businesses first?

[Robin Miller] Retailers already do, just not as heavily in the U.S. as elsewhere. I can go to HP's site and order either a desktop or laptop preloaded with Linux. In fact, I am typing this on an HP D220 that was originally shipped with Linux, not Windows. Other OEMs are gradually learning that there is a market for Linux computers, but they need to be careful about irritating Microsoft and losing co-op advertising support and other spiffs that are beyond the scope of the DoJ's antitrust settlement with them but can still significantly impact profits.

So you know, retailers don't make a "Linux or not" decision but leave it up to the OEMs, at least according to buyers for Circuit City and Best Buy I've talked to. As far as Linux making its mark in business, the last I heard Linux was the world's fastest-growing server operating system. This is not enough mark for you?

[TechRepublic] There has been a running discussion on TechRepublic about the viability of Linux and open source software for large enterprises. It has been argued that the need for application integration across a wide spectrum of departments, etc., necessarily eliminates Linux and open source from this market because by their very nature integration is not possible. The argument contends that the enterprise market requires the stable infrastructure of a proprietary system. Do you agree? What are some examples of open source integrated applications?

[Robin Miller] Umm... perhaps the people posting on TechRepublic should warn Merrill-Lynch and other big financial houses that have been moving so heavily to Linux that it's not ready for them to use. Wal-Mart is another one that runs on Linux and would probably also appreciate hearing that they've made a mistake. NASA and almost every government "science" agency should also get the benefit of these posters' wisdom.

And I'm sure IBM will be shocked to learn that WebSphere system—an integrated set of enterprise applications that runs on Linux and is primarily based on open source code—"is not possible."

Now, about the "stable infrastructure of a proprietary system"—I remember Steve Ballmer, CEO of a well-known software vendor, threatening under oath to cease distribution and updates for one of his company's major products, Windows, if a court decided on antitrust remedies he didn't like. I remember listening to that and being glad neither I nor my employers depend on software that one company, in a fit of corporate pique, can remove from the marketplace. If I were using their products when I heard that threat, I would have immediately found alternatives and switched to them. But that's just me.

As far as integrated applications, I am having a little trouble understanding what you mean. I am personally a proponent of simple, small utilities rather than integrated "suites." Small, purpose-oriented programs tend to be less bug-prone, easier to customize, simpler to maintain and keep secure. And if all your software uses open, non-proprietary file formats, sharing data across many programs is child's play, so integration is not an issue.

[TechRepublic] Microsoft has been trying to make some hay lately, claiming their products have a lower total cost of ownership when compared to Linux and open source software. I think your book shows that the data Microsoft is using to back this contention is, to be generous, outdated. What data can you point TechRepublic members to that will show a more accurate comparison of cost of ownership?

[Robin Miller] I'm afraid I don't have the resources to hire major analyst firms to perform studies to prove false studies false, but I will tell you this: At least one analyst whose name has been on some of the TCO studies Microsoft touts runs his own home office network on Linux because he finds it less expensive, more secure, and easier to maintain than Windows.

Why Open Source Software / Free Software is a good page to look at. David Wheeler debunks many of the concepts behind TCO studies in general, and reminds you that all vendor-sponsored studies should be taken with a grain of salt, if not simply tossed in the trash.

You may also want to ask the people who run TechRepublic, a well-known IT news and info site, why they run their servers on Linux and/or Apache rather than running Windows and IIS despite all those Microsoft-sponsored TCO studies. It's possible that those TechRepublic guys have done some internal studies of their own and have decided to use these open source products for the same reason our (anonymous) analyst friend mentioned earlier uses them.

[TechRepublic] Lastly, from reading your book, it is obvious that Linux is not nearly as difficult to install as it once was. However, the real test for consumers is not whether an IT professional can use it, but whether an IT professional's grandparents can install it and use it. Have we reached that point yet? If not, what can be done to make Linux a reality for the most novice computer users?

[Robin Miller] My stepdaughter Alicia is a black single mom who didn't finish high school and works in a nursing home for $8 per hour. She uses her home computer to do typical "home user" things like send and receive email, check the latest rap video clips on BET.com, engage in long IM chats—that's how she met her current boyfriend—and as a "homework machine" for her two children. She used OOo, running on Linux, to write and print the resume that helped her get the nursing home job, which may not be high-end employment but is certainly better than the warehouse job she had before it.

The question in my mind isn't whether people like Alicia or an IT professional's grandparents can use Linux, but how they can use Windows.

Alicia's computer has started and run flawlessly for nearly four years. She's never gotten a virus or worm infection, has never had spyware or other malware problems, and hardly knows what the word "reboot" means. I've updated her installation exactly once, ever. She doesn't need any of the handholding, virus removal, registry clean-outs, and reinstalls that most non-technical Windows users require periodically and either pay for at a computer store or talk IT-hip relatives—like TechRepublic users—into doing for free.

Since you're writing this for a high-level TechRepublic audience, you chose the one non-point and click chapter in a book called "Point & Click Linux!" because this is the only chapter that's on their level. The other 27 chapters in this book weren't written for TechRepublic readers but for Alicia and people like her, who will probably never look at a command line in their lives. I made the videos (a screenshot from one is attached) for grandparents, artists, cab drivers, and others who want a trouble-free computing experience; who are not obsessed by computers or necessarily interested in their inner workings but simply use them as tools and want them to work with as little fuss as possible.

Come to think of it, I'm a grandfather myself and I use Linux all day, every day, as my personal desktop operating system. And don't forget: I'm a writer, not a programmer, so incompetent at command line work myself that I called on my much smarter coworker Joe Barr to write the one command line chapter (out of 28, remember) in "Point & Click Linux!"


The real future of Linux

In September 2003, Tim Landgrave set off a real discussion firestorm when he commented on RedHat's licensing changes for Linux. Considering the main point of Point & Click Linux, do you think his comments have been superseded by technological advances?


The times, they are a changing

Obviously, the author of Point & Click Linux! Your Guide to Hassle-Free Computing is enthusiastic in his support of Linux and open source applications no matter what venue you place them in. Consumers, end users in the enterprise, and IT professionals can all benefit from software developed in the open source community. When it comes time to choose your next enterprise application, Linux and open source solutions should not be overlooked. Enterprise applications are no longer the sole province of large multinational software conglomerates. It will be interesting to see how the large traditional players in this market react to the challenge and how many IT professionals choose open source enterprise application products.

Trend evidence

Still looking for evidence that there is a trend toward Linux in the enterprise, then check out these recent TechRepublic articles and white papers:

About

Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.

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