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There are a large number of websites and documents covering GNU/Linux, specific versions, technical guides for specific tools and tasks. What's markedly harder to find is an overview guide addressing issues, considerations, and information which would be useful for people and organizations getting started with GNU/Linux. Assembled here are some tips, information, and resources I've gleaned in my own eight years' experience with this technology phenomenon. This is not an in-depth guide, it's an introduction to some basic concepts. It's also (mostly) not about why you'd want to use GNU/Linux over other platforms, though we touch on this briefly.
This page covers multiple distributions, and even some non-Linux systems. I've had direct experience with most, though I do bring my own set of biases to the table. Having worked with, deployed, and maintained a range of Unix, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems, I find myself favoring Debian strongly, though I'll highlight other systems' benefits where appropriate.
This guide is aimed generally: I'm talking to small/home office users, enterprises, embedded developers, and personal-use. Where distinguishing among these audiences is appropriate, I do so.
Specifically covered are:
- What is GNU/Linux: A very brief introduction to GNU/Linux.
- Why GNU/Linux: Benefits (and some disadvantages) of GNU/Linux over other platforms.
- Distributions: Variants of GNU/Linux, how they differ (and don't), and things to keep in mind in choosing between them.
- Package Management Systems: The tools used to install, remove, and query the software installed on your system. A core component and differentiator of GNU/Linux distros.
- Getting Help: Things to know about finding out more.
- Some common issues: Things you may run into as you install and start running GNU/Linux.
- We're not in Kansas anymore: For converts from other systems, some of the differences presented by GNU/Linux.
- FUD: There's a lot of misinformation floating around about GNU/Linux, much of it from Microsoft. A few major themes are dealt with here.
- Linux FAQs: Other sources of information and places to get started.
Computer users can be a highly opinionated bunch (they don't call 'em "holy wars" for nothin'). And I've got my own biases. I've also worked with a wide range of GNU/Linux distros, and other platforms, over the years. My own strong preference is for Debian (or Debian-based) distros, based on my own experiences with both them and other offerings. There are benefits to other distros as well, and I try to give a fair representation of the major players here.
The original plan for this guide was to have a relatively brief page touching on these themes. Approaching 20 pages now, this is clearly no longer the case....
In the interest of an executive summary, and revealing my own biases, some short answers.
- Choosing one of the Big Three Distros is recommended: Debian, Red Hat, or Novell/SuSE. All three are well established, have solid reputations, and fit a wide range of needs and deployments.
- Understand a distro's target market. Distros and vendors emphasize different markets, some in ways which will significantly affect you. Pick a distro alligned with your needs and goals.
- Large Enterprise Red Hat and Novell/SuSE have their sights on you, and may offer substantial value-added benefits, particularly if you are replacing existing proprietary Unix (e.g.: Solaris), are running "Enterprise" class applications (Oracle, Peoplesoft, SAP), or are looking at Linux-on-Mainframe (a Novell/SuSE strength). Overall technical quality and flexibility of the distro may not match community-based offerings, particularly Debian.
- Mid/Small Enterprise Commercial GNU/Linux distros, particularly Red Hat and Novell/SuSE have emphasized large customers at the expense of smaller accounts in recent years. With good VAR or in-house support, a community distro can be a good choice.
- Home Most of the better user-friendly distros are Debian based: Ubuntu, Linspire, Xandros, Mepis, and others. If you're technically inclined, have GNU/Linux or Unix experience, or enjoy learning, straight Debian does make a powerful system.
- Embedded Several vendors provide distros targetted specifically at embedded space, Monte Vista and Wind River among the leaders. If you have in-house experience and prefer to roll your own, Debian and Gentoo offer a high level of flexibility with packaging support, or you can take the GNU/Linux from Scratch route.
You may think GNU/Linux looks something like this...
But that's only a small part of the picture.
It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus.
Neal Stephenson, "In The Beginning Was The Command Line"
GNU/Linux is a Unix-like Free Software operating system, with roots stretching back over 35 years. The heart of the system is the Linux kernel itself, begun by Linus Torvalds in 1991. Additional software, much of it from the GNU Project provides the actual softare used. The combination of the kernel plus applications layer is often called "GNU/Linux", and I do so in this guide. "Linux" is often also used as a shorthand reference for much of the Free Software movement itself, though this includes other non-Linux operating systems, and even software running on Microsoft Windows.
Principle advantages of GNU/Linux are its cost, security, stability, and flexibility. GNU/Linux is inherently multi-user, multi-processing. Much of today's Internet was built using GNU/Linux-like computers, and much of it now runs on GNU/Linux.
From your (the user) perspective, a GNU/Linux system could be:
- A remote web service: The Google search engine runs on a network of thousands of GNU/Linux systems. Other GNU/Linux-powered sites include Amazon.com, Charles Schwab, Disney, Merck, GM, and American Express.
- A desktop computer: GNU/Linux can be used, act, and look very much like Microsoft Windows, absent the viruses, spyware, crashes, and random glitches you've come to expect. Or Macintosh. Or BeOS. Or OS/2. GNU/Linux is also popular in laptops. Available for many common tasks includes: office suite, Web browser, email, chat, graphics, audio, video, database, and much, much more.
- An appliance: The popular TiVo digital video recorder is built around GNU/Linux, as are many network firewalls and routers, PDAs, cell phones, copiers, scientific systems, satellites, casino gaming systems, and robots.
- A supercomputer: It's possible to run GNU/Linux both on large single computers, or as clusters of smaller computers — common off-the-shelf (COTS) systems or specially designed "blade" systems.
The smallest GNU/Linux systems are the size of a pack of gum or less, the largest fill warehouses.
There's a surprisingly stubborn myth that GNU/Linux is strictly a command-line based OS. Not that there's anything wrong in communicating with words. But as the screenshots at right show, that's only a small part of the picture. For more examples of available interfaces, see Window_ Managers for X. Hopefully you'll come to realize that the GNU/Linux command line is vastly more powerful than Windows' DOS shell. One reason for its enduring prominance is its power and utility.
If you haven't drunk the cool-aid yet.... Some reasons to consider:
The leading reason. The one Microsoft doesn't want you to think about. It's a word which rarely if ever appears in their own marketing materials.
Under GNU/Linux, you're free to choose your: Platform, Software, HW Vendor, Support vendor, Upgrade schedule, Server software, Data formats, and more.
This is hard to quantify or explain clearly, but the lack of restrictions means that a great many things are possible with GNU/Linux:
- Google found it could harness thousands (100,000 at this writing) of common, desktop PCs running GNU/Linux to power its search engine.
- A home health care provider looking for a way to effectively use old computers. The result: the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), motto: "It works, it's free. Duh!". The project is now highly popular with schools stretching thin (or nonexistant) IT budgets.
- A need for a readily-resettable demo system for trade shows led to some magic with CDROMs, an existing GNU/Linux distro, compressed filesystems, and hardware detection, resulting in Knoppix, a desktop GNU/Linux system running entirely from CDROM. It's since spawned many similar projects. The uses of Knoppix could fill a book (and have), and tales of rescuing dead systems (GNU/Linux, legacy MS Windows, or other), and emergency or instant set-up of various systems are legion.
- Wanting to install a new distro without suffering downtime of my existing system, I expanded some ideas which now allow you to install a new GNU/Linux install under an existing, running system. Such "chroot" installs allow a live conversion of one GNU/Linux distro to another. My own notes are now part of Debian's installation manual, and have been extended to allow remote installations.
GNU/Linux is reliable: it rarely crashes, has long uptimes, and provides a consistent level of service. If a system does go down, it's very nearly always a hardware or bad kernel driver issue. Or mains power. Many distros are designed so that routine system updates don't require rebooting, or even requiring logging users off the system. The only routine reboots required for GNU/Linux systems are updates to the kernel itself, or hardware upgrades.
Unplanned downtime, planned downtime, frequency. FIXME.
GNU/Linux is based on an inherently multi-user, multi-tasking operating system. It's got a security model and tradition backed by over three decades' real-world experience. Not wishful thinking and marketing hype.
Among the features which make GNU/Linux secure are:
- Control: Admins can run as any user, including system users, and can kill any process. There are no imposed restrictions on capabilities. While this introduces some risk, and must be used with care, it also gets the system out of your way when tracking down questionable or malicious issues.
- A simple, but powerful, security model: Other vendors tout their ACLs, role-based security, and so forth (much of which GNU/Linux does support. But the simple expedient of defining user, group, and world permissions, of read, write, and execute, proves to be powerful, sufficient, and comprehensible enough to be used effectively.
- Ability to see what's running: It's possible to list every running process, what program it's running, what files are used, what network connections are established. Again, this gets the system out of your way when trying to establish what is going on.
- Monitoring: both routine log files and special monitoring tools exist to record locally or remotely what is happening on the system. It's trivial to bind actions or events to notifications by email, pager, console notification, or other means.
- Empty / delete files regardless of their being open: A critical weakness of the legacy MS Windows model prevents deleting of "open" files — a frustration increasingly familiar to those combatting spyware and adware. GNU/Linux has no such handicap, allowing manipulation or removal of files even when another process is accessing them. Again, this gets the system out of your way to perform necessary operations.
- Filter logs quickly: GNU/Linux's reliance on text-based logfiles, and wealth of text-based tools for searching, sorting, and manipulating same means it's possible to rapidly scan through thousands or millions of lines of logfiles for specific issues. Rather than being restricted by the specific offerings of a specialized log-viewing tool, any system tool is at the administrator's disposal. Again, this gets the system out of your way in determining what is going on.
- Security tools: Decades of incremental development, being network-aware OS, supporting multiple users means GNU/Linux has a wealth of tools for secure remote access, data security, encryption, and defense.
In general, GNU/Linux extracts a high performance/cost benefit from given hardware. Low-end hardware (386, 486, Pentium-1) can be used effectively as low-end small office file/print and Web servers, embedded systems, or shell (console-only) servers. Projects such as LTSP repurpose 20 - 80 older PC hardware as thin clients run from a single server, stretching thin hardware budgets and reducing administration overhead. Given resources, GNU/Linux performs very well on higher-end hardware. And clustering multiple computers allows creation of "supercomputers" on modest budgets. In network service operations, load-balancing and failover configurations provide high performance and reliability.
While not a major concern for most shops, GNU/Linux's multi-platform support means you are not locked in to a single hardware vendor, can grow into new hardware as it becomes feasible, and can repurpose existing mixed hardware on a single platform without having to sacrifice usable kit.
Supported platforms (from Debian):
- Intel x86/IA-32/i386
- Motorola 68k/m68k
- Sun SPARC/sparc
- Motorola/IBM PowerPC/powerpc
- HP PA-RISC/hppa
The cost savings of GNU/Linux vs other platforms is hotly debated, difficult to measure, and studies are generally accused of bias. Some aspects are highly subject to decisions by Microsoft and other vendors as to their own price-points.
There are several components to overall cost, including:
- Hardware aquisition cost
- Software aquisition cost
- Training costs
- System configuration costs (setup/install)
- Administration costs
- Security costs (provision of)
- Recovery costs (security incidents)
- Downtime / goodwill / avoided costs
- Legal / liability exposure
Various components, difficult to manage. SW aquisition costs going down, MSFT cutting prices dramtically (50-90%). Particularly in emerging, educational, non-profit markets. Significant price negotiation room. Ongoing maintenance, security, system rebuild, etc., costs. TCO studies. Bias. Opinions and backsides: everyone's got one. Hardware + software + training + administration + security add-ons + security time + risk costs.
Some things aren't the same as legacy MS Windows. What?
...and how much of this to get into?
Viruses, adware, spyware: not a problem. You don't need a/v, anti-adware software (unless you're protecting legacy MS Windows systems you're serving). There are exploits and bad software. chkrootkit (Moen's rant on what rootkits aren't).
No need to defrag. Scandisk equivs (fsck) much faster. Backups easier.
Don't go hunting randomly over the 'Net. Use your distro's tools and archives first. Design differences (task, not format, oriented). Somewhat.
GNU/Linux is true multi-user. More than one user on system at a time. One user w/ multiple logins. Users own files and processes. You log in as yourself. Root account: "superuser". Use only as necessary. Can run programs as root via 'sudo'.
What you can do depends on who you are, who owns what you're accessing, and permissions granted. "Owner", "Group", "Other", and "Read", "Write", "Execute". Plus a bit.
Running instance of a program. "Tasks" in legacy MS Windows (Task Manager).
Not that GNU/Linux doesn't have a GUI. legacy MS Windows lacks a uniform, powerful commandline. Yes, DOS does suck. GNU/Linux shell (bash / tcsh / zsh) isn't DOS (but lsh is close). It's like talking. A lot more efficient than hand-waving. Good basic shell reference? Link.
Tons. Literally. Knowing how to find it is key. "You're an adult, look for it". Know how to search, not how to do. "Teach a user to type a command, s/he doesn't bother you for a minute. Teach a user to search documentation and the Web, s/he doesn't bother you for years..." the More under "Getting Help"
GNU/Linux is available in numerous different versions, called distributions or 'distros', so once you've decided to evaluate GNU/Linux, the next question becomes: which should I choose, and why?
The LWN distributions page shows well over 400 distros, though most are quite specialized, and a handful account for most general use. One may stand out though any should be well suited to your needs. There's also the world of "bootable" distros which we'll cover lightly. Most of the existing GNU/Linux distros are based on and in general strongly reflect Debian or Red Hat, and are often classed by their packaging systems, APT or RPM. Several larger distros are fully independent, Slackware and Gentoo, in particular. Some of the smaller microdistros are built from scratch.
Few GNU/Linux sites provide much in the way of useful guidance in distro selection, either falling back on "it depends" or relentlessly plugging the author's on personal preference. In the interest of helping guide an educated choice, I'm going to cover some of the key distros, their differences, focuses, and guidelines in selecting among them.
It's possible to classify GNU/Linux distros by several criteria. These largely break down to:
- Software packaging system. More later, but has a significant impact on maintance and upgrades. Primary variants: APT (Debian and derived), RPM (Red Hat and derived), and ports (similar to FreeBSD).
- Commercial vs. Community. Some distros are based on a single company, others are collectively developed by volunteers. Commercial distros may offer training, bundling, and business partnerships. Community distros are often more responsive to needs of smaller users.
- Server vs. Desktop. Some distros are targeted at server tasks such as Web servers, file/print, or high-performance computing, others at being a good personal or technical workstation. Others fit both niches well.
- "Enterprise" vs. small business / home user. Some distributions focus on sales to large and mid-sized companies, others are more generally accessible. This is more a matter of enterpise distros putting less emphasis on downmarket opportunities, than a lack of suitability in the other direction.
Of the hundreds of GNU/Linux distros, many targeted at specific niches, you can largely focus on...
The Big Three distros are Debian, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Novell/SuSE. Two of these are commercial distributions, with their own dedicated corporate support. The third is a project of the nonprofit Software In the Public Interest.
The Other Four are among the more popular alternative distros, including Fedora Core, Gentoo, Ubuntu, and Mandriva (formerly Mandrakesoft). While not strictly "Linux", the BSDs, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD are similar, Unix-like operating systems.
The Big Three
- Noncommercial, community focused distribution, devoted to quality, software selection, and support for multiple hardware platforms, over specific release cycles. Long support window (3+ years for stable). Sometimes considered a "meta-distribution" from which more targeted products can be formed, is the basis of numerous other distros including Adamantix, Knoppix, Libranet, Linspire, Lycoris, Progeny, Ubuntu, Xandros, and others. In this guide, "Debian" refers largely to any of these Debian-based distributions, all of which share substantially most major characteristics. Reknowned for sophisticated 'APT' packaging system, ease of maintenance and upgrades, and large (17,500+ packages) software selection. Debian differs from most distros in having three current releases: 'stable' (the official release), which is subject only to bugfix and security updates; 'unstable', the development release, its name refers to the changability of the relase, not its quality; and 'testing', which attempts to provide a somewhat more reliable environment than unstable. Despite its noncommercial status, Debian gets significant support from HP and other partners. Products: In Debian's vernacular, release: stable, unstable, and testing. These refer to the level of change within the packages, not software quality, per se. Platforms: Intel x86/IA-32/i386, Motorola 68k/m68k, Sun SPARC/sparc, Alpha, Motorola/IBM PowerPC/powerpc, ARM, MIPS/mipsel, HP PA-RISC/hppa, IA-64/ia64. As yet unreleased are AMD64 and Hitachi SuperH/sh. There are also ports to non-Linux kernels: Debian GNU/Hurd/hurd-i386, Debian GNU/NetBSD netbsd-i386/netbsd-alpha, Debian GNU/kFreeBSD / kfreebsd-gnu. Debian has more active ports than any other GNU/Linux distro.
- Red Hat Enterprise Linux
- Solaris killer. Red Hat are positioning themselves primarially as an alternative to proprietary Unices such as Sun Microsystem's Solaris in the enterprise space. Offers proprietary ISV (independent software vendor) certification for large enterprise vendors such as Oracle. RHEL is aimed at enterprise upgrade cycles with a release cycle of 12-18 months and seven years of support for every version. Red Hat is the origin of the "RPM" (Redhat package manager) packaging system, common to several distros. Popular, though maintenance and upgrades can be difficult. Changes in end-of-life and support terms for its earlier product, Red Hat Linux, and confusion over the role of the related- but- independent- in- theory community-based project, Fedora Core, have left many smaller users stranded or porting to alternatives including Fedora Core, Novell/SuSE, and Debian. RHEL, "Red Hat Linux", and Fedore Core are three separate products and projects. Products: RHES, AS, WS, Desktop, and Academic Products. Platforms: Intel X86, Intel Itanium2, AMD AMD64, and Intel EM64T. Upcoming: IBM Power (RHEL4).
- As with Red Hat, but less so. Has a strong relationship with IBM, particularly zSeries (mainframe) support for running virtual Linux systems on a mainframe. Originally a German company, reputation for solid engineering, now owned by Novell. strong Novell networking support, likely future growth line for Novell. Current marketing emphasizes migrations from both legacy MS Windows NT and proprietary Unix. Products: including SLES (long-term support and slow release cycle), "Pro" (fast release, medium support), and NLD (Novell Linux Desktop). Platforms: x86/i386/IA-32, IA-64/IA64, PPC/powerpc, s390/zSeries, sparc, AXP (Alpha).
The Other Four
- Fedora Core
- Red Hat's development sandbox with community support. Has a reputation as something of a neglected stepchild. Positioned as an alternative for smaller organizations and/or individuals previously using Red Hat. Fedora Core also directly feeds RHEL as a testbed and development platform. "Fedora Core" is the distribution, "Fedora" is the project. Products: FIXME Platforms: FIXME
- Noncommercial, community focused, devoted to performance tweaking and extreme customization. Gentoo's claim to fame is that the entire system is compiled to your own system's configuration. This is seen as both its major strength and weakness. Gentoo has a reputation as a "ricer's" system (as in souped-up Japanese import cars), though it's also got some solid technical folks on it. Software packaging system is similar to the BSD 'ports' system. Rice. Roughly 9,000 packages in portage system. Products: FIXME Platforms: FIXME
- Noncommercial, desktop-oriented, community focused, to six-month release / 18 month support cycles, based on a subset of Debian packages and the GNOME environment. Aims at ease of use, ease of install, and quality, over software selection, hardware platforms. Ubuntu shares many of the positive attributes of Debian, above. A newcomer, released in September, 2004, with a surprisingly rapid rise and broad respect. The project is sponsored by Canonical Ltd.. An alternative based on KDE is available as Kubuntu. Products: FIXME Platforms: FIXME
- Originally a Red Hat-derived commercial distribution with a French flavor and more user-friendly twist, it remains popular, if somewhat difficult to pin down. The company has struggled financially for several years though it appears profitable at present. Products: FIXME Platforms: FIXME
Finally, I'd like to make mention of CentOS, another Red Hat derived GNU/Linux, which has made a significant splash in the past two years. The distribution is based on recompiled Red Hat RHEL source packages (SRPMS), less a few trademarked items in a very small handful of packages. With the addition of the yum package manager and a distributed set of repositories similar to those used by Debian, the result is a system which looks, acts, and feels very much like its big brother, but avoids the licensing costs, and is worlds easier to manage updates for to boot. If you need to be RHEL-compatible but don't care for costs and restrictions imposed by the guys in the red fedoras, look here. A surprisingly large number of end-users and software developers are. A key benefit over Fedora Core is that the distribution is stable and of release rather than development quality.
All three are based on the branch of Unix developed at the University of California, Berkeley, hence "BSD" for "Berkeley Standard [Unix] Distribution". BSD licensing allows development of proprietary systems based on the projects, and the distributions are popular in embedded products, copiers, and even as the basis of Apple's Mac OS X. Though the rest of this guide doesn't discuss the BSDs specifically, much of the general information is applicable to them as well.
- A full-featured desktop/server oriented distribution. Comperable to mainstream GNU/Linux, though it (and the other BSDs) have a distinct packaging system called "ports".
- Among the most secure generally available operating systems. OpenBSD is targetted at public-facing server roles, and not desktops per se, though it is run as same by many of its developers.
- Slogan: "Of course it runs NetBSD". Aims at being the most hardware-portable operating system, though GNU/Linux, particularly Debian, are matching or exceeding it in this regard. Principally aimed at embedded products.
While not full general-purpose distributions in their own right, there are a number of projects to create "bootable" GNU/Linux systems. These run without the need to be installed on a computer, directly off of removable media: floppy drive, Zip disks, CDROM, DVD, USB, or pretty much any mode of transferring data from one system to another.
Use of bootable distros ranges from rescue or technical systems, similar to an old-fashioned DOS boot floppy, to powerful "instant" desktop or demonstration systems. Often, bootable distros have powerful and effective hardware detection and configuration tools. They're also useful for performing emergency system recovery, forensics, data transfer, or even new system installations.
While bootable distros, particularly Knoppix or MEPIS, can be used as a desktop, they're more generally useful as recovery tools on steroids. Don't leave home without one...and another to share with a friend ;-)
As usual, LWN has one of the more extensive listings at its distributions page. Some the better-known bootable distributions are listed in the sidebar at right.
I mention a number of decision criteria you should consider...and a few you probably shouldn't, below.
I'd suggest going with one of the Big Three, or a closely-related project. Ubuntu is markedly popular for a new arrival, both with GNU/Linux neophytes and long-time users. My primary concern would be the sustainability of its sponsoring company. For ease of install, use, and maintanence it has strong marks. Any of the major GNU/Linux distros will give you a good and worthwhile introduction to GNU/Linux, whether you want to experiment, or stick with one for a while.
Additionally, switching costs between GNU/Linux distros, or between GNU/Linux and other Unix-like systems, are low. If you decide you want to switch later, you can. It's generally easy to migrate platform-to-platform. It's even possible to run mutiple environments on the same system, running at the same time. You may want to explore chroot systems, user-mode linux (UML), Xen, and VMWare, among other options.
If you have a business need that dictates use of a specific distro, your answer's pretty much made for you. This is particularly the case if you are (or plan to) deploy "enterprise grade" software such as Oracle, a major ERP, CRM, or similar package, which restricts support to specific Linux distributions. Vertical applications such as payroll, point-of-sale, shop-management, warehouse, and other systems. Explore these requirements closely as they often restrict you to both a vendor and (often antiquated) release of a distro.
Personally, I run Debian in both workstation and server roles, in technical, educational and home use. I've tried most of the major GNU/Linux and BSD variants over the years, starting with Red Hat, which I've continued to run and maintain it over the years. I've also had experience with Novell/SuSE, Mandrake, TurboLinux, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD. Of the lot, I find Debian to provide the best mix of power, currency, security, maintainability, and upgradability. In general, Debian is my first choice for deployment.
It is possible to mix and match deployments with relatively little pain. If you prefer Debian as a first choice but require Red Hat or Novell/SuSE for a particular application, most of the user experience, monitoring and access tools are identical. The primary differences are in installation and some package maintananc utilities.
Some basic guidelines...
Enterprise vs. SMB vs. SOHO
RH/SuSE | Debian variant.
Server vs. Desktop
False dichotomy, for middlin' versions of either. Large-scale ops, datacenter (racks) are different, mostly as a matter of hardware, redundancy, power, remote access (serial, remote boot), etc.
Red Hat, RHEL, Fedora, and you...
On RH's RHEL/Fedora stumble. Red Hat: Fedora will engage customers Published: February 18, 2005, 4:37 PM PST By Stephen Shankland
Top Linux seller Red Hat acknowledged on Friday a misstep in its relations with technology enthusiasts but said the profit motive is helping it to mend its ways.
The problem came in recent years when Red Hat threw its energies into a stable product called Red Hat Enterprise GNU/Linux. RHEL let the company grow from a small market of technically savvy customers to the large market of mainstream customers.
"One of the mistakes we made when we launched this Enterprise Linux product was we focused so exclusively on this enterprise market that we left this (early-adopter customer) square uncovered," Tiemann said. "It insulted some of our best supporters. But worse, we lost our opportunity to do customer-driven innovation."
At its simplest, picking a distribution is a balance of costs vs. benefits. You're looking for a choice which minimizes long-run costs and maximizes long-run flexibility, without limiting your options excessively. Small initial hurdles should be discounted, as long-term benefits often outweigh these. However if you have specialized or specific operating requirements — particular software, hardware, vendor relations, or user requirements — which you must address, then by all means be guided by them. Beware excessive constraints, however, as these often have hidden but high long-term consequences. The key is utility, not ideology [FIXME: alt word?].
- Application requirements: If a particular application (or its support contract) mandates use of a specific distro, and that application is business-critical, your hands are tied. Note that you should be aware of LSB, Linux Standard Base, a standard definition for compatibility across different GNU/Linux versions. Software that restricts your choices regarding GNU/Linux is taking away one of the major benefits of the system. Frequently, two or more such applications will conflict sufficiently that you'll require dedicated hardware and/or systems for each.
- Distro philosophy / goals: While it may be an unfamiliar concept to many, philosophy matters. If your goals aren't alligned with those of your chosen distribution, you'll be working at cross purposes. Many GNU/Linux distros are created to meet specific objectives. Try to understand what these are. Red Hat's decision to focus on enterprise rather than SOHO customers left a number of enthusiasts, and smaller businesses, in the lurch. I myself worked for one, upgrading a dozen colo'd servers over eleven months, with the intent that they company would stay with RH 7.3 for "a couple of years" ... shortly before the product was end-of-lifed.
- Employment prospects: If you're studying GNU/Linux as a job skill, find out what employers in your area, or area of interest, are running. While this needn't be your only guide, if a particular distro is prevalent, you should be at least passingly familiar with it.
- In-house / VAR experience: Supporting what you know has its benefits. If you or your support vendor has an existing competence, by all means go with what you know — though don't blind yourself to alternatives.
- Local preferences: Find out what other organizations, VARs, consultants, and/or enthusiasts are supporting in your area. Going with one of the more popular alternatives will provide you with a larger support pool.
- Maintenance and upgrades: The bulk of system costs are in administration. A distro that minimizes the amount of administration required, extends the power of your administration staff, and minimizes maintenance and upgrade hassles offers many advantages. While some administration tools are visible, many are not, and visibility need not mean greater administration ease. A GUI tool which clobbers your carefully crafted system settings is not a benefit. Scripted and automated tasks have low visibiliity but high benefit. The ability to centralize configurations across a large number of systems is a powerful multiplier. And seemingly arcane matters such as Debian's Policy Manual actually powerfully defines aspects of the system affecting configuration, maintainability, and upgrade paths.
- Organizational sustainability: Pretty straightforward: if the developer of your distro won't be around as long as you plan on using the disto, you've got issues. From recent history, we've got fly-by-night make-money-fast outfits, companies with ongoing financial troubles, small-team efforts affected by health of major supporters, combative development teams, and suicidal shifts in management direction. There are some real risks out there, and identifying a reliable supplier isn't as simple as choosing a good name or commercial vendor, and in fact may suggest against doing so. Even multi-vendor alliances can implode spectacularly, as has United GNU/Linux. Not all of these risks have proven fatal (yet) for the associated project/company. Again for my own choice: Debian has a long track record (since 1994), a broad developer base (1000+ independent developers), multiple corporate sponsors, and a large user base.
- Packaged software: Your first stop for software "shopping" should be within your distro's packaging system. More software availble within the packaging system means a greater likelihood you can install software built for, tested for, debugged for, and supported (formally or informally) for your distro.
- Platform support: If you are deploying to arcane (effectively: any non-IA32 / x86 Intel CPU) architecture, you will want to select a distro with strong support of that platform. Similarly, if you will be releasing across a number of platforms and wish to standardize across them, a distro with strong cross-platform support will be attractive. Of note: SuSE has strong support and relationships with IBM for zSeries (mainframe) operations. Yellow Dog is specifically tuned to Apple Macintosh. Debian and Gentoo have very strong cross-architecture support.
- Polish: Though hard to quantify, there are distros which manage to smooth out the bumps in ways that improve experiences and operations. Ubuntu, Linspire, and Xandros are known for a polished desktop experience. Debian does pretty well here as well, but also supports tailored server configurations well. For a security-critical deployment, OpenBSD wins, hands down.
- Release Cycle: There are two edges to this sword: currency, and longevity. If you require support for the most recent hardware or software, you will want a distribution that provides both active development and ease-of-upgrade. In many enterprises, stability is a greater concern: it's easier to maintain a system that doesn't change much. A support lifecycle of 3-5 years may be of major concern. Gentoo, Debian ('unstable' or 'testing' branches), and Fedora Core enjoy active development and frequently support newly released software within a matter of days. On its 'stable' branch, Debian offers a platform which can typically be relied on for support for 3-4 years between upgrades, and is popular for servers. Ubuntu is committed to a six-month release cycle, and is claiming an 18 month support tail, though the project is new enough to have no track record.
- Reliance on unpackaged software: Any reliance on software not included in your distribution's packaging system increases your maintenance costs, tasks, and risks for security or reliability issues. While some software simply isn't packaged for GNU/Linux, you should weigh the relative benefits of a distribution which provides necessary software within its packaging system against one that doesn't.
- Security: Look at a distribution's security record. Number of issues isn't necessarially bad, and should be weighted by the number of packages provided. Timeliness of disclosure, and speed of resolution are more significant, as is the security of the default configuration. This should also be weighed with maintenance and upgrade tools: when a security bulletin is issued, you're going to have to update your system. The other side of this issue is security enhancement features: does your distro allow disabling (or removal) of unnecessary software and services, reduced reliance on root access, hardening routines such as Bastille or SELinux, integrity validation, network monitoring, safe-and-sane defaults, understandable and effective firewall configuration? It should.
- Standardization: There are two dimensions to this: conformance to specified standards such as LSB, and standardization to a set of perferred platform(s) within your organization. For the former, you should confirm that a distro is LSB certified or can pass an LSB validation.
- Vendor configuration (custom system): If your system vendor can proivde a specifically tuned installation, particularly on a large order of systems, you may see a significant benefit. Such configurations are likely to be tuned to hardware, software, and usage requirements, as well specifically supported. Such preloads are likely to be specific to application areas (e.g.: enterprise Oracle database), system configurations (e.g.: high-performance cluster), specific hardware platforms (e.g.: mainframe virtual GNU/Linux system deployments), or large uniform deployments (e.g.: enterprise-wide desktop deployment). Note that alternatives may exist mitigating this benefit, including "kickstart" installs, automated cloning and replication systems, master/slave cluster configurations, and thin-client desktop solutions.
Poor Decision Criteria
There are a number of justifications given for choosing a distro which I find unpersuasive, if not utterly misguided.
- Certification: In general, avoid vendor-specific certifications. In practice, GNU/Linux (and Unix) systems are sufficiently similar that familiarity with one gives you a lot of mileage with any other, and exposure to two or three distros should give you a strong sense of areas of similarity and difference. While certification may increase job or wage prospects, it shouldn't be a sole platform criterion.
- Current discounts: Simply: a retail discount for aquisition costs is a minuscule component of your long-term system costs. Longer-term financing or discounts on support or systems integration may deserve consideration.
- Desktop appearance: Simply: the appearance of your desktop really not restricted or governed by your desktop. If you want to play, head off to Themes.org. While a distro may have a default desktop, its appearance is almost infinitely customizable through your choice of desktop environment. You may wish to browse the Window Managers for X page.
- Hardware configuration: Within reason, minor issues of configuring hardware support should not drive your distribution choice. It's important to realize that GNU/Linux is extremely modular, to the point that you can "bring up" a system gradually, configuring software and hardware components as necessary, and this should be part of your initial evaluation / deployment / migration strategy. Most distros are also sufficiently well-behaved that once configured, systems will continue to work without further attention. "It Just Works™" is an ideal, and many distros come close to accomplishing it. But making a nonessential (e.g.: not disk, display, keyboard) peripheral work is frequently straightforward. See Drivers below. Of course, if you are deploying specifically to use or exploit a specific idiosyncratic device, and a given distro offers you that functionality, go with it.
- Marketing hype: GNU/Linux emerged largely in the absense of marketing efforts relying instead on reputation and word-of-mouth. Several major distros lack any major marketing capabilities. Decisions should be made on demonstrated capability. Not slick brochures.
- Performance: Another "within reason" suggestion. Few performance issues are tightly related to distribution-specific factors. Proper hardware provisioning and configuration will make the biggest impact, generally comprising memory, disk, CPU, and network performance, in roughly that order. Specific performance-sensitive software (e.g.: SSL encryption and authentication) may be compiled to specific hardware variants. Some kernel-tuning options may be appropriate for server vs. workstation configurations. Disk-tuning via hdparm can have marked performance benefits, as can filesystem choices. All of these factors are completely distribution-independent, and may have 10x to 100x impacts on performance.
- Vendor preload (off-the-shelf system): For a generic vendor preload, you're almost certainly better off tuning your own installation rather than accepting an arbitrary and poorly-suited preexisting installation, particularly if the preload is not specifically tuned to hardware, software, or usage requirements. Note that this is not the same as the case of a specifically tuned preload mentioned above.
|Distro||Jul 2003||Jan 2004||Market
Updated April 2005: http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2005/03/14/fedora_makes_rapid_progress.html Distribution Active sites Active sites 6-month Sep '04 Mar '05 Growth Rate -------------------------------------------------- RedHat 1,630,382 1,610,427 -1.2% Debian 693,941 791,086 14.0% Cobalt 619,960 516,963 -16.6% SuSE 399,031 442,908 11.0% Fedora 182,421 405,682 122.4% Mandrake 62,972 73,459 16.7% Gentoo 43,525 63,160 45.1% --------------------------------------------------
Generally, Red Hat is the leading distribution in the US. SuSE has had a traditional lead in the EU, particularly Germany. TurboLinux has a strong presence in Asia, particularly China. Connectiva is strong in Portuguese and Spanish-speaking regions.
Of other distributions, Debian has shown an increasing presence, particularly outside the US. Newcomers such as Gentoo and Ubuntu have very rapid growth rates but are starting from a minimal base.
The table at right shows data from Netcraft, who survey webservers worldwide for software and operating system platform. They noted in 2004 that Debian is the fastest growing GNU/Linux distribution. Please note that webservers may not be representative of all GNU/Linux deployments, though it's reasonable proxy measure.
One way of classifying GNU/Linux distros is by the package management systems used. This is the set of tools, formats, network resources, and package manager guidelines for preparing software for a given GNU/Linux distro.
What is Package Mangement?
Under legacy MS Windows, installing software is taken care of through third-party installers. "Install Shield" is one popular such tool. This takes care of copying files where they're supposed to go, modifying the system registry, and pestering you with unread legal EULAs and advertising pitches. Sometimes the tool will even remove the software, though this often leaves stray traces on your system.
GNU/Linux software management — installation, removal, updates, and querying availability or status — are generally accomplished through a package management system. This is a set of tools, package formats, "mirror" sites for distribution, and other features. The really important idea is this:
Package management tools under GNU/Linux generally take the place of the legacy MS Windows "Install Shield" and similar tools. Your first source of software for your system should be within your distribution's package archive and using its package management tools for installation and removal.
While you can install non-distro ("third-party") software, and there are Install-Shield-like tools for GNU/Linux, your package management system is easier, more robust, and generally solves a lot of headaches for you. Use it. You'll save yourself a world of headaches.
Package management systems generally consist of:
- Packaging format: Generally, a way of combining a bunch of separate computer files into a single file. Similar to a ZIP archive on legacy MS Windows. Common variants are based on standard Unix tools such as tar, gzip, cpio, and ar.
- Package metadata: Most packaging systems include additional information about the software, including its name, origin, files included, special instructions to be carried out on installation or removal, and validation information. The secret sauce, though, is dependencies, which identify other software or packages which must be installed for proper function. The package management system generally figures out ("resovlves") these dependencies for you.
- Scripts: Software to prepare or finalize installation, removal, configuration, and/or maintenance.
- Signatures Cryptographic verification of authenticity (source) and integrity (absense of modifications) of the package.
- Archives / mirrors: You have to get your packages from somewhere. Most distros have official and unofficial sites, generally Internet-accessible, from which your packages can be downloaded and/or updated.
- Management tools: These are programs used to interact with your package management system. Examples include rpm, up2date, urpmi, yum, dpkg, apt, dselect, aptitude, synaptic, and yast. Each of these is a command-line, interactive, or GUI tool which allows viewing, changing, and querying packages.
A detailed analysis of common packaging formats has been written by Joey Hess, of the Debian project.
Christopher B. Browne has an excellent description of Linux System Configuration Tools.
Why Does Package Management Matter?
In a word: updates.
They're both a part of ongoing system maintenance: at some point you're going to want to install new software or update to the next release. And whether you want to or not, security issues are going to require system updates.
A good package management system takes much of the pain out of this process.
Contrast with MS Windows: update hell. Patches that break things, require testing, make systems nonbootable (Win2K server....) etc. Trial-and-error.
Patch and Pray Scott Berinato, CIO Magazine, August 2003:
It's the dirtiest little secret in the software industry: Patching no longer works. And there's nothing you can do about it. Except maybe patch less. Or possibly patch more.
Slammer worm. 1% noncompliance rate sufficient for spread. Debian's win: A package which violates policy will not be included in the official stable Debian release.
Package Management Flavors
Package management is one way of segmenting GNU/Linux distributions. Most distros follow one of the main packaging formats, and uses the tools associated with this format. Generally these divide among:
- RPM Package Manager, f/k/a Redhat Package Manager. One of the first widely used packaging formats. Distros include Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, and Connectiva Linux, among others. Tools include rpm, up2date, urpmi, and yum. Others are listed at http://rpm.org/software/updaters/ Caution: different distros have incompatible RPMs. When installing third-party RPMs be sure to select the proper distro.
- APT / DEB
- A Package Tool. "DEB" refers to the package format, "APT" is the packaging system as a whole. Distros include Debian, Libranet, Linspire, Xandros, Progeny, UserLinux, and Knoppix. Tools include apt-get, dpkg, aptitude, and synaptic.
- Portage (Gentoo)
- BSD Ports
- Various tools, some based on or used with the obove, others independent, including: Alien , autopackage, Depot (CMUInstaller), GNUpdate, GNU Stow, InstallShield wizards (Solaris), OpenPKG, RERO Release Manager, SLP (Stampede GNU/Linux, now defunct) SoftInst, etc. Distrowatch has a page on distros by package management system includeng a few addition entries.
rpm: rpm, up2date, yum. rpm: RPM Package Manager (previously Redhat Package Manger) urpmi: ??? Red Carpet: ??? yum: http://linux.duke.edu/projects/yum/ Yellow dog Updater, Modified. apt: dselect, dpkg, apt-get, aptitude, synaptic. Gentoo: ??? Slackware: ??? Ports: ???
A major key to realizing GNU/Linux benefits is knowing how to get help, and when.
HP, Spikeware, IBM, LinuxCare (now dead)...
Where to go for help...
Google. Linuxmafia KB. LDP. Freenode. LUGs. Smart Questions. How to file a bug.
man, info, /usr/share/doc (RH equiv?)
http://tldp.org/LDP/intro-linux/html/index.html Introduction to Linux: A Hands on Guide Machtelt Garrels http://speculation.org/garrick/newuser.html New User Schpeal ?? Garrick
NewsLinux Weekly News, Slashdot, and Freshmeat NewsForge The Register The Inquirer Linux Journal
LWCE O'Reilly Open Source Conference
RPM install: kitchen sink. APT install: selected components. Debian sarge netinst: http://www.nl.debian.org/devel/debian-installer/ - Manual http://d-i.alioth.debian.org/manual/ - FAQ http://wiki.debian.net/index.cgi?DebianInstallerFAQ - Wiki http://wiki.debian.net/index.cgi?DebianInstaller Hardware detection. Best x86 HW detection distros / tools?
If you can help it: don't. If you must do it, yes, you can, but it complicates things. Problems tend to be MS Windows' lack of tools for dealing with bootloaders, partitioning, etc. Can end up with a nonbootable system. fdisk /mbr. Other (Google) FIXME. If you can't help it: separate HDs. Problematic: defrag, resize, repart, bootloader. Dedicated boxes (real or virtual (VMWare) are preferred.
LILO & GRUB ("the usual") LOADLIN.EXE (DOS) YaBoot (PPC) NTLDR.EXE (WinNT/2K/XP/2K+3/Longhorn) Boot floppy PXE Boot BootCommander (?) (Proprietary)
Many installers automate this. One partition + swap minimum. Others as desired. Link to FAQ.
What to Install
RPM: Everything. APT: What you need. Package lists.
http://www.boutell.com/lsm/ http://www.freshmeat.net/ http://www.sourceforge.net/ Office Browsers Mail Chat Graphics Sound Video
It's interesting to note the stuff that's not being said any more.
Caldera / DRDOS (old campaign): http://www.maxframe.com/DR/Info/fullstory/factstat.html Security Support Integration Interoperability http://www.microsoft.com/interop Opera to MS: Get real about interoperability, Mr Gates By Hakon Lie Published Friday 11th February 2005 18:00 GMT http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/02/11/hakon_on_ms_interroperability/ Laundry list of interop / compatibility failures of MSFT, mostly browser-related, also Word docs. Information Rules, Varian & Shapiro. Training Support User Focus CHOICE!!! Modularity Data access, Lock-in Licensing Clarity Accountability Future-proofing. Support won't just go away (it can be bought, at a price)Linux FUD FAQ Linux Myth Dispeller. disclosed
People DiDiot Enderle Moody Zuck Companies: Gartner Meta Yankee (DiDiot) Forrester Giga IDC (tends to be balanced) Frost & Sullivan: http://www.frost.com/ See: http://www.newsfactor.com/story.xhtml?story_id=30191 ??? "Independent Research" Zuck's outfit. CCIA?
- Backups: What, where, why, when, and how.
- Browsers: They all suck.
- Linux Books...and other references.
- Partitioning: Splitting up is hard to do....
And, for the heck of it, I've posted some gratuitious screenshots. Note to the bandwidth-challenged, the 1/4-size "thumbnails" are still pretty hefty of themselves.
...in no particular order.... ...and with no particular intent to use... http://www.debian.org/doc/FAQ/ The Debian GNU/Linux FAQ http://www.linuxmafia.com/kb/Debian Linuxmafia.com KB : Debian http://www.advogato.org/article/169.html It's All in the Packaging [DRAFT] http://tldp.org/FAQ/GNU/Linux-FAQ/index.html The Linux FAQ http://speculation.org/garrick/newuser.html New User Schpeal, by Garrick Staples, (Slight Mandrake focus, pretty general) http://dag.wieers.com/home-made/apt/FAQ.php#B3 DAG Apt/Yum RPM repository » Frequently Asked Questions http://tldp.org/LDP/intro-linux/html/index.html ntroduction to GNU/Linux A Hands on Guide Machtelt Garrels http://www.google.com/search?q=linux+faq Google: Linux + FAQ http://www.linuxforce.net/debian.html?Printable=yes Why Debian GNU/GNU/Linux A Computing Platform to meet your needs: Debian GNU/GNU/Linux (LinuxForce.net) http://www.infodrom.org/Debian/doc/advantages.html Debian Advantages HOWTO Martin Schulze http://www.linux-mag.com/2002-03/debian_03.html GNU/Linux Magazine / March 2002 / FEATURE The Importance of Being Debian http://applications.linux.com/article.pl?sid=04/12/03/177243&tid=47 Tools & Utilities , Software , Debian , Mepis Printer-friendly Email story An apt-get primer Thursday December 09, 2004 (08:00 AM GMT) By: Bruce Byfield http://tldp.org/FAQ/GNU/Linux-FAQ/ TLDP - Linux FAQ David C. Merrill (dupe) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_distribution Wikepedia: Linux distribution page http://yakko.cs.wmich.edu/~moxjake/linux_faq.html Which Distribution FAQ Version 4.1.0 Printable (Recommended reading) http://tldp.org/FAQ/ LDP FAQs http://www.linuxmafia.com/debian/tips Debian Tips by Rick Moen (oldish, 1999-12-09) http://www.nl.debian.org/devel/debian-installer/ Installing sarge with the Debian-Installer http://www.debian.org/doc/manuals/reference/reference.en.html Debian Reference This Debian Reference is intended to provide a broad overview of the Debian system as a post-installation user's guide. It covers many aspects of system administration through shell-command examples. Basic tutorials, tips, and other information are provided for topics including fundamental concepts of the Debian system, system installation hints, Debian package management, the Linux kernel under Debian, system tuning, building a gateway, text editors, CVS, programming, and GnuPG for non-developers. (Sarge Installer) http://www.speculation.org/garrick/urpmifaq.txt PRPMI Frequently Asked Questions http://people.debian.org/~srivasta/talks/why_debian/talk.html Why Linux? Why Debian? Manoj Srivasta http://distrowatch.serve-you.net/dwres.php?resource=article-rpm What are your experiences with the RPM package format? Ladislav Bodnar, 2002 (Critical review of RPM) http://cbbrowne.com/info/linuxsysconfig.html GNU/Linux System Configuration Tools Christopher Browne's Web Pages Debian FAQ on Debian advantages (abridged): 1.4 What is the difference between Debian GNU/Linux and other Linux distributions? Why should I choose Debian over some other distribution? These key features distinguish Debian from other Linux distributions: The Debian package maintenance system: The entire system, or any individual component of it, can be upgraded in place without reformatting, without losing custom configuration files, and (in most cases) without rebooting the system. Open development: Debian is the only Linux distribution that is being developed cooperatively by many individuals through the Internet, in the same spirit as Linux. More than volunteer package maintainers are working on over [17,500] packages and improving Debian GNU/Linux. The Debian developers contribute to the project not by writing new applications (in most cases), but by packaging existing software according to the standards of the project, by communicating bug reports to upstream developers, and by providing user support. The Bug Tracking System: The geographical dispersion of the Debian developers required sophisticated tools and quick communication of bugs and bug-fixes to accelerate the development of the system. Users are encouraged to send bugs in a formal style, which are quickly accessible by WWW archives or via e-mail. The Debian Policy: Debian has an extensive specification of our standards of quality, the Debian Policy. This document defines the qualities and standards to which we hold Debian packages. http://debian-br.sourceforge.net/txt/debian_vs_redhat.html A Red Hat user's introduction to Debian Alex Shnitman http://www.debian.org/intro/why_debian Reasons to Choose Debian [Note: I'd add similar testimonials for other distros...if I could find 'em. Suggestions welcomed.] http://dudle.linuxroot.org/docs/debian-install/ Debian Install Haim Dimermanas firstname.lastname@example.org Friday June 15th 2001 [Yet another debian install guide/howto] http://www.sowerbutts.com/linux-mac-mini/ Linux on the Mac Mini (Debian, at that) http://www.thelinuxbusinessdirectory.com/ The Linux Business Directory 'aims to be the world's largest directory of open source and GNU/Linux companies' http://www.eweek.com/print_article2/0,2533,a=145321,00.asp Fee-based GNU/Linux Offers Options February 14, 2005 By Jason Brooks Linux distributions best-tailored for enterprise use are sold under per-machine, annual-subscription-price models that are far from free. Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc., producers of the two most popular enterprise Linux distributions, require per-machine licensing for their products, which they enforce through controlled availability of security and bug-fix updates. Freely redistributable, license-cost-free alternatives to per-machine licensed distributions do exist, including free clones of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and a variety of so-called general-purpose Linux distributions. ... While noncommercial Linux distributions lack the sort of direct, vendor-provided support of the enterprise Linuxes, the much greater popularity of these distributions results in more available information on the Internet, including surprisingly good support information from mailing lists. It's also much easier to find precompiled software packages on the Internet for particular releases of Fedora or Debian than for various enterprise Linux products. Free software as innovative? "Sweetcode" lists innovative free software projects: http://sweetcode.org/ Sweetcode reports innovative free software. "Innovative" means that the software reported here isn't just a clone of something else or a minor add-on to something else or a port of something else or yet another implementation of a widely recognized concept. David Nagel, Palmsource CEO, 15 February 2005Most, if not all chip makers, now ship an initial implementation that runs on Linux. Implementations for the other operating systems follow. So again, by moving to a Linux platform, we avoid a lot of work. This translates into cost savings in development.Financial companies lead GNU/Linux charge Carol Sliwa 22/07/2005 15:31:20 Open-source zealots may continue to play a part in instigating the spread of Linux across the European continent, nearly 14 years after Linus Torvalds hatched the operating system in Finland. But private corporations and public-sector users in Europe typically cite pragmatic reasons for taking up the open-source operating system. They point to price and performance benefits. They want freedom to swap out hardware. They find the operating system reliable. They like its flexibility. "It was not that we just wanted to do open-source. We had to find a way to protect our investment in network computing," says Matthias Strelow, a technical project manager at LVM Insurance in Munster, Germany. "I'm not sure it would have been possible with any other operating system."