Learning to Love Linux 

By Karen Coyle 

Column: Managing Technology 

PREPRINT. Published in Journal of Academic Librarianship v. 34 n. 1, January, 2008. pp. 72-73 

The latest operating system from Microsoft, Windows Vista, is visually stunning, with masterful icons and smooth screen movement. Vista is more than just a computer operating system, it is an entire entertainment center. It is also a memory hog, and although Microsoft lists 512 megabytes as the minimum amount of random access memory, common wisdom in information technology departments is that two gigabytes of memory is required for smooth operation of this software.  

So what are we to do with all of those perfectly good computers that we have on hand that have only 512 or 256 megabytes of memory? We could upgrade their memory to reach the requisite 2 gigabytes that  Vista requires. However, the processors in those machines are probably a bit slow by today's standards, and that, too, will mean that the Vista experience might be sluggish. Not to mention that it doesn't make a lot of sense to be purchasing memory and a new operating system for machines that are reaching the end of their lifetimes.

One possibility, especially if those computers are used mainly for routine office tasks or for Internet access, is to convert them to a Linux operating system. Linux runs quite well on machines that are underpowered even for Windows XP. In addition, most Linux distributions (called "distros" in geek speak) are themselves more than just an operating system: they are fairly complete office computing platforms containing most of the software you will need for daily computer use. 

The Linux Family 

Linux is not a single operating system, but a family of computing solutions that have a similar core but vary in their features and friendliness. All are based on Unix and all have some functionality in common with the Unix platform. Linux is open source software and the code can be freely modified and distributed by anyone, which explains why there are so many different versions of it. While this may seem confusing, most general distributions are alike in their features. Because Linux is open source and can be modified by anyone, there are numerous specialized versions in addition to the general distributions. Interested users have created versions of Linux in dozens of different languages including Byelorussian, Thai, and Catalan. Other versions have been designed as embedded applications, game consoles, or with extended security operations.  

Early versions of Linux were command-line only systems intended primarily as programmer workstations or application servers. As the Linux developer communities have begun to target the average desktop computer as part of the Linux market, they have worked to close the gap between Linux and its primary commercial rivals, Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh. Linux distributions aimed at the desktop computing market have graphical interfaces that are neither exactly like Windows nor quite like a Macintosh screen, but are close enough that users of either of these commercial operating systems should be able to find their way around with little problem.  

There are literally hundreds of different distributions of Linux available. Selecting only those distributions aimed at the "average desktop" on Linux.org yielded 55 different possibilities. Since Linux is open source and anyone can create their own version, it's always best to stick with those that are widely used and well-supported. There are some brands of Linux that are particularly well known, and even some that can be found in the software sections of retail stores or on Amazon.com. Some of these are: 

What You Get 

One of the surprising things when you look at a Linux distribution under the hood is that it appears to be many hundreds of individual programs – and it is. Where the commercial operating systems present themselves as a black box, a Linux distribution makes the innards of the operating system visible, at least if you care to look at it. This doesn't mean that Linux is more complex; it is just that it allows you to see the complexity. At the same time, you can treat the Linux operating system the same way you treat the Windows operating system, and pay only attention to the part you care about, the user interface. 

The user interface is generally a graphical desktop with pull-down menus. Often a Web browser is already installed and visible on the desktop or the menu bar. The desktop will have some icons: a link to the user's home directory, the equivalent of "My Documents;" a link to the computer, which will open up to show all of the drives on the machine; and a trash can.  

The Applications menu pulls down to reveal all of the common user applications that have been installed. These include a full office suite called "OpenOffice." OpenOffice is a free set of office applications with word processing, a presentation creator (like PowerPoint), a spreadsheet application, plus a calculator, a drawing program, and possibly a database front end and a math style editor. While greatly improved over earlier versions, the fact is that if you are a power user of any of the Microsoft Office applications you may find OpenOffice a bit disappointing in some details. However, the basic functionality is there, and you can read documents created by Microsoft Office formats and even save original documents in those formats for compatibility with colleagues using Microsoft products. Natively, OpenOffice saves in the Open Document Format, but it also allows you to create PDF versions of any of your files. In some distributions you may find other applications for daily use, like calendars or scheduling software.

Linux distributions that I have tried have handled the various computer peripherals and multi-media functions quite well. Many software products you are accustomed to, such as Real Player on Windows machines, are also available on Linux. If not there is always a good equivalent created especially for Linux. You can upload your photos and watch DVDs, listen to music CDs or create MP3 files from them to store on the computer. In fact, I have had fewer problems writing CDs on my Linux computer than I have had on Windows XP. 

What Linux Doesn't Do 

It's not a complete bed of roses with Linux, primarily because we mainly operate in a Microsoft Windows-centric world. For example, if your institution relies heavily on Microsoft Outlook, you may find yourself in difficulty. There is a software package called "Evolution" that has many of the features of Outlook and can be configured to connect to an Exchange server for integration with computers, but the impression I have is that it may not be a trouble-free experience.  Or you may find that OpenOffice is missing a function that for you is absolutely essential. If you absolutely must run some Windows programs, there is software that allows you to do this on Linux, albeit not always perfectly. The main program is Wine, which like most Linux software is free. There is a "pay for" program called CrossOver, which is based on Wine but appears to be more stable. These implement the core of the Windows operating system as an application, and should allow you to install and run any Windows-based program alongside your Linux applications.  

If your institution either allows or requires you to manage your own computer workstation, you may find the experience of adding new programs in the Linux environment is not always as simple as you would like. There are some programs that install quite easily, much like on a Windows computer, but there are still times when developers of Linux and Unix applications expect the user to have programming skills. Some programs even require you to compile them as part of the install process, and may come with instructions that almost work on your particular version of Linux, but not quite, leaving you to figure out how to complete the process.  

If you are an avid gamer you won't find much to do on a Linux machine. Geek gamers will often keep a Windows machine around, or will create a dual-boot machine that can be used either as Windows or as Linux (but not at the same time). There are a few arcade-type games that come with the standard Linux distributions, but they're not very tempting.  

The Economics of Linux 

Although you can purchase some Linux distributions on disk (for a very reasonable price, essentially the cost of the disk plus shipping), you also can always download them from their distribution web sites for free. You then need to copy the distribution to a CD in a bootable format and use that CD to install the software. The free Linux distributions come with no support other than what you can find online. The quality of the online support varies, and may prove to be time consuming if you run into problems. If Linux is not supported by your library's or your institution's information technology department, you may wish to purchase support provided by the distributor, if available, or make use of a professional support organization in your area. You will find some links to support organizations on the Web site of the major distributors of Linux. Should you find that Linux is working for you, though, the development of in-house expertise to support this operating system and its applications is essential. The upshot is that although the software does not have a purchase price, it does have some overall costs that must be considered.  

Try it Free with Live CD 

Are you interested in trying Linux? Or just want to get a look at it? Many of the distributions include something called "Live CD." With Live CD you run Linux directly from the CD without making any changes to your desktop machine. It is not a substitute for installation, but does allow you to try out some of Linux's features with no risk. (The standard Ubuntu download produces a CD that is both bootable Live CD and also serves as the installer for the program, making it very easy to try out the software.)

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