Penguins at the equator

You may not have heard of it yet, but there is a growing buzz in the ICT community about Linux that has reached deafening volumes. Linux is said to be the savior of a world threatened by computer viruses and malicious crackers, and the only credible threat to Microsoft’s monopoly on operating systems. While this is debatable, Linux has revolutionized the development, marketing and distribution of software. Probably the most visible benefit is price – Linux is free.

The buzz has reached Arusha, with at least two large ICT businesses poised to make Linux available in the near future. I spoke with David Erickson, Operations Manager of AFAM, about Linux and Arusha Node Marie’s plan to help interested parties get hold of Linux at the price of a CD.

Originally released in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, Linux was designed to be a free version of UNIX, the operating system of choice for powerful super computers. Linux grew in popularity amongst students, scientists and engineers, because it brought the power of UNIX to desktop machines.

The fact that Linux is ‘Open Source’ – the code that Linux is written in is not secret like Windows’ – means its’ hundreds of thousands of users are free to write improvements to Linux, adding new features and, more relevantly, fixing bugs and security holes rather than waiting for corporations to release fixes according to their own schedule says Erickson. This is a powerful force!

Another important benefit Linux has is that it is legal to install it from copied CDs. The philosophy behind Linux encourages you to copy and distribute it further. Most of us are forced to break the law because we cannot afford to pay the price Microsoft is charging us says Erickson. Linux provides a cheaper, safer choice.

Of particular relevance to Arushans, Linux has proved itself to run well on older computers with less memory and slower processors than Windows requires – reducing the hardware costs as well.

Because of its Open Source philosophy Linux has grown from an obscure operating system suitable only for hardcore computer geeks into a fully featured graphic user interface (GUI) operating system easily used by the average computer user without special training – Linux now looks and works very much like its more expensive rival.

While Linux itself was being developed, thousands of programmers developed applications to be used on it, many of them also Open Source and available for free. OpenOffice is a suite of typical office tools similar to Microsoft Office – it includes programmes similar to Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint. I wrote this article using it – I barely noticed the difference from working in Word. OpenOffice even allows you to open Word documents and save them so you can continue working with people using Microsoft’s products.

Software written for Linux spans the full range, from powerful database management systems like MySQL to graphics tools like The GIMP and games. Many of these are also available for free.

Where Linux really comes into its own is as a server operating system. Linux is used around the world as the backbone for office systems. It is well suited to file sharing, serving web pages and databases, securing office networks and managing email. Arusha Node Marie, like many ISPs, runs its servers exclusively on Linux because of its reliability and low cost.

So what are the drawbacks? Installing a new operating system can be tricky. I have had problems installing Linux on my laptop and ultimately had to give up. However, each new version of Linux is easier to install – installing the latest Red Hat Linux is said to be easier than Windows 2000. Desktop users should have no trouble at all.

Another drawback is that people used to working with Windows may be a little confused when faced with a slightly different interface – an internet cafe running Linux can offer everything a Windows based one can, but may have to assist perplexed customers more than usual.

Support is also an issue – Linux typically comes on a CD without printed manuals. Documentation that comes on the CD is often aimed at advanced computer users, but leaves the average person scratching their head. This is improving – a number of web sites provide clear well-written documentation on all aspects of using Linux – The Linux Documentation Project is a notable effort in this direction.

So where can you find Linux? Arusha Node Marie is planning on making copies of Red Hat 9 available at cost. A&A Computers are considering installing new computers with Linux rather than Windows. It is also available for download from a number of sites, although at 650Mb per CD, this is a long download. In time, Linux and other open source software should become as easily available as pirated copies of Windows are today.

Those who wish to test Linux without committing to installing it might try Knoppix, a version which runs entirely off CD without touching your hard drive. I have a copy of Knoppix and will copy it for anyone who sends a blank CD – to find out more about this, and getting hold of a full version of Linux, contact me on duncandrury@yahoo.co.uk.

Useful Links

Originally published in Arusha Times 293

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s