By Dennis Howlett
Back in 1991, a rather bright Finnish computer science under- graduate at Helsinki University named Linus Torvalds convinced his tutors that developing a new operating system based roughly on the Unix kernel would make a good degree project. After some time, he succeeded and decided to publish the source code on the Internet, making it freely available to anyone interested in developing around it. Thus, Linux was conceived. Torvalds saw that many computing professionals live with Unix during the day, but probably use a personal computer running a version of Windows at home and that logically, a personal computer-based operating system that spoke Unix would make sense. Torvalds realized that to be of any use, Linux would have to bridge the personal computer/Unix divide yet also take in some of the latest hardware technologies.
Matt Welsh, a Cambridge University Computer Laboratories research assistant and author of two books on Linux says: It started out as a hobbyist and programmer thing. When I was doing some of the early documentation no one really considered it would become popular. They were wrong. Linux is popular in certain circles and has an increasingly loyal following. Caldera Inc is currently trying to package Linux and is bundling in commercial applications at a fraction of the price of equivalent mainstream offerings – it is integrating NetWare, offering Linux versions of Netscape, CorelDraw and WordPerfect. According to Caldera, Linux has over two million users worldwide – not bad for a relatively unknown operating system. Quite a few Web sites are glued together using Linux systems. Indeed Chicago based consultants Mirai polled Webmasters last year and found that a staggering 9% of World Wide Web servers are powered by Linux, which makes it second only to Sun Microsystems Inc technologies as a Unix Web server platform. Recent inquiries show that this figure may have jumped to as high as 18%. So, why has Linux succeeded? The first and most obvious thing to say is that it is free and whilst everyone gets worried about free lunches, the fact remains there are no restrictions on what developers do with it, provided they openly publish modifications without charge. Since most of the development publishing takes place across the Internet, code is quickly available to a wide audience. Second, as an operating system, it supports an astonishing array of hardware. For example, there is support for all the current PCI bus drivers and, because the source is free, you don’t have to wait too long for a developer to come out with a new version. Typically, it takes weeks rather than months for new, reliable drivers to appear. Third, Linux generally runs faster than Digital Equipment Corp’s Alpha so cannot be considered a ‘poor man’s Unix’. Fourth, it has very good Internet support. Compare that with Sun where you’ll need to buy a separate driver and card and it quickly becomes apparent that Linux could be a challenger in the commercial market. Apart from being free, Linux has an astonishing array of goodies going for it in the network stakes. For example, as a Unix type server, it can support 12 users hooked up via serial terminals, along with X Windows and also personal computers that use Unix for file and print services. If you think you’re running out of resources, and have the kit, slam in another processor and let Linux distribute the processing load across your symmetric multi-processing server. And if that doesn’t convince you that Linux is a serious operating system, Caldera recently licensed Novell Inc’s cross platform services so it can add Novell Directory Services and security systems found in NetWare 4.x and IntranetWare to their Linux-based system software products. With all this support, you’d have thought its champions would have made a fortune now and be enjoying Gates- like fame. Well, life’s not quite like that and many people question the legitimacy of an operating system that’s free for several reasons. Despite the fact that Linux affords the opportunity of extending the life of older x86 personal computers in relatively simple application situations, the Santa Cruz Operation Inc already has a significant part of the personal computer-based Unix market to itself and provides extensive, if costly support. There’s a kind of mind set that says: ‘Yeah, we’ll have it ‘cos its free, but won’t put it out into mission critical operations because what happens if it falls over, who do I go to and what do I do?’ In any event, there are no serious reports of Version 2.0 being particularly unstable. Also, there’s a very active community of Linux enthusiasts on the Web who are always coming up with common fixes. Commercial vendors, largely centered in the US offer a wide range of Linux-based products and services, Caldera being one and WorkGroup Solutions Inc being another and also these sites offer Internet-based support. Caldera’s chief executive Bryan Sparks makes the point that There are lots of markets where the adoption of products based around Linux is good business. Take the example of the 286-386 legacy personal users. In places like India or Pakistan, there’s no reason why this kind of equipment can’t be put to good use. We can offer those buyers access to the Internet and the World Wide Web, as well as giving them networking and tried and tested applications at very low cost. As for Windows applications if you have Wabi version 2.2 for Linux you can run most of the popular Windows 3.x programs including Excel 4.0 and 5.0, Word 2.0 and 6.0, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Lotus 1-2-3 4.0 and 5.0, SmartSuite 3.1 and 4.0. However, there is a downside because you will need at least 16Mb RAM to run this lot. If you don’t want to go that far, Linux supports a variety of the ‘standard’ Unix products. For instance, TCP/IP and HTTP are there with free versions of a text processor, spreadsheet and database. If that sounds like going to the car boot sale, consider the merit in using products that work rather than being sucked into the modern marketing hype. However, that’s not to say that all classic kit is going to run on Linux. For example, getting drivers for old network cards and CD-ROM drives could be problematic, but then it’s worth weighing the cost of getting new ones against the aggravation of breathing new life into peripherals that may be useless.
On the question of peripherals, you’d be surprised who supports Linux. The SMC EtherEZ PnP Ethernet card for instance works fine provided you use the SMC Ultra driver, recompile the Linux kernel and then reboot into DOS to set the SMC configurations so that it runs in shared memory mode, then reboot into Linux. The popular Adaptec 2920 and more recent 2940 SCSI cards are also supported, but in the case of the 2920, you need to make sure you’ve got the right driver in the 2.0.x kernel. All this sounds too good, but when you hear that companies like South West Airlines use Linux as their backbone for uploading remote branch information you start to sit up and take notice. At least one commentator reckons it’s only a matter of time before we see Linux available for the mainframe. An interesting thought.
This article is from the March 1997 edition of Unix & NT News.