Linux edges into the IT mainstream

Linux edges into the IT mainstream

I first met Linus Torvalds, founder of the Linux operating system, a little more than two years ago. I was in Finland, reporting on that tiny nation's remarkable technology community and its achievements, when I visited him at his small flat in Helsinki.

For someone who'd sparked a software mini-revolution, Torvalds was unassuming - a far cry from the egomania I frequently encounter in Silicon Valley. Linux, a freeware variant of Unix, had made quiet but genuine inroads into the computing world. But Torvalds clearly understood that while his central role was important, even essential, the project depended on the legions of programmers and users elsewhere who were determined to make it work.

Much has changed since then. For one thing, Torvalds has moved to Silicon Valley. For another, the impact of Linux has surged. It's emerging as a rational alternative to Windows NT and other major enterprise operating systems.

That acceptance, combined with the IT community's fears of a Microsoft-only world, has prompted heavies such as Oracle, Computer Associates, Netscape and Informix to port some products to Linux. Those vendors aren't just playing to the anti-Microsoft crowd, but are recognising that Linux has become a rock-solid system that can handle mission-critical chores.

Linux has a small but growing number of mainstream desktop applications. Corel claims it's porting its WordPerfect suite to Linux. But don't hold your breath for Microsoft Office for Linux.

Enterprises are exploring Linux, and they like what they're finding. They're learning what webmasters and Internet jockeys already knew: freeware - now called "open-source" software - is more than a cheap alternative to commercial products. In some ways, it's the equal of anything else out there; in others, it may actually be superior. The Internet as we know it depends to a large degree not just on Linux, but also on freeware packages such as BIND, Apache, sendmail and Perl.

The failings of Linux are becoming less awful as time goes on. It wasn't long ago that the only way to use Linux was to install it yourself. Now a few hardware OEMs have discovered a market for computers with Linux preinstalled.

Even installing Linux is getting easier, though not nearly easy enough for anyone outside the IT-tweaker community. Hardware drivers are improving in variety and quality, but it's still much too easy to encounter major problems.

Full source code

Linux isn't the only freeware Unix variant. FreeBSD, a popular Unix alternative, comes with full source code. Sun is letting individuals use Solaris, though not its source code, without charge. And the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) provides SCO UnixWare, for personal and non-profit use only, also without source code.

One of IT's big questions about Linux is support: who gets the call when something goes wrong? Linux companies such as Red Hat and Caldera are improving their support, and third-party help is more available.

The Internet is still the main avenue of help - and the Net-based community of Linux developers has proved astoundingly efficient in finding and fixing problems.

While the Linux world has changed enormously in the past several years, some things have stayed the same.

Torvalds is still a nice guy. And the project he started as a Helsinki university student remains in the hands of his worldwide force of collaborators and - more importantly - in the hands of users.

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