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Swimming Against the Tide: Linux Users in North America

It was once considered gospel truth in America that "no one ever got fired for buying IBM." Now, it's Microsoft, not Big Blue, that's the safe choice in many a corporation. Have a problem with a Microsoft product? Blame Bill Gates. Buy anything else, and your boss will blame you. Despite the recent spate of bad publicity about Microsoft, including charges by competitors of unfair competition and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, Microsoft not only thrives, but in a recent poll, was named the most respected technology company. Microsoft's acendancy from a small BASIC intepreter company to a global institution is why Apple is having such a hard time succeeding, why IBM, despite millions of dollars in investment, failed to make OS/2 a viable product--and why Linux users here on the North American continent are a tough, independent breed.

To use Linux in your company is to be a rebel, a contrarian, perhaps even a member of a cult. It's not just that Linux is not Windows. Linux is not even a commercial UNIX from the likes of Sun or Santa Cruz Operations. Linux's origins are suspect in the eyes of many cautious MIS managers: if a company didn't develop it, how can it be good? Beginning as an undergraduate project by the now legendary Linus Torvalds, Linux has become one of the best evidence of the Internet's ability to bind people into a communitya global volunteer effort that counters conventional wisdom that people are motivated solely by financial gain.
*If you know nothing about Linux, See this page.

But while Linux is not as wildly popular in the U.S. and Canada as it is in Japan and Europe, the Linux community thrives. A few U.S. companiesmost notably Caldera and Red Hathave made a business out of Linux. Two shows, Linux Expo and Atlanta Linux Showcase, are drawing lots of attendees. And in an admitedly indirect endorsement, Torvalds himself has moved from his native Helsinki to California's Silicon Valley, where he is working for a secretive non-Linux company.

Also in America in the Linux Journal, edited by Marjorie Richardson. As you might imagine, she is bullish on the future of the OS. "It's as bright as a supernova," she writes in an e-mail exchange. "More and more articles about Linux and companies using Linux are appearing in newspapers and magazines worldwide. In Canada, Corel Corporation has announced that Linux will be the operating system installed on their new Video Network computer. At the Lisa '97 conference in San Diego in October, we talked to a programmer who is porting Linux to Silicon Graphics hardware. Umax Technologies has invested in VA Research, a company that sells its computer with Linux installed, even though Umax is also a manufacturer of Power Mac clones.
*Check here, to know about Corel's VNC.

"Even without the marketing resources of a company like Microsoft, the word on Linux is obviously spreading. Linux may not catch up with Microsoft any time soon but it is definitely not going to drop out of the race. The word is that Microsoft is porting Internet Explorer to a few UNIX flavors, including Linux, and although no product names were mentioned, our advertising department has received multiple queries from PR firms about advertising Microsoft products in our magazine. I'd say that Microsoft has definitely noticed that Linux is here to stay."

So who is using Linux in North America? Large companies are difficult to find, though rumors abound. More typical are smaller firms and individuals within larger companies who have managed to get away with it. The following profiles of American and Canadian Linux users show that Linux is mostly admired for its speed and economy, and the high level of support by the Linux community. For the most part, there people are true believerswhich makes the exception, Eric Lee Green of Executive Consultants, all the more worth listening to.

Linux at Cisco Systems

The biggest company in this informal survey is Cisco Systemsat least one corner of it. According to Keith Dart, a test engineer for the Cisco, Linux is now running on 21 print servers within the company: 19 production servers and 2 development serversproviding the print services not only the UNIX community but 5000 PCs. "The two big factors driving the development of the Cisco LP system is scalability and reliability. The print system is no longer just servicing a dozen or so UNIX machines at the headquarters office, it is spooling print jobs from hundreds of PCs and UNIX hosts all around the world. Currently, there are about 1200 printers included in this system, worldwide.

Dart says that Cisco's goal is to have the entire print system running under Linux, instead of on two different architectures: Sun machines running SunOS and Intel macines running Linux. "We need to get a few more things working and then we are going to convert the SPARC print servers over to Linux," he says. "This will greatly simplify the maintenance of the print system. It's now a bit of a headache to be maintaining two OSs: files go in different places, libraries are a bit different. We are also developing tools that will allow us to configure, setup and maintain the large number of print servers quickly and easily. Right now we have several utilities, including a script that uses rdist, to maintain the some of the configuration files and custom software all of the Intel based machines. We also have a script that updates the operating system and the OS related packages that are installed on the server. These are all just tools to help us keep each of the print servers generic."

Dart himself uses Red Hat's Linux both on his own desktop PC as his primary OS, as well as downstairs in a test suite of servers he administer, designed for the ISP market for providing both ISDN and modem connections. These machines use multiport serial cards in order to simulate a high capacity access situation, such as getting 600+ calls at once.

"I'm a general believer that UNIX is more functional and powerful and that Linux, in particular, is a lot cheaper than mainstream UNIX implementations. One of Cisco's mottos is 'do more with less.' You can't do much more with less than with Linux. In addition, you don't have all the licensing constraints. I have Linux running on about 20 machines in the lab and I can install it anywhere without having to worry about an additional license. That means that if I need an additional DNS or Web server, I just throw in a Linux box and start up the serverthat's all there is to it. Plus: Linux acutally has better support than many commercial operating systems." In addition, Dart occasionally alters the Linux source, both altering the PPP package and a few other utilities, as well as writing a few other utilities of his own for testing and troubleshooting a particular machine.

"Linux makes it a little easier because I can put all the servers on a network and control them remotelythat's a big advantage over NT. Dart uses Tcl (Tool Command Language) a scripting language developed by John K. Ousterhout in 1990, Tk--an extension to Tcl that which provides an interface to the X11 windowing system, and Expect, a program that communicates with other programs using a Tcl script. Because of the flexibility of this setup, Dart is able to remotely manage these boxes, and they perform as if they were a single system. The machines have 48 asynchronous RS-232 ports, each connected to a modem bank or ISDN line.

Dart chose the Red Hat Linux implementation pricipally because of the Red Hat Package Manager. A package is simply a group of related programs, and Package Manager allows him to do upgrades with a single command, as well as remove and install new packages and keep track of dependencies. The utility keeps track of where the files are located and their version. "If you need to upgrade one, a single command will deinstall the old file as well as all files associated with it, install the new one, and, if necessary, run a script to set things up. It makes managing all this different software much easier."

As an expermient, Dart also put Linux on his desktop machinewhere it is still running. " I personally like it much than Windows because it never crashes, and if I do have a problem with an applicationlike the Linux version of Netscape Navigatorthe application will drop while the rest of the system stays up." Dart uses Applix's Words word processor, aking advantage of its ability to import and export Microsoft Word formatted files. He also uses Applix Spreadsheets and HTML authoring tools, as well as pine for email, and runs Meeting Maker from ON Technology, running it under Solaris on a remote Sun machine and displaying it on his local system using X Window. A picture of his home desktop can be seen at:>

Dart would like to see more done to make Linux more broadly accepted. "To do that, the OS needs a more friendly user interface and adminstration tools. There's a lot of people working on that and evenutally I think the situation will improve," he says. As for the use of free UNIX, in what is largely a Microsoft world, Dart argues that the difference is largely one of perception. "Linux is everything you'd ever want in an OS. It's ability, speed, flexibility and robustness are all superior to NT. The only thing it doesn't have is a multimillion dollar marketing budget."

Free Internet access in high school

Paul Hankes Drielsma is using Linux for a non-profit organization called LCINet, which provides free-of-charge Internet access to 1,200 high school students in the Ottawa, Canada area. The service offers e-mail accounts, Web server and directory space, and shell accountsall accessible via Windows clients. In addition, four of LCINet's six Linux servers are also available to students, which run X and all the standard desktop packages. When Drielsma is not volunteering for LCI Net, he programs under IRIX, developing Web interfaces to Oracle databases that dynamically generate Web pages in Perl, Java and JavaScript. He is currently on contract to the Canadian government.

All six of LCINet's servers are based at a high school and linked together using 10Base T Internet. For Drielsma, UNIX for this application was a given. "The performance you get out of a Linux server over comparable hardware running NT is insane," he says. "We've run clock tests on some Java programs and it was unbelievable how much faster they run under Linux."

For desktop applications, the organization uses StarOffice from Star Division in Hamburg, Germany. "They offer a commercial piece of software for every OS other than Linuxand for Linux they offer it for free. That's a class act, especially for a multinational company." He also likes S.u.S.E, a Linux distribution started in Germany, with an office in Oakland, California. "They have been doing some interesting things in terms of Linux promotion." As for NT, Drielsma calls it adequate. I look down at UNIX users who run after Bill Gates for no particular reason because I don't think that's the point. I don't respect Microsoft as a company or they way they operate, but I do respect Bill Gates as a marketing genius."

For the first three years of Drielsma's involvement in this project, he worked with Mike Shaver, who in turn worked on the Linux kernel code. "With him I worked on some in depth stuff, including the proc directories, which are used to report statuses of processes and memory. He also uses Red Hat's Package Manager. "It was so comprehensive and convenient," Drielsma says. "There are a lot of people who look down on it and say that Linux is an operating system for expertsand if it's that easy, you shouldn't be able to do it. I don't agree. There are very few programs where I've actually made changes when compiling them myself. If there are programs like that, I can still go in and get the source code. For your average program, the way Red Hat is compiled, the Manager works perfectlyso why make more work for myself."

Executive Consultants

Executive Consultants in Shreveport, Louisiana, provides administrative services for schools, including schedules, report cards, student and funds management, and student attendance. Softdisk was already a UNIX company, but when Santa Cruz Operation discontinued Xenix, the firm sought Linux as a natural replacement.

"Even if SCO had not discontinued Xenix, we still would have needed to move to something else in order to get the network integration the clients were demanding," says Eric Lee Green, the firm's system specialist. "SCO OpenServer met our needs, but is too expensive for the school site level if you license it for enough users to deal with grade posting." While that process happens just once every six weeks, it is extremely intense with every teacher getting online at once to post their grades.

Of course, when Xenix was discontinued, Executive Consultants could have moved to Windows, but didn't, again because of Linux's low cost. "Most of our school districts are under extreme pressure to reduce spending on administration and cannot justify spending limited funds on computers for administrators. Until recently, most of our school districts had, at most, just one computer for the entire administration area, which was used by the secretary for word processing. It generally ran an older version of DOS. So we had a competitive advantage in that school districts could stick inexpensive dumb terminals on everybody's desk for much less than the price of computers."

Since Executive Consultants made it's decision to go with Linux, the funding situation has improved. Nevertheless, Green estimates that school technology generally runs about five years behind the business world, so only now are computers being purchased that are actually capable of running Windows. "We most probably will not rewrite our applications for Windows, but will instead turn toward using a browser/Java front end," says Green. The firm selected Red Hat because it wanted a vendor that was a "real" companythereby eliminating Slackware and Debian. Narrowing the field to Caldera and Red Hat, he chose the latter because of the company's no nonsense approach and what he considers to be its technical superiority to Caldera's product.

For its money, the firm now has a high performance OS for a low price, that integrates well into Windows 95 networks as well as the Internet. "It can also be administrated remotely, unlike Windows 95anything I can do at the console I can do remotely via modem or Internet.

"Linux has also made some things downright easy. Networking all the school via WAN (wide area network) to the central office turned out to be child's play, complete with data replication and remote access to the school site. Internet security fixes are released by Red Hat much faster than for 'commercial' operating systems, and if there's a bug I don't have to wait for the commercial vendor to fix itI have the source code and so can fix it myself," says Green.

Linux has also made it very easy for Green to automate the process of building servers. He builds just one server and can then do a direct hard drive to hard drive dump at full IDE or SCSI speeds from that one master driveassuming all the hard drives are the same size. "That makes it much easier to build servers for an entire school district."

Of the Linux users interviewed for this article, Green alone expressed some reservations about the OS, complaining that systems administration can be difficult. "Sure, everything that can be done locally can be done remotely. But I had to write about 10,000 lines of scripts to make system administration reasonablemeaning that I can turn most calls over to a non-UNIX-expert technician for things like adding a remote printer or assigning a printer to a user," he says. "The Linux operating system has been a moving target. We installed some systems on Red Hat 3.03 during August of last year, and just installed some systems on Red Hat 4.2 during August of this year. Red Hat 4.0 and Red Hat 4.1 are out there, too. This means some capabilities aren't available at all sites. For example, Red Hat 3.03 won't access Netware print spools.

"The biggest scare is when there is an actual bug in the operating system. That's enough to make a person pull his hair out. I found one such bug in the line print daemon. It core-dumped if you fed it okay a -c but had no such filter defined in the /etc/printcap and I had to fix that myself." Green says that the Linux 2.0.30 and 2.0.31 kernels have also had quality issues, which creates a problem since Red Hat 4.2 is based on the 2.0.30 kernel. He says that the 2.0.29 kernel was rock solid, but it's rather painful to have to customize systems.

"Our biggest problem to date has been with hardware vendors who claim or promise to support Linux, but don't. Computone is a major culprit here. Instead of assigning one of their staffers to learn Linux kernel internals, they contracted out the workwhich so far is close to two years overdue, with the only thing to show being a preliminary very buggy driver that crashes all the time," says Green.

The bottom line here is that Green considers Linux "a useful stopgap, a viable alternative to expensive UNIX servers, that still has more capabilities than NT server. In the future, as we retire the dumb terminal code, we will still most probably offer a Linux server side. With current Microsoft strategies being what they are in the United States, though, NT looks like it might also be in our future."

Linux + Java>Windows
Unique Systems, located near Toledo, Ohio, provides turnkey systems primarily written in Informix 4GL using Caldera's Linux for both development and deployment. "Caldera and Linux both came into the picture as an Internet server and we were very pleasantly surprised at its performance," says Glenn Jacobson, the company's president. The firm uses the Caldera Network Desktop as a remote access gateway for TCP/IP based networks, taking advantage of its easy PPP setup. About six employees are served, as well as several hundred clients, utilizing Linux on three servers. "We wound up being extremely satisfied with Linux as an Internet server," Jacobson said. "We've replaced some NT boxes, as have some of our clients on their own who were having problems with NT."

Jacobson believes that Java will do much to even the balance between UNIX and Window's substantially larger application library. And while Jacobson is not still in the process of developing Java front-end products, they are already in testing. "It comes down to ease of use at the end-user level as well as the availability of software," he says. "As software availability was a problem, and we were very seriously considering going with an approach that would require us to bolt on a Windows GUIuntil we figured out another alternative using network computers and Java." The approach Jacobson considered would have used a technology that effectively grafted on a Windows GUI while still remaining in the UNIX environment. Instead he is selling Neoware System's NeoStation, which runs, among other things, Java and Navio's version of Netscape. "We're selling these machines principally with Linux," he says. "You don't have to have a separate Windows server and Linux is roughly two to four times faster than NT."

Jacobson is also running Linux in his own shop. "When we started the company we used PC clients running Windows 3.1, and then upgraded to Windows 95, before switching over to Linux. He uses Applix desktop tools.

"Even people who have been in this business for a long time can't always see down the road further than a year or two, and they don't know what it takes to take software from one era to the next. As for Microsoft, it is well known that a large corporation with a huge development staff does not necessarily make the best software." And why would an operating system developed by volunteer effort be better than one developed by full time professionals? "Linux is less than five years old," he replies. "It has had more than 2,500 computer scientists working on it, gratis. There is no way that Microsoft or any other company could hope to equal the technical excellence which is put into Linux. I don't think that Linux or any other operating system will ever replace Microsoft, but Microsoft cannot hope to have the same market penetration it has today. I'll think they'll be lucky to have 40 to 50 percent of the market worldwide in five to seven years from now. There is only one place for Microsoft to goand that's down."

Ramparts Management Group

Another Canadian company, Ramparts Management Group in Calgary, Alberta, makes a package called Retailer's Choice, which is primarily an inventory management solution running on top of UniData's relational DBMS. While UniData is primarily a SCO UNIX-based package, Ramparts uses Linux tools to run it on Linux. "In 1992, when the Linux community started the users group, we had an extremely talented programmer who got involved in sending in patches to the kernel," says Philip Tonnellier, Ramparts vice president. With that lead in, Ramparts began codeveloping its products under Linux and SCO's UNIX to test their compatibility.

Finding they were virtually interchangeable, they began to look at the cost. "SCO was quite expensive," Tonnellier says, "and we had a lot of problems with SCO related to support and core dumps." By contrast, when Ramparts tested the applications on Linux, it found considerably fewer problems and much better support. "The Internet community, which is gearing up in full force, really pulled through," Tonnellier says. "If you have a problem with Linux, the Linux community is there for you. Information comes from all over the world as to how to solve your problem. Indeed, we found that Linux has far superior support, at no charge, than we were getting at SCO for a very high price."

Ramparts also tested for speed, concluding that the applications under Linux ran substantially faster than they did under SCO. "We asked ourselves why we were paying all this money when we could get Linux at no charge on the Web. We then started looking at what the commercial guys were doing. Both Caldera and Red Hat have created some great add-on commercial packages. We think the world of both of them. For example, I'm a big WordPerfect fan so I use Caldera for my WordPerfect, while Red Hat has Applixware," says Tonnellier.

Ramparts has recently finished a new product, called Linux POS (point of sales), which it resells to retail stores, including one with 35 outlets throughout the Arctic Circle. And what about NT? Tonnellier thinks he sees a backlash. "The young generation that are in universities now and using Linux see the benefit of that product. At that's where you see almost a ground swell against Microsoft. When those guys become the IS managers, who knows what the world is going to do.