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Opinion: Linux doesn't do Windows -- and neither should you

April 28, 1999
Web posted at: 4:09 p.m. EDT (2009 GMT)

by Nicholas Petreley

linux graphic

In this story:

X marks the spot

Raise your standards

When in Rome


(IDG) -- Linux is already getting the respect it deserves as a server. And with the introduction of Caldera OpenLinux 2.2, Linux is finally ready for desktop prime time. No doubt the other commercial Linux distributors will follow suit and deliver a package comparable to Caldera's.

Note to Bill Gates: This is how the software industry is supposed to work. No doubt the c word burns like holy water sprinkled on a vampire. So I'll try not to use it in this column. Oh, what the heck, you can afford the shrink bills: Competition! Competition! Competition! Competition! Competition!

Anyway, Linux is a prime example of what can be accomplished when competition is preserved. Linux is improving faster than any competing OS product. This is one reason why its rate of adoption in the corporate market at the server end is nothing short of phenomenal.
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But if you want to see Linux continue its rapid rise toward widespread adoption on the desktop, as well, I have a tip. I recommend you deploy Linux according to the following principle: Don't use Linux as if it were Windows.

In other words, make your personal computers a little less personal and centralize whenever possible. This allows you to realize the promise of network computing. By centralizing your applications and data, you make everything much easier to administer, and you lighten the load for your clients. Unix allows you to do this effectively because it was designed to work in a network computing environment.

While centralization is possible under Windows, Windows was designed to expect a local user context at every PC. So both Windows and its user must work much harder to try to force it into a centralized model. Windows Terminal Server Edition, Zero Administration Windows, and Intellimirror, for example, were designed as add-on patches to the Windows single-user design. But like forcing a round peg into a square hole, this doesn't work as well as it should.

That's why fans of Citrix WinFrame or Windows Terminal Server Edition have to spend so much time in the registry editor, tweaking parameters that betray Windows's single-user design. This is also why Microsoft admitted it couldn't deliver Intellimirror with all the features it promised by the time Windows 2000 ships. Not that it matters. All Intellimirror really amounts to is an incremental backup of a client's single-user context. Intellimirror only needs to exist because it's either too difficult or too late to reengineer Windows and Windows applications to be truly multiuser friendly.

X marks the spot

By all means, install your applications at the server rather than the client. This is how I have my tiny home office network set up. I have WordPerfect 8, Star Office 5.0, Applixware, and Netscape Communicator all installed on my server. And I run them on the server whenever I run Linux as my client.

The benefits are immediate. No matter which client I use to run Netscape, all my bookmarks, all the entries in my address book -- even the links I've followed -- are the same. And I don't have to lift a proverbial (or virtual) finger to synchronize this data across clients (which is the Windows way -- the wrong way -- to solve this problem.)

Likewise, as my productivity applications are installed on the server, so are my documents. All my valuable data is in one place, so I only have to back up data from one place. And I don't have to worry about whether I'm working with the latest version of a document, since I don't have duplicate copies residing on several computers.

All the above is possible thanks to X11, also known as the X Window System. X11 looks like "windows" to the uninitiated, but the basic structure is fundamentally different, just as the basic structure of Linux as an OS is fundamentally different than the DOS that MS Windows 9x still runs on today.

X11 runs applications in two pieces. The guts of the application is the application X client, and the graphical display of data and input processing is done at the X server. In other words, the user is running the server to interface with the client, rather than the other way around. This is a reversal of the way most people think of client/server software (like Web browsers).

Both the X11 client and server can run on a single machine. But you can also install your applications once, at the server -- and access them from any networked workstation using an X server.

Now -- I can get exactly this arrangement with Windows if I use a third-party X server like Hummingbird's Exceed. But what I'm really doing is adding a layer of complexity to Windows, which slows Windows down and introduces the potential for more crashes. There are times when it pays to run an X server on a Windows client, but if you can avoid it, you'll be better off.

People tend to complain about X11 bandwidth requirements, but don't let that stop you from using it. Despite the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) being spread about X11, there are plenty of organizations that use X11 over 10BaseT with great success, so it isn't at all unrealistic.

But you don't have to use 10BaseT. Now that some PC OEMs are offering computers with Linux preinstalled (or even just selling units without Windows installed), Linux saves you money on every client you buy. Reinvest that money to expand network bandwidth. Upgrade to 100BaseT. There are many inexpensive 10/100 dual-speed Ethernet hubs available that will autodetect the speed of connecting cards on a port-by-port basis. Start by purchasing dual-speed hubs and you can upgrade the clients at your convenience.

Raise your standards

Make it a point to exploit the best Internet standards. For example, use IMAP4 as the basis for your e-mail system. Use an LDAP server for your e-mail directory.

The benefits are numerous. When you standardize on IMAP4, you can provide your users with complete access to their archived e-mail and folders even if they connect using a Windows machine without X11 capability. All they need is an IMAP4 client such as Netscape or Outlook. The same principle holds true for LDAP. Most e-mail clients provide access to LDAP servers. If you put your company directory on an LDAP server, your users can search the company directory from any location.

Can you run an IMAP4 or LDAP server on a Windows server? Sure. But there are two very big advantages to running these services on Linux. First, the Linux server is much less likely to crash or require frequent maintenance. Second, you don't have to shell out big bucks to put IMAP4 or LDAP on Linux or most other flavors of Unix. These standards originated on Unix, so they generally work first and best on Unix.

When in Rome

As Linux invades the corporate workplace, and particularly as Linux begins to show up on more and more desktops, don't allow your computing environment to be crippled by assuming Linux runs like Windows. If you take advantage of the strengths of Unix by rethinking the way you deploy hardware and software, you're sure to provide your users (and your administrators) with the best possible experience. And that can only add even greater momentum to the steamrolling Linux movement.

Apple alters open-source licenses after criticism
April 23, 1999
Upcoming Linux versions aim for Windows' ease of use
April 23, 1999
Windows convergence coming
April 21, 1999
Linux hits the desktop
April 20, 1999

Caldera OpenLinux 2.2: Featuring the easiest install ever for new and corporate users
Apple alters open source licenses after criticism
Linux's creator explains why he made Linux the way it is
Is Linux up to the XML challenge?
How Linux got so dang hot
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Ignore the Linux hype, Torvalds urges

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