This document is aimed at people new to Linux (often referred to
as GNU/Linux), who are wanting to learn more about it from the
Often, people who are new to Linux have questions like: "Where
do I buy stock in Linux?", "What is all this licensing stuff
about?", and "How come I've never heard of it before if it's so
widely used?". This document is not aimed at developers, or
business people looking for a new edge in software development. For
those people, I highly recommend Eric Raymond's fine essay
Cathedral and the Bazaar," as a great place to start.
This document is aimed at people who want to know who is
creating Linux, why they are creating it, and what the benefits of
community style development are from an end-user perspective. It is
a general reference with links below to some of the more valuable
web sites that cover the subject in more detail.
The Linux Phenomena
Since about 1998, the media's attention to Linux and the growing
need for software diversity have driven a lot of people to look for
alternative computing solutions. These people have often ended up
coming to the Linux community to see if there's something in the
world to answer their growing concerns about cost, freedom,
security, privacy and quality.
As people continue to roll into the Free Software camp, there is
a lot of confusion caused by community-familiar issues. Things like
differences in licensing, arguments over software design and so on
have a tendency to cause a sort of culture shock to manifest for
quite a while.
There are still a lot of people that haven't heard of this
alternate way of running software. As of when this document is
written (September/2000), the number of people coming to Linux is
rising and the number of debates hasn't really died down (and
likely should never die down).
There hasn't been a whole lot of marketing by the Free Software
or Open Source communities to the end users of their products. From
time to time, end users will write glowing praises as to why they
themselves use Linux. This is all well and good, but it doesn't say
much about the positive community aspects. This document strives to
bring these qualities to light.
First, a bit of a definition here of the so-called "Linux
Community" itself. There are many ways to view the Linux community.
The community could be viewed as a static entity, composed of a
certain number of active developers who write the software that
make up a typical Linux distribution (Red Hat Linux or Debian
GNU/Linux are Linux distributions, for example).
There is more to it than just Linux itself. A Linux CD-ROM
contains many software packages, created from many different
projects. As an example, the free web server product Apache is
often included in a typical Linux distribution. Apache is developed
by its own community. Apache runs across multiple operating
systems, including many proprietary systems. Another example is a
file-sharing product that among other things, allows PCs running
the Microsoft Windows operating system use Linux file servers on a
network. That project, Samba, has its own community. The Samba
product runs on many other systems (besides Linux) as well.
The GNU utilities included in most Linux distributions are
central to the operation of the system as a whole. These utilities
work on many other operating systems besides Linux, and have their
own developer community.
These items, among many others, are loosely referred to here as
part of what people perceive as "Linux," but are actually developed
by separate communities.
There are also corporations who have hired some of these
community members or in some cases the corporations themselves have
been started by them. These people contribute to Linux, or their
respective development projects, and are paid to do so.
Finally, there are non-developers who daily spend time
supporting Linux via internet relay chat, newsgroups and bulletin
boards. These people do the user community a service that is not so
glamorous, but essential to the acceptance of a free product. They
give their time as a way of "giving back to the community." They
rarely receive mention, but it is arguable that they are as
important as the developer community. Usually when a new Linux user
has a question about Linux it is a member of this community that
All of these people comprise the loose community that creates
and supports Linux. When a document refers to the "Linux community"
as a whole, it is referring to these people, intentionally or
otherwise, usually viewed as a static group of people.
In reality it is a bit more complex than even this definition.
The people in these groups are in a constant state of flux. People
come and go as work loads allow. Developers enter and leave
projects as they see fit. The biggest mistake to make about the
Linux community is to somehow assume it's a corporate entity.
So, in reality, it's more of a process, almost a living,
breathing thing that answers a need by reflex. Although some of the
development for Linux is paid for (as in the corporate
contributions mentioned above), almost all of it is being donated.
This scares some business people wanting to invest in Linux,
because they wrongly assume that no money can be made from it. It
scares some corporate managers as well, as they cannot believe that
a product such as Linux exists. They cannot see how such a product
can have useful, valuable features, if it is freely available.
The reality is that Linux exists contrary to these expectations.
Each of these development and support communities have members that
have helped create or maintain Linux. This answers the first
question: "Who is developing Linux?" "Why?" is usually the second
To answer that question, one needs to understand that each
project mentioned above had different reasons for creation. The GNU
project began as a deliberate effort by one man, Richard Stallman,
to create a totally free operating system. The Apache project began
as a bunch of patches to the original freely licensed web server
product put out by the NCSA. The Linux kernel (just the main brains
of the operating system itself) rose out of the need by a lone
programmer in 1991 who was fed up with the limited proprietary
alternatives of that time period.
All of the projects are extremely successful in their own right.
In many ways, the development Linux and the projects that comprise
it continues out of a desire for high quality, user maintained
software. When a consumer buys a "Linux" CD these projects are
magically folded into something incredibly powerful -- an operating
system that is as good as (some would say, better than) any
alternative operating system product.
There is still some room for improvement, for sure. As of the
writing of this document, there is still a need for a diverse set
of shrink wrapped applications for Linux, and the technical aspects
of the product still often require more study than the average new
user has in mind.
Overall, the quality and performance per dollar aspects of Linux
are very good. Linux, on its own merit, matches or exceeds almost
any and all proprietary alternatives for commodity server tasks
such as web serving and file serving. It makes a nice desktop as
well, and it's a very good product for embedded applications
(hand-helds and cell phones). There are many exceptions to these
rules, but for the new user, these claims hold true in a lot of
What are some examples of advantages to the community style of
development? This question is actually the true focus of this
document. The advantages of community style development are
profound and important. They have to do with much more than mere
software features, application availability, stability, or
The control of Linux development is decoupled from the
marketing, training, and support of the product. This is an
enormous advantage, even though the gut reflex of many industry
pundits is that of disbelief, examples of these advantages
A favorite example of the author revolves around a discussion
with Dan York, the president of the Linux Professional Institute
(LPI). LPI is an organization responsible for setting the training
goals that are to be met for certain Linux certifications. These
certifications are comparable to other qualifications by
proprietary vendors, such as MCSE(Microsoft) and CNE(Novell)
Dan relates the following anecdote: "I was at a seminar in
Europe where the session speaker asked the audience 'Why do vendors
create certification programs?'
"I was absolutely stunned when someone from a propriety vendor
stood up and boldly said 'We do it to push product.' I mean, I
think most people made that assumption, but to hear someone from
the company state this plainly was just incredible. That's not why
we (LPI) are doing this."
The LPI has many goals, but making money for training centers or
Linux vendors isn't one of them. Their end goal is to build an the
army of support engineers that can install and deploy Linux
solutions in companies world-wide. "LPI is about changing the
world." Says Dan. "The other thing about LPI is that we are all
about the freedom of choice... not only of your Linux distro, but
also about the way in which you prepare for the LPI exams... you
can choose between many different books, training partners, online
courses, etc., etc. We don't mandate/authorize/approve/endorse any
What may not be clear is that the LPI is a disconnected entity
from Linux itself, and the eventual revenue stream of the companies
that are actually implementing the training. Its goals are set by a
review team that is decentralized, and therefore, has very little
impact on marketing or development of Linux.
The end result: training and certifications that actually mean
something more than good marketing material. Training that is a
good investment for the company needing the expertise of the
As an aside, Linux underpinnings are very similar to those of
most modern Unix products. This means that the training and
investments for Linux are a two way street. People using high end
enterprise level solutions such as HP-UX and AIX, for example,
often find Linux administration to be similar, if not identical.
The same is true in reverse.
For these same reasons, Linux coexists very nicely with
enterprise quality operating systems. This isn't to say it doesn't
exist well with legacy low-end proprietary solutions, such as
Microsoft Windows products.
It's more to point out that Linux is very good at utilizing true
industry standard protocols, such as those that most enterprise
class Unix systems depend upon.
This allows midsized to larger companies to save even more money
in the long run, as the training is a better value company wide.
Single-sourced, non-standards compliant proprietary solutions do
not offer this kind of low end to high-end interoperability.
Please also note that not all corporations take training to this
level (treating it as marketing). There are good corporate
sponsored training facilities that offer sensible goals and honest
intentions. The point is that by being controlled by a
decentralized entity, Linux certifications have an ethical higher
ground to operate from, and with little or no marketing influences
The support avenues for Linux also have positive benefits. There
are varying levels of support available. Traditional commercial
support can be purchased , such as that offered by LinuxCare, or
from individual Linux distribution vendors such as Caldera and
RedHat. Free support is available, such as that offered by
newsgroups and internet relay chat (IRC) groups, such as Open
And again, there are numerous advantages.
If a corporation produces a piece of software with bugs, and
they have paid support lines, software quality begins to take on
hues of "conflict of interest". The least negative light that can
be cast upon it results in a pall of nonchalance about the most
devastating of system crashes. System crashes in the proprietary
system world have been made light of many times. The example that
often comes to mind is the one where the CEO of a company is
demonstrating new software in a public forum, and it crashes,
requiring a reboot.
The author has known true-life examples of this same software
companies products being implemented as machine controls for
manufacturing processes. Among the various buttons on the machine
(Emergency stop, Start and so on), there was a button labeled "Blue
Screen," that the operator pushed when the tell-tale hex dump of a
system crash reared its ugly head. Of course, unlike the other
buttons on the machine, this one was hard-wired into the inner
workings of a computer -- it was the reset button for the
Linux, due to its high software quality, rarely exhibits such
show-stopper bugs. In general, it is extremely stable, even under
extremely high load conditions.
Show-stopping bugs are not viewed as marketing or sales problems
by the Linux community. The tools to track and fix them are clearly
open to everyone who has the motivation to learn to use them, and
the quality is taken to heart. Bugs themselves can be referred to
At least one proprietary vendor of late has even gone so far as
to never refer to a bug as a "bug," but instead, an "issue." The
technique brings to mind Orwellian overtones that are another
selling point for Free Software: If a user wants to call it a bug,
they have every right to do so. The community doesn't attempt to
censor speech, or attempt to make light of something so serious as
software quality by attempting to control the thoughts about the
issue, or bug as it may be.
Security problems are addressed in a similar vein. Security
fixes happen in real time, and are not in the hands of one
controlling entity. Recently, a disturbing security bug was found
in the file serving subsystem of a well know proprietary operating
systems vendor. The vendor decided it was too much trouble to fix,
even though it was an enormous security problem for end users.
The real problem here, a most disturbing one actually, is that
despite the overwhelming outcry of the user base and security
experts in the field, the company made a decision that will likely
grossly effect their customers in a negative way.
Linux is a truly open system. People that use it have a say in
how it is created, developed and maintained. Serious security
problems, like the one above, are fixed by the community.
It would appear also that lacking a governing body, or a
corporation to back it, that Linux would be at some kind of
disadvantage when a security hole in the system was discovered. The
irony is that the community response to security holes is often
very fast. Recent studies on the subject show that on average the
Linux community is at least twice as fast at fixing security
problems than a lot of proprietary corporations.
Product Release Cycles
The Linux development community structures product releases by a
simple rule: "When it's done, it's done." From a standpoint of
stock holder expectations, this could be viewed in a negative
light. However, with quality being put first over all monetary
motivation, the end result is software that people learn to depend
upon. How ironic that software coming from the Free Software
movement includes the phrase, in all caps, "ABSOLUTELY NO
WARRANTY," yet it is often of the highest quality available for the
Contrast that with "End User License Agreements" that pop up
during installation that contain similar phrases, but have much
higher costs associated with them, monetary, and otherwise. The
user typically has very little say in the development of these
applications, has paid a higher price to obtain them, cannot share
them with a friend, and cannot modify them if they so desire. To
top it all off, the user often faces restrictions such as
artificial limits on the number of people who are allowed to
connect to their machines.
Add to these ailments the fact that software released by single
sourced proprietary vendors of late have been shipping with
literally thousands of bugs. All, it appears, to appease a
stockholder audience, instead of putting quality first. Long
delivery times by proprietary vendors are often a mystery or more
often accompanied by unbelievable explanations being proffered by
company marketing staff.
In total stark contrast, if a user wants to tune into the
intricacies of Free Software development, they can simply join a
mailing list and track the project of interest for themselves. The
ability to see exactly what is going on is a benefit to the
consumer of the technology. By knowing that such lines of
communication are open, an end user does not have to doubt the
"real" reasons for delays -- they are self evident. No amount of
money can compensate for this value, literally.
Clearly, Linux holds the high ground here for the person who
will invest their time in learning about the product. The community
aspects of the software bring to bear a stark contrast to
singularly developed proprietary alternatives. Often in these
proprietary locked-in marketplaces, the end user is viewed as a
competitor to the very company that sold them the product in the
first place. The Linux community suffers no similar ailments. New
features are added for the simple sake of having new features, and
not for the sake of increasing revenue or to motivate people to
re-purchase technology they already own.
Look before you leap. All in all, if someone is contemplating a
switch to Linux, these benefits are in favor of the decision. There
are real limitations in regards to software availability, however.
Are all of the needed critical applications available for Linux?
Check through existing software archives, and see what plans (if
any) the vendor of that software has for providing a Linux
supported product. Call them and ask for their plans if unsure. If
the vendor isn't planning a port of their product to Linux, are
there free or commercial alternatives?
As of this writing, for example, there are several non-free and
at least two free (covered under the free GPL License), Office
suites for Linux. Many games have been brought to Linux from other
platforms, and more are on the way. 3D gaming under Linux requires
some specialized setup at the moment, but overall the die-hard 3D
gamer should be very pleased at the amount of control Linux
provides at the hardware level.
Finally, bear in mind that products like VMware are available,
which allow an end user to run any operating system, including
proprietary products from Microsoft and others, in a window. This
is less desirable than having a native version of the software, but
can be used as an interim solution in a scenario where the user
needs one or two applications that are not available yet as native
As this article goes to press some of the less technically savvy
PC OEM's are not offering Linux as yet for a desktop choice. Dell,
IBM, Compaq, Penguin computing and VA/Linux are all offering
hardware solutions centered around Linux technology, so the choices
among quality vendors are starting to emerge.
Preexisting hardware is another issue. Linux supports a vast
range of PC hardware, and even a lot of Apple hardware as well. The
main thing to bear in mind is that a lot of hardware is supported,
but if an existing system is targeted for upgrade that is based
currently on legacy proprietary operating system software, some
homework will be needed to first make sure that all of the hardware
This is typical of a switch to new technology. OEM Vendors that
sell PC's as total solutions have to ensure that the hardware they
are shipping to a customer works with the supplied operating system
technology. End users attempting to switch that hardware to a
different technology typically have to go through the same amount
of work, and it can be daunting. This work can make it appear
incorrectly that the older software was better at supporting a
broad range of hardware.
If this is too much for an end user, then a selection with Linux
pre-loaded from one of the vendors above is recommended. Face it,
not everyone has time available to spend on the task of researching
if their sound card or video card is widely supported under Linux.
The balance is that time may likely be saved reinstalling operating
systems, or addressing the myriad of privacy, security and
stability concerns that proprietary alternatives seem to be
presenting at the moment.
Linux offers a lot of positive qualities to the new user looking
for a change. It is not an end all solution, and it's certainly not
for everyone. But it does do a lot of things very well, and it
provides a new choice to a new competitive PC marketplace.
More users are joyfully discovering these new choices on a daily
basis, and the number of Linux users rises substantially worldwide,
every year. The end result is that a growing demand for more
applications will be filled by developers, either new or old.
The Linux community offers the end user products that are of
typically higher quality than proprietary alternatives. These
products are developed by programmers that focus upon quality and
adherence to known standards. The training and support revenue
streams for Linux products are disconnected from the development
costs. These factors make it a very good long term choice for end
users and businesses looking for desktop and server alternatives in
today's challenging technological world.