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space Linux: Not Just For Geeks And College Kids Anymore

By Jason Perlow

If you’ve been doing business in the Microsoft, Novell or commercial Unix worlds, the concept of a freeware operating system may sound alien to you. Or, if you do know about Linux, perhaps you envision a typical user as an 18 year old, socially-challenged male college student with unkempt hair, a collection of Mountain Dew cans, and a way-cool nickname for arcane Internet chat room discussions on such topics as "the relative merits of Debian versus Slackware distributions."

Not the space for a systems integrator to be playing in, you say? Well, Linux has come a long way, baby, and its not just for geeks anymore.

Linux (pronounced Leen-ucks) is an operating system that is developed under the GNU General Public License, and thus its source code is available to everyone on the Internet. In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish college student, developed Linux. Since then, thousands of amateur programmers all over the Internet have participated in its development and it has evolved into a very functional, powerful and usable clone of Unix.

Linux Resources on the Internet

RedHat - http://www.redhat.com
Slackware - http://www.cdrom.com
Debian - http://www.debian.org
Infomagic - http://www.infomagic.com
Caldera - http://www.caldera.com

General Information

Linux Home Page - http://www.linux.org
IRC #LinuxOS - http://www.linuxos.org

Naturally, many of these programmers were college students—the only people with enough free time to write a free operating system—and thus Linux earned its reputation as the OS for true computer geeks. Only the truly adventurous and technically inclined dared to lay their hands on it, and its geeky reputation plagued the mainstream acceptance of Linux—until now.

There have been many developments in Linux since the early days, and several vendors have made it easier to install the free operating system by publishing "distributions," or CD-ROM compilations of the OS and homegrown installation utilities along with bundled shareware from the Internet. RedHat Software, Walnut Creek Slackware, Debian, Caldera and Infomagic offer the major Linux distributions, and all are available for $50 or less. These distributions can also be downloaded from their respective Web sites for free.

So now you know what Linux is and where you can get it. The question remains, then: As a reseller and a systems integrator, can you make money with it? The answer is a resounding, "Yes".

Linux—though free and supported almost exclusively through the Internet—is a powerful network OS with many features for which you would have to pay thousands of dollars for the equivalent functionality of a commercial version of Unix, NT or IntraNetware. For example, a $50 Red Hat Linux 5.0 CD for Intel-based systems will get you a full-blown Unix-compatible operating system, TCP/IP networking, a commercial X Window server, the Apache Web server, a POP3 E-mail server, a SQL database server, and more. And for $29.95, you can get the version 4.2 "Powertools" collection of 6 CDs containing Linux distributions for Intel, DEC Alpha and Sun SPARC, with literally thousands of programs and utilities, including C++ and Java development tools and tomes of Linux documentation from various sources.

Sounds like a TV infomercial? Perhaps. But can you leverage Linux against such heavyweights as Microsoft, Novell, Sun and SCO? Absolutely. Gregory Niditch, a systems integrator with 13oclock Technologies in New Orleans, is a Microsoft Solutions Provider who also does Linux consulting. "Linux comes in handy in environments needing a turnkey Internet/Intranet solution," says Niditch.

Because Linux is primarily a free operating system, and there are no per-user and per-session costs involved as with NT and IntraNetware, 13oclock is able focus on consulting services, software development, training and support contracts instead of on the mechanics of selling expensive software licenses.

"There are times when we will suggest commercial operating systems like NT if the customer requires a specific application or a development tool," says Niditch. However, Linux integrates extremely well with NT, NetWare and commercial versions of Unix. The entire suite of Unix-based TCP/IP utilities come with the OS, and Linux can talk to NT natively using Samba, a freeware Microsoft Network/LAN Manager-compatible subsystem.

Those who are Linux-inclined and are looking for IntraNetware support should look to Caldera Openlinux Standard, which retails for $399.00. Openlinux Standard includes a NetWare NDS client and NetWare administration utilities, in addition to a full license of Netscape FastTrack 2.0.1, the Sun Microsystems Java Development Kit for Linux, Star Division StarOffice (a spiffy Microsoft Office clone from Germany), the Adabas D SQL server from Software AG, and Caldera’s easy-to-use Desktop GUI. Caldera also offers the WABI libraries for Linux for $99.00, which allows you run 16-bit Windows 3.x applications.

So there’s a treasure trove of software to be found in a Linux distribution CD for the price of a few cappuccinos at Starbucks. "What about technical support?" you ask. Perhaps the idea of going to Linux gurus on Internet Relay Chat channels and UseNet newsgroups worries you, especially if you are going to be purchasing and configuring Linux-compatible hardware. Not to worry. "Linux tends to be more dynamic than other Unix because it has a much larger user base and development team. Because of this, you will find that Linux has a great deal of hardware support, and that bugs get found and fixed quickly," says "Zummy," a consultant on the Efnet IRC #LinuxOS channel.

And if "Zummy" and other Linux gurus online don’t give you the warm and fuzzies, RedHat Software and Caldera both offer technical support for their distributions. RedHat charges for its tech support via a third party, Collective Technologies, via 800 and 900 numbers, and Caldera charges $60 per incident call after the first 30 days or 5 incidents, whichever comes first.

The idea of building a Linux-compatible system of course, may frighten the integrator who is used to dealing with typical channel offerings from Compaq, HP, IBM and Sun. But provided you consult the Linux Hardware Compatibility "HOWTO" file or review the Linux compatibility list for your specific distribution, an integrator with a few PC-savvy techs onboard should have no problem putting a solid system together. Linux supports a wide range of PC hardware with a few caveats

  • Linux, like Windows NT and many commercial Unixes for the PC platform, prefers Adaptec, Buslogic, and DPT SCSI host adapters.

  • Special care needs to be taken when choosing video cards. The general rule is to stay a generation behind, as the latest whiz-bang Windows accelerator may not be supported yet. RedHat, which sells the MetroX accelerated commercial X server with its product, is more aggressive with supported cards, so check before you build.

  • If you must have a turnkey Linux system, VA Research, Mountain View, Calif., will configure a Linux-compatible machine according to your specifications, or you can buy a preconfigured unit with all server software preloaded and ready to go. The VarServer 1000-5122C, for example, features 256 Mbytes of RAM, twin Pentium II 233MHz processors,18Gbytes of Ultra SCSI storage and a 4-Gbyte DAT drive for $7140.

As an all-inclusive software product for integrators and resellers looking to capitalize on the Unix Internet/intranet market, Linux is an excellent low-cost alternative to comparable NT, IntraNetware, or commercial Unix solutions without all the upfront costs—if you aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty. So what are you waiting for? Crack open a Mountain Dew and check out a Linux CD. endstop

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