This chapter introduces you to the upstart operating system Linux. It helps you determine whether Linux is right for you, by surveying the features and performance that Linux offers. It demonstrates that choosing Linux is a practical—even wise—decision for many computer users. The chapter also helps you feel at home with Linux and other Linux users, by introducing you to the history and culture of Linux. Finally, it points you to some popular gathering places on the Internet where you can correspond with other Linux users, get up-to-the-minute Linux news and information, and obtain free technical support.
Perhaps you learned about Linux from a trusted friend, whose enthusiasm and ready answers convinced you to learn more about Linux, or perhaps an article or anecdote that mentioned Linux simply sparked your curiosity. In any case, you may find it interesting to learn what other computer users, ranging from PC hobbyist to guru, have accomplished by using Linux:
Tired of slow telephone modem transfer rates, a PC owner leases a cable modem that provides high-speed transfers. He installs the new modem in a Linux system that routes packets to and from the computers of other family members. Now the entire family can simultaneously surf the Web at warp speed.
Struggling to complete a dissertation, a graduate student determines that most of his problems stem from bugs and inadequate features of his word processing program. Dumping Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Word, he loads Linux onto his computer and uses free text processing software he downloads from the Web. In contrast to the frequent system hangs and lost work he experienced with Windows, his new system runs for over 100 days before needing to be shutdown for installation of new hardware.
Considered among the world’s best, the experienced graphics artists at Digital Domain have generated visual effects for such films as Apollo 13, Dante’s Peak, The Fifth Element, Interview with the Vampire, and True Lies. But when director James Cameron selected Digital Domain to conjure visual effects for Titanic, the artists faced a task of unprecedented size and complexity. Concerned to obtain enormous computing power at the lowest cost, they purchased 160 DEC Alpha computers. Most DEC Alpha users run Microsoft Windows NT or Digital Unix as an operating system. However, Digital Domain chose to run Linux on 105 of their new computers. If you’ve seen Titanic and Digital Domain’s breathtaking effects, you know what a good decision this was.
Needing a supercomputer, but having a budget sufficient for only a minicomputer, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory created Avalon, a system of 70 networked computers that run Linux. Instead of millions of dollars, the scientists spent only about $152,000—none of it on software, because Linux is free. Their Avalon system performs more than 10 billion floating-point operations per second, roughly on par with the Silicon Graphics Origin2000 system, which costs $1.8 million. Linux-based Avalon ranks as the 315th fastest computer in the world.
Linux began as a hacker’s playground, but has become progressively easier to use and consequently more popular: today, perhaps as many as 7.5 million computers run Linux. Many Linux users are not hackers, but relatively ordinary computer users. Linux has become an operating system of formidable appeal and potential:
The cover of the August 10, 1998, issue of the influential business magazine Forbes featured super-programmer Linus Torvalds, author of the Linux kernel. The article pointed out that Intel, IBM, Netscape, Oracle, and other computing industry giants have taken a keen commercial interest in Linux and other open-source software.
Market research firm International Data Corporation reported that in 1998, Linux held 17.2% of the server operating system market, up 212% from 1997. In contrast, Microsoft’s flagship operating system, Windows NT, held a 36% market share—barely twice as great.