Application developers, system administrators, network providers, kernel hackers, students, and multimedia authors are just a few of the categories of people who find that Linux has a particular charm.
Programmers are increasingly using Linux because of its extensibility and low cost—they can pick up a complete programming environment for free and run it on inexpensive PC hardware—and because Linux offers a great development platform for portable programs. In addition to the original FSF tools, Linux can utilize a number of development environments that have surfaced over the last three years, such as Eclipse (http://eclipse.org). Eclipse is quite a phenomenon: a tribute to both the creativity of the open source community and the fertility of a collaboration between an open source community and a major vendor (Eclipse was originally developed and released by IBM). It is an open source community focused on providing an extensible development platform and application frameworks for building software.
Eclipse’s tools and frameworks span the software development life cycle, including support for modeling; language development environments for Java?, C/C++, and other languages; testing and performance; business intelligence; rich client applications; and embedded development. A large, vibrant ecosystem of major technology vendors, innovative startups, universities, and research institutions and individuals extend, complement, and support the Eclipse platform.
Networking is one of Linux’s strengths. Linux has been adopted by people who run large networks because of its simplicity of management, performance, and low cost. Many Internet sites make use of Linux to drive large web servers, e-commerce applications, search engines, and more. Linux is easy to merge into a corporate or academic network because it supports common networking standards. These include both old stand-bys, such as the Network File System (NFS) and Network Information Service (NIS), and more prominent systems used in modern businesses, such as Microsoft file sharing (CIFS and related protocols) and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). Linux makes it easy to share files, support remote logins, and run applications on other systems. A software suite called Samba allows a Linux machine to act as a Windows server in Active Directory environments. The combination of Linux and Samba for this purpose is faster (and less expensive) than running Windows Server 2003. In fact, given the ease with which Linux supports common networking activities—DHCP, the Domain Name System, Kerberos security, routing—it’s hard to imagine a corporate networking task for which it’s unsuited.
One of the most popular uses of Linux is in driving large enterprise applications, including web servers, databases, business-to-business systems, and e-commerce sites. Businesses have learned that Linux provides an inexpensive, efficient, and robust system capable of driving the most mission-critical applications.
As just one example among the many publicized each month, Cendant Travel Distribution Services put its Fares application on a Linux Enterprise Server with IBM xSeries and BladeCenter servers as the hardware platforms. The move reduced expenditures by 90% while achieving 99.999% availability and handling 300 to 400 transactions per second.
Linux’s ease of customization—even down to the guts of the kernel—makes the system very attractive for companies that need to exercise control over the inner workings of the system. Linux supports a range of technologies that ensure timely disk access and resistance to failure, from RAID (a set of mechanisms that allow an array of disks to be treated as a single logical storage device) to the most sophisticated storage area networks. These greatly increase reliability and reduce the costs of meeting new regulatory demands that require the warehousing of data for as long as 30 years.
The combination of Linux, the Apache web server, the MySQL database engine, and the PHP scripting language is so common that it has its own acronym—LAMP. We cover LAMP in more detail in Chapter 25.
Kernel hackers were the first to come to Linux—in fact, the developers who helped Linus Torvalds create Linux are still a formidable community. The Linux kernel mailing lists see a great deal of activity, and it’s the place to be if you want to stay on the bleeding edge of operating system design. If you’re into tuning page replacement algorithms, twiddling network protocols, or optimizing buffer caches, Linux is a great choice. Linux is also good for learning about the internals of operating system design, and an increasing number of universities make use of Linux systems in advanced operating system courses.
Finally, Linux is becoming an exciting forum for multimedia because it’s compatible with an enormous variety of hardware, including the majority of modern sound and video cards. Several programming environments, including the MESA 3D toolkit (a free OpenGL implementation), have been ported to Linux; OpenGL is introduced in “Introduction to OpenGL Programming” in Chapter 21. The GIMP (a free Adobe Photoshop work-alike) was originally developed under Linux, and is becoming the graphics manipulation and design tool of choice for many artists. Many movie production companies regularly use Linux as the workhorse for advanced special-effects rendering—the popular movies Titanic and The Matrix used “render farms” of Linux machines to do much of the heavy lifting.
Linux systems have traveled the high seas of the North Pacific, managing telecommunications and data analysis for oceanographic research vessels. Linux systems are used at research stations in Antarctica, and large “clusters” of Linux machines are used at many research facilities for complex scientific simulations ranging from star formation to earthquakes, and in Department of Energy laboratories helping to bring new sources of energy to everyone. On a more basic level, hospitals use Linux to maintain patient records and retrieve archives. The U.S. judiciary uses Linux to manage its entire infrastructure, from case management to accounting. Financial institutions use Linux for real-time trading of stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments. Linux has taken over the role that Unix used to play as the most reliable operating system.