January 25, 2012

Have you met Linux?

Did you know that Linux powers some of the worlds biggest websites such as Facebook, Wikipedia and Google? Did you know that 95% of the world's supercomputers are powered by Linux? Or that Android is built on Linux? Have you heard about LiMux, the project of converting all IT systems in Munich (Germany) from Windows to Linux and that many others are now doing the same since it has been shown to be highly efffective?


Considering that the operating system (OS) is your one most important interface to your computer, don't you  think Linux deserves some of your attention? I used to be a Windows/Microsoft fan for many many years, digging deep into Windows as it was my programming platform. One day I wanted to try "this Linux" I had heard about on a 7 year old HP laptop I used as a media server in the kitchen, I got it for free from a friend who thought that it was too slow. Well, I haven't touched Windows again and for the first time I feel I am in total control of my computer and worries about malware and viruses are a thing of the past.

The Apple story

Think differently! (src: http://www.engadget.com/2008/10/14/live-from-apples-spotlight-turns-to-notebooks-event) Increasingly Apple products are being seen, pushing ever more users out the Windows monopoly. Especially I noticed this at MEMC in Kos where many physicians spent their time between lectures gaming their gadgets instead of enjoying 30’ and sunny weather outside. Apple is certainly king of user-friendliness renowned for high-quality multimedia software. I have never had an Apple product my self and thus can't make any bold statements about it when comparing with Windows or Linux (actually, Mac OS X is based on Unix, a common ancestor to Linux). From what I've heard from friends and seen over their shoulders, OS X seems to be a pretty decent product, giving their users speed, stability and functionality, the main requirement for the productivity boost I want from my computer. So OSX might be better than Windows but still I think Linux rivals them both and I will now ask for a few minutes of your time to tell you why.

Why bother?

You are a busy physician and always in lack of time. Your computer probably is a very important tool in your daily life and you depend on it to start up smoothly every day, be fast and responsive, reliable and user friendly. Most importantly you need it to be immune to security threats since your important data resides inside it.  You may or may not be a geek but you want to be able to configure your computer and adjust to your own preferences. Without hacking the command line.
The description above is just that of Linux. It is one of the most secure OS:es made, so secure actually that  anti-virus software is not needed (but exists for the faint hearted - besides no OS will protect from human mistakes like opening bad attachments or links), sparing about 10-20% of CPU and memory resources. Not only are you free of viruses but annoying malware (ad-displaying banners and toolbars) will never plaque you on Linux. This article about the US military converting to Linux because of security issues really says it all!

Windows is a bloated OS with updates stacked one after another on older versions, eating up hard drive space, memory and CPU power. The sole reason Linux can be installed on a dusty, old laptop is that it is extremlely light on resources. My own laptop has Linux running on a cheap 4gb SD memory chip, no hard drive needed. Slick and smooth, from power on it's up and running in ca. 15 seconds. Chrome starts in 2-3 seconds and even then there's only mere 250mb of memory used, doing the same on a Windows 7 installation eats about 1,2gb of memory.

Windows also tends to grow fatter. One of the most common question I get from my friends is “why is my computer getting so slow”? Linux stays slim and fit for years, software you add is compartmentalized so that it's libraries and plugins don't leak into the big OS pool. No additional load is put on the core. Because of this you don't have to upgrade your computer hardware every two years or buy software to clean your computer, Linux will not grow old on you!

Linux is free. All applications on Linux are free. What's even better, installing software is so easy it will make you laugh. For instance if I want to install GIMP, a high quality (free!) image editor I can either go to the "software installer", browse to GIMP and click install or from the command line I could write "pacman -S gimp" and voila. Let me repeat this again; Linux is free - the installation is free, updates are free and you get assistance from a huge online user community for free.

In 5 minutes only you can put Linux to an USB stick and try it out without changing anything on your computer. If you like it you can install it alongside your Windows or OSX and choose on startup which one to go with. Linux does not take over your computer - it's your choice!

=> Why Linux is better, a very good, detailed and graphical summary of Linux's strengths.

So what is Linux?

Linux is one of the earliest operating systems made and has since been developed and updated by the worlds most active programmers and computer enthusiasts. Thus it has a word for being for computer geeks only and people commonly visualize someone with thick glasses writing complex commands in the terminal. It's true that Linux originated from a world of geeks but that is also it's strength, it is a community based OS.
Linux has endless of different versions for different requirements - there exists a very minimalistic command line driven Linux and a full-blown desktop version with advanced 3D user interface features and everything there between. Linux is commonly compared to Lego since the user has the power to choose how to put together the individual Linux bricks. The user can do it himself or have a ready built package, called “distros” (short for distributions).

You can choose a highly advanced distro where you build everything from scratch (Arch Linux) or a simple works-for-all distro which will run on every computer imaginable (Linux Mint is currently the most popular one). This is the elegance of Linux - the power of choice is left to the user. Compare this to Windows (and even Apple OS) where everything is pre-cooked and decided for you. In Linux, you decide if you want fancy 3D effects or just a plain, minimalistic interface to focus on your work. If you don’t like your choice, you can remove it just as easily as you installed it and try something else. Below is a short video of Ubuntu (very similiar to Mint) effortlessly running 3D desktop effects:


Another important distincting feature of Linux is that it is open-source, meaning there is no one commercial company behind it. Linux is a project “owned by nobody but managed by everybody”. The source code is open for anyone to read or edit - if you spot a missing feature you can whenever you wish join the team and design this as you wish to have it. If you accidentally dropped an error or misfeat the matrix of programmers all around the world will quickly fix it and the next time you choose to update your Linux all this is included. A great example of crowd-sourcing!

The open-source community thrives on a totally different way of thinking, since money and making income is not the driving force but rather the ambition to have software push technology to its limits and seeing the world enjoying it. In the Linux community, like in a symbiotic ecosystem, your ask for help is welcomed and newbie’s are well taken care of on multiple of forums and help channels. Compare this to the big M & A who will not lift a finger unless money is involved. I am not saying this is wrong, just that the Linux community is a much more friendly one, everyone equal... aarg I knew I couldn’t write this without getting political! To cut it short, all I wanted to say is that you should not be afraid of Linux - on the contrary, you will have more help available then ever before!

If Linux is so great why isn't it all over?

Good question and I cannot give you any good answer but as many will tell you, most probably it has to do with money. Microsoft with it's deep pockets presses manufacturers to have Windows preinstalled on every computer sold (the Windows tax). Linux is not a corporation pushing it's products actively (no ad campaigns for instance), it is community based and spreads by word of mouth. That's just the way it is today, money rulez.
 => MS struggles to discredit Linux

Nothing is perfect and there are two major issues with Linux which might keep some refrained; drivers and software. Unlike Windows, 99% of all drivers are built inside the "Kernel", the heart/core of Linux common to all distros. The Kernel is constantly being worked on and since version 2.6 driver issues are becoming a thing of the past. There are some peculiarities with older computers but support from the community is very good and with a few searches with Google this can almost always be fixed. Besides, Windows is no angel with regards to drivers either - last month I had to throw away my sons graphics card because it was not supported on Vista. Had no problems running it on Linux!

Software on the other hand is not straight forward. Since Linux is an open-source community, proprietary software is rare and the big software makers have very little profit of porting to Linux. In effect, you will have to revert to new software you have not worked with before. Not a problem really, just an inconvenience since it takes time to learn new software, just as it would on Windows or OSX. And so, LibreOffice  (previously OpenOffice) replaces MS Office, GIMP replaces Photoshop etc. All of these are absolutely free. The Alternativeto website is a great site for helping you finding alternatives.
If you insist using proprietary Windows/OSX software, you can always run the other OS from inside Linux with a so called “Virtual machine”. It will behave 100% as if your computer is running your other OS, just inside a window in Linux. There are both Windows and Apple OS emulators available making most proprietary software work. Another option is to install Linux alongside your other operating system and then you simply choose at startup which one your prefer for your session (see more on dual-bootin').

I have installed Linux on my friends' computers and unlike before when Windows was causing them pain and struggle, I haven't heard a word from them afterwards. Happy as hippos.

OK, you’ve got me excited - what next?

Before we continue, you might want to read this blog post from someone who tried installing Linux (Ubuntu) for the first time, it will give you a short introduction of what is to come.

You will first want to decide which distro is the most appropriate for you and this and this time only I will decide for you what is your best option. If you do your own research you will get drowned in thousands of different opinions.

Ubuntu is one of the best known distros and is famous for it’s easiness of use but recently has had criticism because of their choice of the standard user interface. Thus many are now going for Linux Mint and friends of mine who’ve tried it have been delighted. Here is a recent article comparing the major distros for 2011. If you want to run a distro even lighter on your resources (great for very old computers) I would like to recommend Lubuntu.

Now don't get me mistaken, all of these distros are Linux and they will all run the same software and have the same options under the hood. As said before, they are just different configurations of Lego bricks and you can always adjust their setup afterwards.

Just remember it's easiest to install from a USB drive and follow those instructions and you will be fine. When you feel comfortable, set aside a few gigabytes of your harddrive and make a full installation. Later on you can remove the Windows/OSX partition or just have it there for fun. By the way, Linux has no problems with reading your documents on that other partition.

Last year I switched from Ubuntu to ArchLinux which is has a very minimalistic user interface (desktop) and is intended for advanced users, providing total control of it's configuration and settings. It is by far the fastest Linux distro I have tried yet and after some fiddling learning by mistakes I now have it installed on all of my computers, faster and snappier than ever before, all running from a small 4gb SD memory card and without hard drives (my data is all in the cloud anyways!). Oh sweetness!

Finally

You're off to go! I would love to hear feedback from you in the comments if you go all the way. I might even lend you a helping hand. Now that I've finally written this long introductory post to Linux I will most likely be shedding off a few tips and thoughts every now and then from my own personal experiences so stay tuned.

I will end this post with a few recommended readings if you are eager to know more about Linux: