Most of you have a computer in your home. That is why you're reading this magazine, isn't it? Each computer costs money for the hardware, and most computers come with Windows based software, which also costs money, even if it was “rolled-up” into the purchase price. Many times, you must purchase office productivity software separately, plus add on a bunch of security tools which require paid subscriptions. When a new version of Windows comes out, there's a significant sum to upgrade. This new version then requires more memory (aka RAM) and runs slower unless you also upgrade your hardware. . . and so goes the upgrade treadmill! Let's take a look and see if Linux can help reduce the effect, and make your computing experience more secure.

What is Linux?

This magazine has had more than one article outlining the benefits of OSS (Open Source Software). Openoffice.org (www.openoffice.org) <http://www.openoffice.org> is one that has seen lots of attention, along with Firefox and Thunderbird (www.mozilla.com <http://www.mozilla.com>), of which I'm sure many of you have found to be useful on your Windows or Mac computers. These titles have come from the OSS (Open Source Software) world, where the software licenses dictate that all source code must be readily available for anyone who wants it, and that anyone may do anything they want with it inside the organization. If they choose to distribute the program, they must use the same license, and make all of their changes available to the public. Linux is free of charge and free to look “under the hood”. It's like someone giving you a fine-tuned automobile with an easily accessible hood. You can open it, see how it works, make changes, and tell people how you did it to help them too.

Why should you care? Even if you are not a developer, this idea makes it possible for others to review and offer suggestions for programs which may not otherwise be offered and has been the catalyst for many innovations of OSS projects. This same concept is used to build the Linux kernel and the many distributions of Linux, and has resulted in a very stable and efficient OS (Operating System) that can completely replace Windows. An OS is the main software of the computer, the first bit of code that runs when you turn your computer on, and the environment in which all other software programs must run. Linux handles this task very well.

Why Linux?

When I look at a magazine rack in a grocery store, I notice that most of the magazines have security-related catch phrases all over the covers. “Fight Spyware”, “Secure Internet Browsing”, “Stop Mail Worms” are all typical titles you'll see. Windows users are susceptible to these threats and must install lots of “anti” software, like anti-virus, anti-spyware, a “personal firewall”, etc. These extra software packages slow the computer down, because everything that other software packages do is under scrutiny by the “anti” team.

Windows was originally built on top of DOS, which is a single user system, and has no concept of security. Because of the history, developers of Windows software have become accustomed to being able to access anything they wanted from within their software. Now, with Windows XP introducing security into the home desktop space, many of these software packages are breaking, and force the home user to run their accounts in “Administrator” mode. In fact, Microsoft defaults all new accounts in XP Home to “Administrator” mode, and has completely disabled the ability to use “Power User” within XP Home. The result is the home user has a choice between an account with full administrative priviledges, or a crippled “User” account. All of the patched together security that exists is completely circumvented by using an “Administrator” account, and if this user receives a malicious email, the malicious program has complete access to the entire system and can do absolutely anything to the system that it's programmed to do, including format the hard drive and erasing all data for all users of the system. For the more advanced email worms, the user doesn't even need to open the email!

Conversely, Linux was created from the ground up as a multi-user system, with the concept that every user, even the owner of the system should not be using an administrative account for day to day work, and should only run programs as an administrator when absolutely necessary to perform a task. When such a task is necessary, the user does not have to log out, and log back in as an administrator, but can choose to run a single trusted program with administrative access, while keeping the others restricted. If such a user were to receive a malicious email while using Linux, they would likely have no worries. The email would open, look like junk mail (or be a scrambled mess of code), and they'd delete it. However, even if there was a flaw in the email client that allowed the malicious program to run, the program would be limited by the restrictions of the users account, and would not be allowed to harm the system. The absolute worst it would be allowed to to, is trash the users' account and delete their files – the core of the system would still be intact. As long as the user had been backing up their documents, they could retrieve them in a couple minutes and continue using their files as if nothing happened. With a Windows security compromise, your only recourse is usually to format and reinstall everything.

Linux also doesn't require you to run any anti-virus or anti-spyware utilities. The already efficient Linux OS will work rather well on very modest hardware that Windows XP won't even install on. Taking into account the lack of need for “anti” software, you can have a very usable system for years to come without worrying about upgrading the hardware every time an OS update comes out.

Linux in Practice

I recently bought a new laptop, which came with Windows pre-installed. However, I really liked the hardware specs and it was a good deal. I grabbed it, took it home, placed an Ubuntu Linux CD (www.ubuntu.com <http://www.ubuntu.com>) into the CDROM drive, and installed Linux over the pre-installed Windows. No, I didn't bother to enable dual booting, as Linux is all I need. In about 1 hour, I had a freshly installed, highly secure OS that recognized almost everything out of the box! It auto-detected the correct screen resolution, installed my network, installed a high quality email client, web browser, office suite, desktop publishing program, etc, etc. Cost to me? Only 1 hour of time – I already had a CD, which was shipped to me for free by filling out an online form at the Ubuntu website.

I'm now using this laptop to perform client work, for my day-to-day geeky work, and for writing this article. Of course, it's being written with OpenOffice.org 2.0, which has loads of new features that challenge Microsoft's Office.

If I instead decided to keep Windows on my laptop, I would've had XP “home” and a bunch of trial software. There would be 60 day evaluation copies of a CD/DVD burner, DVD player, virus protection, etc. There would be no office productivity suite, and no anti-spyware tools. I would have to obtain a subscription for anti-virus updates, install anti-spyware tools, purchase a CD/DVD burner, a DVD decoder, etc. If I wanted an office suite, I could purchase MS Office for ~$300, or install OpenOffice.org, which is free. Mind you, all of the above is either unnecessary in Linux, or already comes with most distributions for free.

When Shouldn't you use Linux?

Although Linux is a great OS, and is more than sufficient for my needs, it is not the case for everyone. There are some business applications that only release their software to work on Windows based computers. These applications are slowly being “ported” to run on Linux as well, as each software manufacturer starts to recognize the need. Of course, they all do this on their own schedule.

I rarely see any games released for Linux, so if you are a serious gamer, then the only PC choice is Windows. If you are a serious graphics editor then the best choice is probably a Mac. Other than that, Linux is a wonderful choice.

Conclusion

If you are ready for a breath of fresh air, and are easily self-taught on a new word processor, or another program of similar caliber, then you will likely have little trouble learning the differences from Windows or Mac to Linux. Increasingly, high school and college graduates are coming out with a strong aptitude for technology. The old joke used to be, “If you can't figure out how to program your VCR, ask your child.” This is reoccurring with many technologies, and I suspect that as a general rule, the younger crowd will more openly accept Linux than the older crowd. So, if this interests you, go check out Linux. If you need someone to guide you during the beginning, then LUGOR (Linux User Group Of Rochester) (www.lugor.org <http://www.lugor.org>) is a great resource. Linux is poised to give you all that you need, and then some – without having to worry about performing any “security tango”.

Links:
LUGOR: (www.lugor.org <http://www.lugor.org>)
Ubuntu: (www.ubuntu.com <http://www.ubuntu.com>)
Firefox/Thunderbird: (www.mozilla.com <http://www.mozilla.com>)
OpenOffice: (www.openoffice.org <http://www.openoffice.org>)