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Why Use Linux?

To a true believer the answers to this question are obvious, but an information technology professional, considering leading his users into Linux, will need to hear some justifications.


The price of Linux is $0. This is a powerful incentive. In reality, people generally buy a Linux distribution (slang: distro) which gives numerous precompiled sofware packages, an installer, and a preplanned administrative framework. The typical prices for a distro range from US$50 to $90, depending on whether you buy printed manuals, and on how many discs of packages are included. (Manuals are generally on the discs and you can view them as HTML or print them yourself -- not worth the bother.) In compliance with the license of the software, the charge is made for media and distribution, not for the software itself.

The major distro companies have FTP servers from which the general public may download the distro free of charge. At least on some distros, you can even do a network installation off the FTP server. However, it's a big convenience to have the discs at hand, and the FTP servers are always overloaded, so a network install goes slowly for the general public. Some enterprises, including the UCLA Mathematics Department, have set up an enterprise mirror, which is a FTP server with a copy of the distro. From a lightly loaded server, a network install goes as fast as reading the files off the disc, and is about equally convenient.

Here are the prices for major Microsoft packages, as of November 2002, in US dollars. Win2K is Windows 2000 Professional. Office is Office XP Standard.
Pricing Terms Win2K Office SQL Server
Suggested Retail 319 479 can't tell
Academic Price 159
ASUCLA Price 159
What Math Dept. Pays


Microsoft is the market leader in software. If a person has a particular type of software on his computer, most likely it is the Microsoft version. Most user training is directed at the Microsoft products. This fact is both good and bad for users. Software systems are likely to interoperate with neighbors (though version skew is a recurring problem), and when a person moves to a new job he likely will not need retraining to use the prevailing software. Different packages from Microsoft usually operate together seamlessly, e.g. drag and drop from one to the other, or object linking and embedding. If one application, like the mail reader, encounters a file that belongs to another Microsoft application, like a spreadsheet, the file can be opened and executed transparently to the user.

This seamless integration, however, has been the source of endless security problems, to the extent that knowledgeable users generally turn it off wherever possible. The linkages were designed in the context of a single user with full control of all data, whereas today's world is a society of people working together, plus parasites and leeches who inject inimical data. A big reason that Linux has fewer security incidents than Windows is that the fewer connections between programs provide fewer opportunities for an exploit. Now that office suites for Linux are appearing, the designers are well aware of the security issues, and avoid exposing their users the way Windows does.

Another advantage of Linux is purely that it is less common; the attackers put more effort into the target that is near-ubiquitous, as well as being easier to exploit. Nonetheless, on the infrequent occasions that holes in Linux were found, attacks quickly followed on systems that were not upgraded. Rarity gives Linux only a small edge in security.

Finally, when everyone does things the same way, there isn't much motivation or effort to improve. The policy of nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft products leads to a monoculture of ideas. True competition is the way to advance the capabilities of everyone. Nonetheless, it's necessary to agree on standards by which competing products can interoperate, and to stick to those standards. It is not to the advantage of the dominant software company to assist competitors in this way, and Microsoft has been forced into it only by heavy-handed judicial action.


It is the author's impression that Windows (NT and 2000) take much more system administration effort than any of our variants of UNIX. Security patches are incessant, and strange behaviors occur in our multi-user environment that are hard to track down, and even harder to fix. In UNIX the interfaces between packages are usually fairly well-defined, and it's possible to dig into the configuration files and discover what each one is doing. With Windows, it's much harder to discover the relevant registry keys, harder to interpret the values, and harder to make changes that make matters better rather than worse.

Of course a user installing a Windows product on his personal machine at home never sees any of this, particularly if he takes all defaults, since there are no permission problems, no roaming profile, and no issues of consistency among all machines the user might want to use.


To summarize: Windows is expensive, it needs an inordinate amount of effort to support, and when something breaks it's hard for the sysadmin to diagnose what went wrong and fix it. Linux is much better in these areas.

When you decide whether to embrace, or try out, a Linux (or Microsoft) office suite, I would recommend that you consider these factors:

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