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Linux: Solid system built for an in-law


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 1999

When computers run well, they're often a joy to use for home or business purposes. But when they don't run well, those ominous on-screen messages can make your palms sweat and your pulse race.

Mac users get those cute Bomb icons with un-Mac-like messages, such as "A type-1 error occurred." Windows users get Blue Screens of Death or "General Protection Faults." The operating system vendors can call them what they like but what it means to users is simple: You've lost whatever you were working on.

But if you work in an office and see your system administrator walk down the hall with a smug, my-servers-never-crash look on his face, there could be a reason for it. It could be called Linux. If the authors of this open-source operating system have anything to do with it, it'll be leaping off a server and on to a desktop near you soon.

Alas, all this stability comes at a price -- of your time, not your money. Linux is free. If you've got the time and the bandwidth, you can download it and even give it away to your friends. Or, for a small charge, you can buy a CD-ROM and maybe get it in less time than downloading.

But unless you're chummy with somebody who is not afraid of the Unix operating system or with cryptic command-line-driven instructions, you could be in for a lot of head scratching. Linux, true to its Unix roots, requires a power user to get it configured just so.

Will it work for you? It is not impossible for a technically competent person to set it up, but configuration is nowhere near as easy as it is with Windows or a Mac. Maybe you could ask that smug system administrator friend of yours. Start with bribes of doughnuts and work your way up to asking for help.

That is what I concluded when I turned my father-in-law in Pennsylvania into the only computer newbie using Linux on his block.

Last Christmas found me brimming with generosity, so much so I smashed my piggy bank and bought a WebTV Plus unit (www.WebTV.com) for him.

It seemed like the perfect access tool for the non-techie: a sealed box that his buddies couldn't come over and "fix" or install ancient software on. Because it was so simple to use and operate, its purchase would get me out of the late-night phone support.

But my father-in-law outgrew the thing in about a week. His main complaints were the screen resolution and lack of local storage. WebTV uses a plain old TV set as a monitor and most Web pages require a lot of scrolling. And the remote control replaces the "mouse." Bit by bit, what seemed like a good idea at the time wasn't so.

The solution to my problem was sitting right in front of me, guarding my network.

Unix? For a guy without a pocket protector? Are you nuts? Maybe, but nobody is breaking into my asylum.

My Tiny Area Network at home has a Linux machine sitting as guardian and gatekeeper to the Internet, letting me in from my office and keeping out outsiders.

Linux loves old PCs so I set out to build my father-in-law a system from the computer junk I have sitting in my home office. I was able to assemble a fully working PC in a couple of hours. I couldn't find a working hard drive mixed in with all the mystery items without manuals, so I popped over to BuyComp (www.BuyComp.com/) and bought one. (I'll mention it by name because it upgraded my shipping from ground to second-day air at no extra charge. Now that is service.)

One UPS delivery and a pot of coffee later, the hardware was complete. It was time to load Linux. But which flavor?

Unlike Windows or the Mac, Linux doesn't come from one vendor. These distributions, as they're known, all run software designed for Linux, and the vendors add value in their own ways. Some bundle commercial or trial-ware software, and others are localized for Europe or non-English language users.

I test-drove a few different distributions from Red Hat, SuSE and Debian, and I ended up settling with Red Hat. It was the only one that correctly identified and worked with the generic sound card in the box. The Red Hat installation process was the simplest of them all and has come a long way since I first installed it two years ago.

I was amazed by how responsive this Frankenstein's monster of a box felt as I loaded and ran Netscape Navigator, WordPerfect 8, the RealAudio player and one of the instant messaging clients in a mere 32 megabytes of random access memory.

Windows 95 would be thrashing the hard disk like Charlton Heston in a chariot race with half of these programs loaded.

One of the barriers keeping Joe End User from Linux has been the need for a straightforward and appealing Graphic User Interface, which lets users click on icons to start programs instead of typing in arcane commands. Sure, Linux has been able to run a GUI for many years, but these interfaces have done little to hide the complexity of Unix from non-technical folks.

In the past year or so there has been an explosion of development to make up for this shortcoming. Familiar PC desktop metaphors are rife in the K Desktop Environment (www.kde.org) and GNOME (www.gnome.org). KDE is the most Windowslike of the two and most new users instantly feel at home with it. I chose KDE for my father-in-law.

Performance aside, I feel great about my choice of operating systems for this user who doesn't care for the underlying details. To apply an automotive analogy, he is interested in driving, not the specs of the engine. He has secure Internet access; a box that a hacker can't get into; a rock solid machine that is extremely difficult to crash; and I can upgrade and administer the thing from thousands of miles away.

I'll miss out on the frequent flier miles but my vacations in the North will be free of "can you fix my computer?" requests. From my father-in-law, anyway.

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