The Electronic Catalog: Linux Operating System Rivals UNIX — and It’s Free

Linux, a clone of UNIX operating systems, is free to download, but users still pay for service and support.

Maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch — when it comes to computer programs, at least.

Linux, a clone of commercial UNIX operating systems, allows users to run off any number of software programs for front- and back-end operations. And unlike UNIX, Microsoft Windows, and the Macintosh operating system, Linux is an open-source program. That means the source code (or intellectual property — the recipe, so to speak) for Linux is available online to anybody who wants to view, download, or adapt it.

Anyone, that is, who has the expertise to understand it, such as IT professionals. But you might want to consider having your tech staff look into the system. Besides being free, Linux has a low crash rate that industry experts say is unparalleled.

Marcus McConnell, systems architect for New York-based creative and infrastructure services provider Fry Multimedia, says the majority of Linux users are universities, students, researchers, Web-server operators, and tech-savvy home users. In fact, since Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds introduced the operating system in 1991, Linux has achieved cultlike status among many computer users. Monthly meetings of Linux user groups have sprouted up across the country, creating a sort of tech-savvy, anticommercial computing subculture.

How free is free?

“The common thread in open-source programs is that everyone who works on a piece of the software has access to the source code of the software,” says Frank Prince, senior analyst with Forrester Research, a Cambridge, MA-based Internet research firm.

But, Prince adds, the open-source community is based on a give-and-take philosophy. “Some that provide open-source programs might request that anything a programmer builds onto an open-source program should be reported back to the organization” so that the modifications can be made available to other users, Prince says. “The basic key to any open-source program, such as Linux or [Web server program] Apache, is that at little or no cost you get access to the program and you contribute back to it.”

In fact, McConnell says the free Apache Web server (downloadable at is the most popular Web server software in the world, and many Apache users choose Linux as their operating system.

But while Linux can be downloaded (from and installed at no cost, the service and maintenance of the software is not free.

“All of that free software sounds great, but it can increase the cost of development and support,” McConnell contends. “Developing and supporting software and services on Linux usually requires more-specialized programmers and administrators.”

Forrester Research’s Prince, however, argues that companies have to pay for service and support from most software providers, including those from which they’ve purchased applications. He believes that the open-source nature of Linux, rather than the added cost of support, is the real roadblock to greater commercial usage of Linux.

“In an open-source community, the process is more organic, and there is no one person to point to or hold accountable” for the software’s development or testing, Prince says, adding that this lack of a sense of ownership could yield uncertainty about the credibility or reliability of the software.

A minimum of rebooting

But companies that believe Linux and other open-source programs are less reliable are mistaken, says Carl Howe, principal analyst with Forrester, and the author of Forrester’s “Open Source Cracks the Code” report on the usage rates of open-source programs, released in August 2000.

“Linux is a more reliable platform than others — more so than Windows or Mac — because it doesn’t need to be rebooted very often,” Howe says. “There is a Website,, that lists the top sites that have been up the longest in the world without having to reboot, and Linux sites show up over and over again.”

This, Howe says, proves that Linux is reliable. “If you’re an IT manager, your goal in life is not to have to drive in to work at 2 a.m. to reboot. People run open-source programs for a variety of reasons — not only because it’s free, but because it works better.”

According to Howe’s report, open-source usage is growing, albeit slowly. Total open-source software usage is anticipated to grow from 1% of programs used in 2000 to 2% in 2002. Open-source Web server usage is expected to grow more dramatically, from 4% in 2000 to 33% in 2002.

Commercial versions available

Catalogers that want to try Linux but are concerned about maintenance and service can buy commercial versions, such as Red Hat, for $79-$169. But Prince stresses that the service, not the software, is what is being sold. “It’s as though the milk were free and you were paying to get it delivered,” he says. “You’re paying for quality control.”

Or as Fry Multimedia’s McConnell puts it, “Many companies choose to use commercial versions of Linux such as Sun Solaris because they can get better technical support.”

But McConnell believes it couldn’t hurt for catalogers to install Linux for their Web businesses: “Some companies have chosen to use Linux for its stability,” he says. “While Windows and MacOS have become more stable throughout the years, a properly configured Linux workstation can often go a year or more without needing a reboot.”

Indeed, catalogers may already be running open-source applications and not be aware of it. “When we conducted our survey and spoke to [executives], most of them said they had no plans to try open-source programs,” Howe explains. “But when we talked to the IT people, we found that 56% of the companies we surveyed actually already had open-source of some type, usually Apache.”

Too good to be true?

Free software with a low crash rate sounds too good to be true, and indeed, Linux is not without its quirks. “Typically, Linux’s usage has been limited to small-scale computer systems because it doesn’t know how to ‘talk’ to all of the processors in larger systems, such as HP’s Superdome,” says Bob Bickle, executive vice president of product and executive technology officer at Philadelphia-based Bluestone, a UNIX-oriented consulting service and software provider. “So there are performance advantages, such as greater memory and large applications benefits, to proprietary UNIX systems. But I expect that Linux will soon catch up to UNIX in this regard.”

And while Howe declares, “All the applications that you need to run, run on Linux,” Bickle begs to differ. “Some software just is not yet supported on Linux,” he says. New software and upgrades are being created all the time, however, so that more — if not all — applications will be able to run on Linux. As further evidence, Hewlett-Packard and IBM are already offering Linux on their new machines and systems for buyers who prefer it to the HP or IBM operating systems that are normally preloaded.

Then there’s the unavoidable fact that Linux has been widely available for fewer years than UNIX. With UNIX systems such as Sun Solaris, IRIX, and AIX, “you’re getting nearly 15 years of implementation tuning, clustering and reliability features, and general sophistication,” Howe says. Even today, Linux falls short of the sophistication of many UNIX systems, he adds.

Given that Bickle works primarily with UNIX programs, it’s not surprising he suggests that catalogers stick with their current UNIX systems or, if they really want to try Linux, opt for a commercial version. Nonetheless, he admits that “the whole open-source phenomenon has produced a good-quality operating system.”

But Linux enthusiasts see no need for users to wait to install the system. Fry’s McConnell, for one, wonders why more individuals and companies don’t try Linux. Among the chief selling points, he adds, “It’s free, it rarely crashes, and the Linux community works very hard to keep improving Linux.”

Linux Factbox

WHAT IT IS: An open-source operating system similar to UNIX.

HOW IT WORKS: Companies can use it like any other operating system, from which users can run any number of software programs for front- or back-end operations.

WHERE YOU CAN GET IT: You can download it for free from Red Hat, a commercial version of the program, is available at computer hardware and software stores. HP and IBM also now offer Linux.

WHAT IT COSTS: The download from is free. Red Hat costs $79-$169. (Prices vary from suppliers.)

HOW YOU MAINTAIN IT: While the download is free, catalogers will have to find a source for tech support from a Linux-savvy IT department or pay for support from companies such as Dell, HP, and IBM. But commercial versions of Linux such as Red Hat come with tech support.