November 9, 1998
Volume 51, No. 11
Most computer users do not think much about what makes their computers work. Behind the scenes, the operating system (OS) is fundamental-it is the software that allows you to interact with your hardware.
Maybe you didn't notice the "Starting Windows 95" message as you booted your computer this morning. When the screen finally settles on your familiar background and icons, the operating system is ready to accept your mouse movements and keyboard entries and interact with any other software you might run.
Apple ships its computers with the MacOS, but Windows 95 is the operating system found on most other computers around campus. In fact, the current market provides so few alternatives that the U.S. Department of Justice is arguing that Microsoft's Windows operating systems represent a monopoly. In this environment, the information technology profession has directed much attention toward a unique player in the OS market: Linux.
Linux is best seen as a member of the Unix family of operating systems, versions of which are found on many servers administered by ITD for e-mail and web services. They are designed to be multi-user systems that can provide various services to anyone with a user ID and password.
Unix commonly runs on expensive, high-end proprietary systems. Linux is different; it can be installed on most desktop systems that normally run Windows 95 or MacOS. It gives the power of Unix to older, common hardware and is available for no cost on the Internet.
Linux began in 1992 when Finnish student Linus Torvold began designing a Unix-like system to run on his PC. He shared his work openly on the Internet, including the source code that provided the instructions that made the operating system work. From there a team of thousands of developers from around the world volunteered their time to modify and improve his work. According to Michael Hirsch, a professor in the Department of Math and Computer Science, "The people who contributed to the Linux kernel were people who had 10 to 20 years of experience in the software industry and who saw Linux as an opportunity to do things right."
The combination of Internet collaboration and open source code has led to a piece of software that seems to challenge any a private software firm might create. Linux has become an increasingly popular, low-cost platform for web serving and file sharing. Its proponents claim it is a stable and inexpensive alternative to Microsoft Windows NT.
Hirsch suggested there is a compelling reason why regular end users might eventually adopt the system as desktop applications become more common: its stability. Although the Information Technology Division does not officially support Linux, the recently formed Linux Users Group at Emory <http://luge.cc.emory.edu> is there for support. "The Linux community is radically different," Hirsch said. "It is a bunch of people who all want to help each other [and believe in] the idea that one should freely give away one's knowledge."
Lance Peterson is senior web applications developer in Information
Technology Division's Teaching and Research Services.