Sunday, 18 May 2014
By Robert Persse
Windows XP is no longer supported. So when new security vulnerabilities appear Microsoft will not fix them - people still using XP will be at increasing risk. Microsoft wants you to upgrade - they make money when you do - but upgrading is expensive and time consuming. Apart from the technical challenges, users will need to learn the very different interface of Windows 8. They won't like this, and will lose productivity. Many companies don't want to make this change. Windows 8 is very unpopular, but there's no guarantee the next version will be better. Vista and Windows 7 users will also have to make the move in a few years.
But there is a way to deal with the XP upgrade problem that lets you use your existing hardware, is stable, is more secure, and reduces the cost of migration and support. This alternative is to replace Windows with a Linux operating system and open source software.
Linux is never advertised and there a lot of misunderstanding about it. Some of this is deliberately created fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD).
'Linux' is a generic name for operating systems based on the Linux kernel. These are called 'distributions' or 'distros'. There are many distros of Linux - the most popular ones for PCs and laptops are currently Mint and Ubuntu. These have long term support (LTS) releases that come out every two years and are supported for five years. A distribution includes the operating system, a selection of default applications, drivers for common hardware, and a graphical desktop environment. This package allows users to start work quickly.
Linux runs on the same hardware as Windows. It is open source so there are no license fees. It is run by the Linux Foundation using contributions from several large companies. For example, IBM will invest $1 billion to develop Linux and open source for its Power System servers.
Linux is working everywhere behind the scenes
Nearly two-thirds of all web servers, and most of the Cloud and Big Data are Linux – as are 96% of the top 500 supercomputers. Companies such as Google, Oracle, Amazon, and IBM use Linux servers, sometimes exclusively, and the movie industry uses Linux to render movies such as Titanic, Shrek, LOTR and The Hobbit. Many stock exchanges such as London, New York, and New Zealand use Linux. All computers on the International Space Station now run Linux and the US military uses Linux extensively. Linux is embedded in Android smart phones and many machines, appliances and gadgets.
Linux on Desktop PCs and Laptops
Despite the advantages of Linux, Windows still has a virtual monopoly of desktops and laptops. This is self perpetuating - Windows is familiar and heavily advertised. Microsoft has smooth talking salespeople working for them, while Linux has no salespeople and no advertising. If every Linux device had a sticker that said, “Linux inside” people's awareness of it would increase.
But this is changing. The FAA uses Linux desktops to manage all air traffic control in the US - they converted to Linux in a third of the time, and at only 40% of the estimated cost. The French Gendarmerie will complete moving 72,000 PCs to Linux by September 2014. They estimate a 40% saving in TCO, and report a “huge decrease of local technical interventions”. The largest bank in China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank, has run 20,000 retail branches on Linux since 2008 and the Russians are moving all government and educational PCs to Linux by 2015. Google's Chromebooks run Linux and have 20% of the education PC market in the US.
There are You Tube videos showing newcomers' reactions to Linux - they usually find it easy to use and start getting things done quickly. Of course there are differences to Windows but a lot of things are the same or similar. A Google search usually can find the answer to a user's question.
You can quickly try Linux without any cost, risk or commitment. If possible, get an existing Linux user to help you with this to avoid simple errors. Linux has a 'Live CD' feature which allows you to boot the computer off the CD. You can then try the distribution directly from the CD without changing anything on the hard drive, or you can install it.
There are Linux equivalents for most applications, and these are easy to install from official repositories containing thousands of apps. Some of these can also be used on Windows computers so they can be tried without using Linux.
Libre Office can replace Microsoft Office. It has text, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, and database modules. It can read and write doc, docx, xls, pdf and other familiar formats. The Firefox or Chrome browsers can replace Internet Explorer and other open source software can handle other file formats.
But if you really need to run Windows apps you can run WINE on Linux and install your app in WINE.
Windows only gives a single desktop environment, but Linux allows a choice of several. More than one can be installed and users can select one when they log in. Some look like smart phone screens and some have traditional menus. Ubuntu has the Unity desktop while Mint has Cinnamon, Mate, Xfce and KDE.
The latest Linux releases should work well on hardware up to about 6 years old - ex-lease equipment is ideal. Hardware up to about 10 years old can still work with the Mate or Xfce desktops.
Linux computers can run on the same network as Windows to access the internet, but they need a Samba server to use Windows file or print servers.
As a Windows XP administrator, I could easily poke around in every part of the file system. But Linux was designed from the beginning to be secure. User accounts and the operating system are kept strictly separate. Administrators must use a password to do special actions, and cannot easily access other peoples' accounts. Most Linux home users don't bother with anti-virus software. There is no significant malware that affects Linux - Windows malware is not authorized and is not compiled to run on Linux. But users should still follow standard security precautions: use secure passwords, use the firewall, keep software updated, avoid social engineering scams, and so on.
An increasing number of organizations are using Linux desktops and laptops to save time and money, and improve security and reliability. Learning to use a distribution of Linux takes only a few minutes and is easier than learning to use Windows 8. Once a user is familiar with one distro all the others are quite easy. Linux administration is different in some ways to Windows administration, but is no harder to understand. There are fewer problems reported with Linux so administrators can get on with more productive work.
A project to move from Windows to Linux is not trivial, and must be planned carefully, but it doesn't have to be done all at once. I would start by migrating old XP computers, especially for people who use only basic applications. Then look at what other software can be moved.
And when it comes time to migrate to the next version of a Linux distribution the process is much easier than moving from one release of Windows to another.
Of course, you may move all your business applications to The Cloud soon. In which case you will be using Linux anyway.
Robert Persse is a technical writer and has worked in the IT industry.
He has been a Linux home user for three years.