Why a Unix-based system?

Posted by: Rea Maor In: Linux and Unix - Thursday, April 12th, 2007

The buzz about Linux, BSD, Open Solaris, and other free versions of Unix seems to swell every month. In case you haven’t tried one of them yet, you might be wondering, “What is all the fuss about?” Truly, you see passion about these systems that is seldom shown to their competitors. Here’s a brief list of where the Unix system triumph:

1. Security. Of course, the number-one touted feature. To this day, there exists no major exploits in the wild for Unix systems – no viruses, trojans, or worms. Software security laboratories such as Symantec have found proof-of-concept attacks, but really you almost can’t get a Linux box “PWNED” unless you try really hard. This is because Unix systems have security built in from the ground up. The system embeds the concept of file permissions. User, group, and administrator (“root”) all have different permissions to read, write, or execute each individual file. This also applies to any program you’re using – for instance, a virus which you downloaded through your email couldn’t do worse than wreck your own home directory, because your email program doesn’t have permissions to write anywhere else.

2. Licensing. The free Unix systems belong to the general public under the GNU general public license or the equivalents on BSD and so on. This means you never have to worry about per-machine licensing, or having the system refuse to update because it thinks you’re a pirate. You also have other options to fix something instead of waiting for some corporation that already has your money. If you’re a programmer, you can dive in and fix it yourself; if you aren’t, somebody else who uses the same system *is* a programmer and fixed it themselves, then posted the patch free for everybody.

3. Maturity. It bears saying that the original Unix operating system was first created on a PDP 7 at AT&T Bell Labs – many years before computers were commonly found in the average household. Just about everything that can happen on a computer has already happened on a Unix first, and in fact free Unix systems today continue to be the first to develop new features and introduce new programs. The first web browser, for instance, ran on a Unix system. Today’s versions of Unix have such outstanding legacy support, you can literally take a program written 30 years ago and run it on a modern distro, with no problems.

4. Stability. This is the fabled “cathedral vs. bazaar” development idea in action. Even a huge corporation is unable to match its team of programmers against hundreds of voluntary developers around the world working when they want to. And so by the time a program gets out of alpha development, it is robust enough to run reliably in deployment. A Linux system may have programs running on it misbehave, but the system itself never crashes, ever.

5. Flexibility. Since a Unix system is developed by many hands for many purposes, it is easily put to use in many different ways. This answers a frequent question: “Why are there so many distros?” Because each of those are a prepackaged solution to address unique set of needs. There are Unix-based systems running on everything from mainframes to cell phones and everything in between. Software exists for everything from a web server to an office desktop.

Note that we’re missing the “free of cost” argument. This is to deliberately dispel a myth: While it is a nice bonus that most Unix systems are free of cost, the fact that it can be had for free does not contribute significantly to why users say they prefer it. The existence of commercial systems such as Red Hat, Novell, and Xandros also point to the fact that you can charge for Linux and people will still use it anyway.

Now, for the home or office user, there are some cases where Unix still isn’t a viable option.

  • Hardcore gamers. While many games are ported to Unix systems, the vast majority of commercial game titles are still made for a Microsoft system only. The market just isn’t swaying away from that direction yet.
  • The printing industry. The graphics-to-print technology has methods such as CMYK and Pantone color matching which are heavily patented, the patents are licensed only to Adobe, and Adobe isn’t porting Photoshop anywhere near a GNU system. That’s that.
  • Other proprietary software users. Many software titles still aren’t releasing for anything but a proprietary system. Some work-arounds exist, and several technology companies are starting to warm up to Unix systems, but the market isn’t swaying in the Unix direction that fast.

Note also that we’re leaving out a common misconception about the downside of Unix, which is hardware support. In fact, Unix systems support many times more hardware than proprietary systems – if you count all of the hardware that was sold before this year. Unix systems, not having a commercial motivation, do not drop legacy support for older hardware like their proprietary counterparts do.

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19 Responses to “Why a Unix-based system?”

  1. why Linux? why not Linux? « Lunasandwich Says:

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  2. Ben Says:

    I like linux, and I think it’s useful for a lot of things, but the .NET development platform is the best there is right now.

  3. Rea Maor Says:

    @ben, well.. i cannot agree with you less, .Net and Visual Development in general atrophies your brain, you practacly have to do nothing but point and click to write a program.. what will you do if you’ll have to write something real one day and not browser in less then 7 lines of code.

  4. Anthony Says:

    “Visual development”/RAD is well and good when your problems can be solved with it. Yet, every “RAD coder” should ask themselves while dragging around those components and connecting their properties: “will I be able to maintain this with just an editor and the command line?” If not, then you’ve got a real problem if (/when/) your do-it-for-me “studio” tools are suddenly not available.

  5. Nixkitty Says:

    THis is lame. While a UNIX server may not get owned, the OSS software is still very susceptible to exploits. There are plenty of them floating around for MySQL, PHP, etc…….

  6. xlinuks Says:

    “Ben said
    like linux, and I think it’s useful for a lot of things, but the .NET development platform is the best there is right now.”

    You’re not right. Have a look at last version of Java and NetBeans 5.5 (which will soon get NetBeans 6). And it’s available for Linux, Mac and Windows.

  7. xlinuks Says:

    For those interested:
    Here is a screenshot from Linux of NetBeans 5.5 while I’m creating a Java 3D program in it:
    http://www.geocities.com/xlinuks/pub/netbeans5.5.png

    Many developers _still_ don’t know (I was one of them) that there are wonderful, powerful and free IDEs available for Linux which successfully rival those from Micro$oft.

  8. pyperdown Says:

    I would LOVE to deploy *nix on our enterprise desktops. The biggest problem is getting end-user buy-in. Most tech savvy people realise the many advantages, but your avg end-user does not belong to this club. I would love to see some advice or guidance for technical people on selling the non-tech folks on switching. While the reasons for doing so are quite plain to us, most of them just see the (perceived) pain involved in learning something new. Those that I have gotten to try it have had few issues once the system is configured correctly. Our CEO is a bit of an MS fanboy, and convincing him will be a bit of a challenge. Most of the excellent points in this article will not be enough.

  9. Rea Maor Says:

    @Pyperdown.

    I know what you’re talking about, Converting people can be a nightmare,
    people tend to Hate changed and it doesnt matter if it’s better or worst..

    the best way to try and explain them how good it might be is just to give them a LIVE version of Linux and let them play around it… no need to install or anything like it, just download, burn and reboot with CD in place…

    they’ll be able to see that it’s actually very familiar interface and there’s nothing to fear of changes… the only diffrence would be Saving money.

  10. xlinuks Says:

    Nixkitty
    You confused everything.
    1. Linux and Unix don’t exclude running proprietary software.
    2. _All_ reports show (including those from Microsoft, however they prefer not to talk about this fact) that the MS IIS had the biggest number of _critical_ flaws. The least critical flaws had Red Hat (by a lot less). The servers running Linux did/do have more flaws but these are non-critical which means they can’t cause susceptible damage (like the spam in a way).
    Now think, do you want 1 critical flaw that destroys your whole database and anything it finds or 3 non-critical flaws that can’t actually harm your system? Every (smart enough) sysadmin knows that it is important what kind of flaws you have, not their number.

  11. webjourneyman Says:

    Somehing you said in the gimp-photoshop article struck a cord with me. You divided between geek’s and creative people. The latter being identified by how painful they find learning to use Gimp after having already spent some painful time learning Photoshop. I think you’re dead on here, perhaps creative people (this is actually an over pompus term) like I think I am, are far more interested in applying their unique personal twist to whatever tool or method, rather than learning to use a new tool or method. Very ego centric, very artsy fartsy and very typical of those that are labeled creative types.
    Anyway, the same applies to Unix, I can see all the different way’s Unix is superior to Windows and actually I wish I had the drive to learn it, it’s just not happening. Learning a new interface is about as appealing to me as learning a differnt way to apply algebra to a purely theoretical problems.

  12. pyperdown Says:

    webjourneyman,

    I recall my first foray into linux – I think my first reason was pure ego – knowing linux or unix has an enormous amount of geek-cred. I went out and bought a slackware book with a CD, a scsi drive and adapter (this was 1993 or so, no IDE support yet). I remember being blown away by the complexity of the file system, the difficulty of getting X running, and so on. Fast forward to 1998. I was working in a mostly mac environment, w/novell servers. They were very reliable, but the licensing was expensive. I remember thinking about linux and wondering if it could serve files for mac clients, did some research and found the netatalk project.

    Once I got that working under linuxppc (now defunct, I think) I had proof of concept. We had a big network upgrade project going on, and new servers were part of the job. We opted to go for linux (the savings allowed us to buy a robotic tape library). I wish I had done more with it before that deployment, but it forced me to learn. There are some things I miss about novell (permissions structure is one thing). There is NOTHING I miss about the microsoft environment. While many of my collegues at other similar organizations were turned into reboot monkeys, and having to deal with the difficulties of maintaining exchange, my stuff just ran and ran.

    So yeah there’s a learning curve. And there is also an UN-learning curve. Some of the things that you do in windows are so bass-ackwards, but you get used to it and accept it as normal because you don’t know anything else. Once you start to delve into the power of unix-like systems, it is absolutely amazing how easy system management can be.

    There are some things that could be better. I would like to see better enterprise management feature sin firefox and thunderbird, for example. But I can also count on the fingers of one hand the number of virus infections we’ve had (on our windows systems!) in the past 4-5 years, since we don’t support outlook, and generally don’t support IE either.

    Don’t fear the learning curve. Take your time and explore. Lights WILL start going on in your head, and you WILL learn the paradigm.

    As an unscientific example, my wife and I have been using linux at home for a couple of years now (ya gotta drink your own cool-aid, right?). She is mostly non-technical, but has a ton of experience with word-processing systems, starting with dedicated wp systems like wang, nbi, displaywriter, and moving to wordperfect, and more recently, ms office. She had a personal project to do for a class reunion that involved producing a semi-complex multi-column document. I was out of the house, and she had to get going on this thing. She later told me the only difficult thing was finding the right icon to launch the app (openoffice.org). Once she found it she just blasted right through it. ZERO major problems. No panicked phone calls to me. THAT says a lot to dispell the myth that opensource is difficult to use.

    I might also mention the cygwin project for windows – another way to get your feet wet without blowing away your windows partition. You can play around in the bash shell, and run linux services from your windows box.

  13. webjourneyman Says:

    Thanks for the info Pyperdown, next time I buy a computer I’m gonna decline the windows package and run it on unix/linux from beginning. The computer I’m on now is barely a year old and has already crashed onece, totally wiping my windows profile with doc’s relating to school. It would be nice never having to worry about that happening again.

  14. pyperdown Says:

    Webjourneyman,

    Dude that sucks… It’s really odd sometimes – I’ve had a few windows boxes that have been fairly stable, but then stuff like what happened to you occurs, and It’s kinda unpredictable. We had two machines at work thursday freak out due to a failed patch install, svchost.exe kept puking, (something about memory could not be read). Windows diags are so sh1tty, took an hour of googling to find I had to remove the patches from last tuesday, and then reinstall manually. 6 reboots later everything appears to be fine. But SIX REBOOTS?!?!?!?!?! Holy crap. You have to “love” windows.

    While I’ve not personally used it much, I hear really good things about ubuntu and its derivitives (kubuntu, edubuntu, et al). They have more of the end-user stuff that you expect for multimedia functionality. Redhat distros don’t (fear of patent litigation, etc means missing av codecs and stuff like that. You can get them, but it can be a pain). You can get a live CD to start messing with it, so you don;t have to go cold turkey off windows. The ideal scenario for a lot of people would be a linux or unix foundation with a windows gui, though I suspect that will never happen. In 5-10 years microsoft will go the way of wordperfect.

    Dive in, man. It’s really quite liberating.

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  17. demon Says:

    The pure reason I DL BSD was to learn programming and how OS work 😀
    with windows U just use their DLL in U application and Say “Hey It works I am a programmer now” —
    U Would Have no clue what the system did

  18. LOLCAT Says:

    UNIX BASED SYSTEMS ROCKS MY SOCKS

  19. Jacob Says:

    With Mono and WINE for .Net and other framework emulations, there’s no reason in the world you shouldn’t use a Unix based system

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