Why Linux

Most PC users will be familiar with Microsoft Windows, some with Apple OS X. But what about Linux?

Linux has become popular as a server OS, but couldn’t win any desktop battle, yet. One of the reasons for Linux’ failure in the desktop market is its fragmentation. There is no Linux operating system, but dozens of different (competing) distributions, as these different flavors of Linux are called. “You got lots of choices” would the Linux aficionado explain.

While the software landscape under Linux has greatly improved, Microsoft is still the king when it comes to commercial software. And the fact that the vast majority of desktops run Windows practically guarantees that hardware will be compatible with Windows, which is not always true for Linux.

So why on earth should a Microsoft Windows user bother with Linux?

There are a number of reasons which I try to explain below.

Security

The latest (2017) WannaCrypt and Petya ransomeware attacks have made the news, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s face it: Microsoft Windows has a long track record of malware attacks. But that statement isn’t fair considering a +90% market share in the desktop OS market. Compare that to Linux which hits 3% at best! Of course every hacker in the world will aim at the most popular OS – to create havoc or to gain money.

Aside from Windows, other operating systems have been victims to malware, including Apple OS X and Linux. So why is Linux more secure than Windows? Here a list of things to consider:

  • Linux is a multiuser system, it always was. Microsoft just lately turned Windows into a multiuser system. Multiuser systems have a way to grant access rights as well as privileges to users, protecting ones data from other users.
  • Linux employs an “app store” long before that name was invented, just that it’s called differently – the “software repository“. The repository is maintained by the people who created the Linux distribution, and by the people who created the parent distribution, if any. For example, Linux Mint is a distribution based on Ubuntu, yet another popular Linux distribution. Both the Linux Mint and the Ubuntu team work on their respective repositories to make sure that bugs and vulnerabilities are caught and fixed.
    As long as the user installs software from the official repositories, chances are very small to catch malware.
  • Linux comes with a built-in firewall that is part of the kernel. On a typical desktop system, as long as you do not allow remote access, all ports are in stealth mode. Try the following in a Linux terminal:
    ss -lnptu
    By contrast, Windows opens a range of ports by default. For a kick, open a command line terminal and enter:
    netstat -a
    You can also check your Internet exposure here and here.
  • Linux, by and large, adheres to the “security by design” principles. One critical difference between Linux and Microsoft Windows and most other commercial software is the fact that the latter are “closed-source”.
    With Microsoft Windows and similar software products, the user has no way to have a look “under the hood”. In such an environment, you have no choice but blindly trust the vendor. One of the pillars of secure design is full disclosure of vulnerabilities. Bruce Schneier stated “Full disclosure — the practice of making the details of security vulnerabilities public — is a damned good idea. Public scrutiny is the only reliable way to improve security, while secrecy only makes us less secure”.
    Microsoft does disclose some information on vulnerabilities, but usually only at the time they provide a security update to fix it. Can you be sure that the vulnerability hasn’t been already exploited?
  • Linux distributions provide timely security updates and bug fixes, sometimes within hours or days the security threat has been known. Microsoft releases security updates on “patch Tuesday”, the second Tuesday of the month, to allow system admins to prepare for it. I just hope the hackers release their malware after patch Tuesday.
  • Linux is the #1 server operating system for public servers on the Internet, as well as on supercomputers. Have you ever thought about why professionals use Linux in the most security sensitive places? Because it has a better track record, and provides better tools for such tasks. A Linux desktop distribution comes with much the same security features available on servers. Nobody is holding you back to improve on the standard configuration, or to install a server distribution.
  • Linux and almost all software on Linux is open source. Everybody can inspect the source code and contribute to improvements. Hosting providers, cloud operators like Amazon, etc. use Linux to host web servers, application servers, and more. Their administrators and network professionals contribute to Linux, improving security and adding features. So do universities and vendors. Even Microsoft develops Linux code.

Support

With Microsoft offering you hotline support, email updates, and a plethora of help features inside Windows as well as online on their websites, how can Linux even stand a chance in this category? You’d be surprised!

  • Linux has a vibrant community that helps other users via forum and blogs. Often a quick search reveals solutions that explain in simple steps how to accomplish the task or solve the problem. If not, just ask.
    Have you ever dealt with the Microsoft hot line? Or read their support pages?
  • Some distributions are beginner friendly and make the migration to Linux easy. Linux Mint, for example, offers a familiar desktop reminiscent of Windows XP. It also provides a good manual that helps you with setting up your Linux desktop.
  • Linux distributions allow you to file bugs directly. They use bug tracking systems that let you see what is happening and who is handling it. Other users can share information, or confirm the bug.
    Commercial closed source outfits typically shut away their developers. The best you can hope for is communicate with a senior support person. I had enough futile discussions and emails with support people – sorry, no offense, I’m sure there are some capable people. On the Linux side, I’m usually in touch with the developer(s), and this direct communication has always been rewarding. Never ever has a Linux guy tried to feed me crap.
  • Linux offers an immense library of information. Just as an example, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, which again offers a huge database of valuable information and answers. Always an excellent source of information is the Arch Linux documentation.
    In addition to English forums and help sites, some popular distributions have local support groups and forums in their own language.

Customization

  • With Linux you chose the look and feel of your desktop. If you prefer the look and feel of Windows, there are several distributions like Zorin, Manjaro, PCLinuxOS, and Linux Mint that make (ex-)Windows users feel at home. Or do you fancy OS X? Have a look at DistroWatch.com.
  • Different distributions target different users: beginners, intermediate, and advanced users. For example, Arch Linux provides built-in features for advanced users that can make virtualization easier.
  • Whether laptop or stand-alone PC, web server or multimedia center, firewall or storage server, there is a Linux distribution that fits the need. Linux runs on almost any processor, for example on the Raspberry Pie, which you can easily turn into a media center.
    Have some older hardware – try and install Linux with a leaner desktop, or choose a lightweight distribution like Knoppix, Puppy Linux, or Remix OS.
  • In Linux you determine what to update via the update policy. For stability, you might want to focus on security updates only. Or you choose a “rolling” distribution that always brings you the latest software.
    If an update went sour and broke some functionality, you can roll back and use the last working version of a software package.
  • If you are used to Windows, you will be surprised about Linux’s software updates without restart(s). You can continue working while the updates take place. Only kernel updates require a restart, but you determine if and when that happens.
    Linux is built to run critical applications without any interruption 24/7, all year round. Let’s be honest – the way Windows handles updates is pathetic.

Reliability

I have already talked about the wide use of Linux in servers. Reliability can only be evaluated over time and use. My personal experience is that once installed, Linux will run for years on end without even a hick-up.

  • Linux is deployed on servers that run around the clock, 365 days a year. My web hosting company runs Linux, so do practically all others. Because Linux is designed for reliability.
  • Over time the Windows NTFS hard drives get slower and slower due to fragmentation. By design, the ext4 file system under Linux has significantly less fragmentation and shows no performance degradation. Nor do most other Linux-based file systems.
  • You can choose to have your user directory (/home) on a different partition. Should the operating system fail, you can reinstall Linux with no loss to your data.
  • Creating a bootable Linux USB stick is easy. You should always have one around for emergencies. It allows you to boot your computer and perhaps fix the problem, or at least rescue the data.
  • Linux offers a range of backup solutions for both local and remote backup. Tasks can be scheduled to run automatically, so you won’t forget.
  • With Linux you determine which applications are running and which not. If you run a file server, you probably don’t need a GUI and can turn off the desktop.
  • Instead of using Samba (a Windows-compatible SMB/CIFS server) for file sharing, you can use NFS or connect remote PCs using SSH. This can increase security and reliability.
  • Did I mention that Linux is a multiuser system? If the screen is stuck, just log in on a terminal screen (ALT+CTRL+F1) and stop the process. You can set up your computer to allow remote login and control it from anywhere (usually not a good idea unless you know what you are doing).
  • Windows, often by default, employs features like “fast startup” that are advertised to save some seconds. Never ever use Microsoft proprietary features! If you use fast startup and there is a disk problem, good luck. Your disk has just turned into an unreadable piece of chunk (unless you find a 3rd party vendor that lets you buy a rescue disk for $$$).
    In contrast, Linux does not use dubious methods.
    Windows is full of questionable default settings. Windows 10, for example, by default shares your computer, disk and network resources to distribute Windows updates to other users. With the next version, they’ll probably ask for your car keys as well (or just grab them).

I use Linux for 20 years. Once your machine is set up, Linux is reliable to the point that you almost wish that something would happen. With reliability I also mean reliable performance. I have never experienced any significant performance degradation over time on a Linux machine, which I can’t say about Windows.

Professional tools

While I already stated that Microsoft Windows is the king of running commercial software, Linux has a lot more professional tools up its sleeve than you might think.

  • Office productivity tools are available under Linux much like under Windows. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both comparable with Microsoft Office in terms of features and functionality. Both are very good at reading and writing Microsoft documents, but their native format is the “Open Document Format” or ODF. Compared to Microsoft’s document standardization initiative called OOXML, ODF is actually a standard that works. If you create documents and rely on being able to open and read them, see this paper sponsored by the European Community. Once you’ve read it, you’ll probably never ever save documents in docx file format.
  • Once you enter the territory of servers, Linux is king. Be it a web server (Apache), a database (SQL, MySQL, Cassandra, etc.), or a simple file server (for example a NAS). That is not to say that Microsoft doesn’t have it’s success in the server market, but those servers are typically not exposed to the wild Internet.
    Linux offers tons of professional tools for network analysis, performance tests, data recovery, and more.
  • Linux is strong in specialized software. Because universities, research centers, the NASA, high performance computing centers, and more use Linux, there is plenty of scientific or other specialized software available.
    Hollywood animation studios typically use Linux to produce and render animation movies, or for special effects. Likewise CAD and engineering software has been developed for or ported to Linux.
    Many modern Linux distributions come with photo editing and other creative software pre-installed – check out Gimp and Blender.
  • Commercial software companies are offering software for Linux. For example, I use a professional screen calibration software that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
    Lately some game software developers have issued Linux versions, though in general, there aren’t many commercial games running on Linux. However, Steam is available on Linux and offers more than 2,400 game titles on your operating system of choice, besides Linux’s native array of games.

As recent as 5 years ago Linux wasn’t able to satisfy my software requirements, only because of the lack of professional photo editing software at that time. Today there are a growing number of pro photographers who use Linux and native Linux software. It’s only a matter of time when I will dump Lightroom and switch to open source software for photo editing.

Software license

Linux is free as in beer. You can freely get Linux, use it, and even modify the software. Most applications running under Linux are free, too.

On the contrary, when you buy MS Windows:

  • you do not own the software;
  • you get a license to use the software if and only if you comply with the Microsoft terms;
  • you agree with the Microsoft terms (have you actually read them?);
  • you have very little legal recourse against Microsoft if you incurred damages as a result of using Windows;
  • you share private data with Microsoft;
  • you are not allowed to modify the software;
  • you receive a 90-days limited warranty;
  • “… The manufacturer or installer, and Microsoft, exclude all implied warranties and conditions, including those of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement.”
  • essentially, you are at the mercy of Microsoft.

“So what”, you may think. Linux distributions don’t guarantee anything too. As long as Windows works as advertised and lets you run the applications you need, you’re fine.

It’s your decision.

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