Understanding Linux

Marcel Gagne and Peter van der Linden
Wednesday, September 28, 2005 12:00 PM

Linux experts Marcel Gagne and Peter van der Linden , who recently published new books on the subject, were online Wednesday, Sept. 28 at Noon ET to answer questions about the open source operating system, which is often used as an alternative to Microsoft Windows.

Gagne, known as "Canada's Linux Guru," is the award-winning author of the Linux Journal "Cooking with Linux" series. He recently published the second edition of his popular book, "Moving to Linux: Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye!" As a an authority among the Linux and open source world, Gagne's work includes articles on the subject for publications such as the Linux Journal, InformIT, Unix Review, and SysAdmin magazine.

Van der Linden, the author of computer books "Just Java" and "Expert C Programming," recently published "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux." The book details the popular operating system. He currently works in the Silicon Valley as a software consultant specializing in Linux and open source software.

A transcript follows.


Bethesda, MD: Linux is a wonderful operating system but like Solaris and other UNIX and UNIX-like systems it has trouble competing with Windows because it has a poor user interface. From a computer science point of view Linux beats Windows easily, but from a user point of view the opposite is true and proven by the marketplace.

I believe for Linux or any operating system to succeed it must have a good user interface. Mac OS X which is UNIX based has a great interface (Aqua). I considered buying one to replace my old PC but when I compared the price of a Mac Mini to a PC, the PC has twice of everything (disk, memory, etc...). If the costs were equivalent I would have bought the Mac. If Linux systems had a decent interface I would probably buy one of them as well.

When will Linux system have an interface equivalent to Aqua or Windows?

Peter van der Linden: Hi man from Bethesda,

You raise an insightful point. Often people get used to one particular style of interface, and come to regard that as the "gold standard". However, I can see that you are more flexible because of the way you looked into the Mac Mini.

I agree, Apple does set the standard for GUIs and even OSs, right now. But Sun Microsystems is doing interesting work with 3D GUIs, too, based on Java, and available now in alpha on Linux.

For me though, the bottom line is that, when I am trying to get something done, I care little for window adornments, shading, gee-gaws, and trinkets. As long as my spreadsheet works, I am fine with it.

People who do place a very high priority on these visual refinements will probably be happiest sticking with the Mac or whatever they are used to, for the foreseeable future.



Baltimore, Md.: I'm submitting early due to another appointment.

I'm a fairly knowledgeable computer user who was given some Ubuntu CD's to try. I liked the live version enough to actually install it on an older PC (dual booting it with Windows).

Question: We're using a Netgear USB wireless adapter on this computer, which isn't recognized by Ubuntu. The Live version didn't recognize the built-in wirless adapter in my Dell Inspirion 9100 laptop either. Is wireless support a problem for Linux in general (or just in Dell products, or USB)?

Ubuntu had no problem recognized the who-knows-what brand Ethernet adapters these PC's had.

I would gladly switch my other PC's to Linux except for the wirless problem that I'm having (all my PC's are using USB wireless adapters, except the Dell laptop)

Peter van der Linden: Wireless over USB is still an emerging technology in Linux.

Your best bet to get this working is to review the hardware compatibility list for Ubuntu, and see if it even has any wifi usb devices. If so try one from the list. Buy it from a store with a good return policy.

Sorry - there will be better news eventually. In the meantime, I put a whole section on "wifi troubleshooting" in chapter 4 of PvdL's Guide to Linux. It gives you all the info to take it further.

For completeness, I should also mention the use of ndiswrapper - it's a project at sourceforge that can sometimes get a wifi chip working, using a Windows .inf driver config file.


Marcel Gagne: Peter mentioned ndiswrapper, a program I have to endorse in a big way. I wrote about ndiswrapper in the September issue of Linux Journal (I'll add it to my Website in the next couple of days if you can't find it). Now that I think about it, I also demonstrated on "Call for Help", but I digress. Basically, ndiswrapper makes it possible for Linux to use the Windows wireless driver. It's fantastic. For a non-free alternative, you might also want to check out Linuxant's DriverLoader program at http://www.linuxant.com.


La Crosse, Wis.: what about support for windows games that do not have linux sopport? and what about older windows games and apps. I myself play alot of older dos games

Marcel Gagne: The quick answer to this is to try out a product called Cedega, available at http://www.transgaming.com. This is a highly tweaked version of the WINE program that lets you run Windows programs under Linux. Cedega is specifically geared to work with Windows games.


Madrid, Spain: What advantages would a teacher-cum-PC-user gain from partitioning his hard drive for Linux and Windows? What should be his main concerns?

As a non- techie I really enjoy these techie pages.


Peter van der Linden: Hi Colin,

There are three main advantages to a dual boot PC:

1. you extend your PC knowledge and abilities. As a teacher I am sure you welcome and support new learning abilities.

2. when booted in Linux, you are immune to the flodding torrent of Windows-based spyware and viruses. Completely immune!

3. when running Linux, you are able to tap into the (literally) thousands of open source programs - download them to your system and start using them. People who are able to program can also change and customize this pool of free software.

So those are 3 great advantages to a dual-boot PC.



Philadelphia, Pa.: How soon before Linux applications become a viable desktop competitor with Windows applications?

Marcel Gagne: The short answer is right now! There are plenty of Linux desktop applicationst that are every bit as good as and sometimes better than the Windows alternatives. For the Linux-shy out there, some of these applications are also available for Windows (OpenOffice.org, GAIM, Thunderbird, Firefox, Blender, and more). The question isn't one of when it will be viable, but rather when people will realize that Linux is already an answer to most people's desktop computing needs.


Annapolis, Md.: Even with enough practice how long do you think an average user will take to be comfortable with linux?

Peter van der Linden: I was stunned to see that one of my family members picked up Linux within a week with a few minutes practice each day.

Let's face it: GUIs are a mature technology these days. Just as every car has a standard way to drive, so all computers now come with windows, scroll bars, menubars, and a "start" menu.

You can engage with that immediately, and your fingers are retrained within a couple of days. You are productive pretty much at once, so don't let anxiety about loss of productivity hold you back.

There's a deeper level to Linux - the sys admin and installation stuff. But no one has to engage with that if they don't want to. Many people find it fun to explore.

They best way to learn linux is to buy a PC with Linux preinstalled. My local Frys (large electronic retailer) currently sells a PC with Linux for $175! You can really get prices down when you don't have to pay the Windows monopoly tax to Microsoft!



Arlington, Va.: How is the Linux desktop evolving and when will it be mature enough to be easily manageable - much like Windows or Mac.

I've used several distros over the past few years and I always run into a brick wall with a device driver, screen configuration, network or printing configuration issue. Even with my decent sysadmin skills it's difficult at best and always time consuming to configure, manage and maintain a Linux desktop.

I'm a big fan of Linux and OpenSource, but the simple fact is that it's hard to work with. Is this changing?

Peter van der Linden: My view is that Linux desktops are moving forward far faster than the Microsoft desktop.

Windows XP was released around 2001 and the Vista (next release) isn't until available until 2006 at the earliest. 4 or 5 years of stalling is a long time between releases.

And when Vist (the XP follow on) finally arrives, it won't have WinFS, the searchable filesystem, that was promised, and that MacOS X has today.

The question of device drivers is a different issue. That is best dealt with by getting Linux the same way you get Windows - buy a system with Linux preinstalled. Convert it to a dual boot system by installing Windows if you are anchored to some must-have legacy Windows app.



Brampton, Canada: There are a large number of Linux distributions to choose from. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of concrete comparisons between the choices to guide a "Linux-curious" person in their selection of a Linux system.

Do you have any advice for the "Linux-curious" person on how to select a Linux distribution? What did you choose, when you were starting out, and why?

Marcel Gagne:

The best thing to start with, if you are curious and not sure where to start, is one of the so-called live distributions, like Knoppix. This lets you try out Linux without having to commit (or install to your hard drive). My book, "Moving to Linux" includes such a CD for that reason. When I started, there was Slackware and it came on a handful of diskettes. These days I tend to recommend that people look at some of the mature distributions like Mandriva, SUSE, Fedora, and others. Sometimes, the best choice is to run what your friends are running. At least then, you are on the same page and can share information.

Under the hood, every Linux distribution is quite similar. To understand all these different flavors of Linux, think about automobiles. In the Windows world, there's one model, available in black. If you don't like it, there's no other vendor you can go to. The Linux world is more like the automotive world in that you have lots of choice. If you don't like the service or quality you are getting from your current auto manufacturer, you can go to Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, BMW, or whatever. The difference is in what they package along with your distribution. Different look and feel, different admin tools, and so on.


Germantown, Md.: In your opinion, which distro provides the best multimedia experience out of the box? What I am interested in is something comparable to what you can get from a Windows box. This should include the easy addition of Windows codecs.

Peter van der Linden: Without any doubt, the number one distro for out-of-the-box multimedia support is Linspire. (http://linspire.com)

This is a commercial distro (so they have a support team and a very active customer forum). Being commercial, they have the funds to license all the players necessary. They support Flash. They support Java.

Some distros don't even come with an MP3 player because of licensing problems. Linspire cuts through all that and are dedicated to the best desktop experience.

I selected Linspire as the example distro in my book "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux" for these reasons. And because they are very easy for new Linux users to engage with.

Check out Linspire!



Washington, D.C.: Do we really want the common, AOL type people to use Linux? Those are the people who pass the viruses and worms around by opening unknown attachments in their e-mails. These people routinely download and install "free" software without reading the EULA and have all kinds of spyware running on their computers.

When you're running Linux at least you know you're relatively safe because the bad guys are attacking the idiots running Windows. If the Linux desktop improves to the point where all of these people start to use Linux then Linux will become exposed to all of the viruses and worms that are inherent to Windows. I certainly don't want that to happen. I say we keep Linux to ourselves.

Marcel Gagne: I might turn that comment around and ask "Do we really want casual non-expert computer users to run Windows, where the risk of infection, spyware, etc, is so high?" In point of fact, I recommend Linux to people who aren't network experts because it is more secure, and no, that won't change anytime soon. The Linux security model is orders of magnitude better than Windows.

Operating a Windows system safely pretty much requires that you become a network and security expert, with the proper anti-virus, anti-spyware, and anti-whatever programs always on guard against intruders. Linux isn't perfect, but it doesn't demand so much from its users just to surf safely.


Munich, Germany: Prosit and Greetings from the Continent, Guys.

I'll be purchasing a new PC within the next year, and for someone who spends a lot of time on the Internet, uses many of the Microsoft Desktop Tools, is not into gaming and might work on home pages once in a while, what advantages would Linux have over Windows on my PC?

Peter van der Linden: Gruss Gott Herr Municher,

Well, the number one advantage would be that a Linux user is not easy prey for the flood of Windows-based viruses, spyware, pop-ups, and security breach-of-the-week. Linux was designed with better security, and just doesn't need the constant patching that Windows does when connected to the net.

A second advantage is that the system will be lower cost. You can use the free Open Office suite, which is compatible with the Microsoft Office suite, and there are many other high quality open source programs too.

A third advantage is that Linux doesn't enforce Digital Rights Restrictions on the PC owner the way the next release of Windows will. It will prevent you copying and playing songs on a different PC than the one you downloaded to. This is "fair use" under copyright law, but Microsoft will inhibit this kind of sharing.

There are other benefits too, but that's enough goodness for now!



La Jolla, Ca. : What do you guys see as the biggest obstacles to the Windows user who is planning to switch to Linux? How would he/she overcome these obstacles?

Marcel Gagne: The biggest obstacle is fear. Modern Linux distributions are easy to install and easy to use. Unfortunately, we are constantly presented with messages telling us that it's too hard and that the average person couldn't possibly grasp the complexity. That's rubbish.

People aren't stupid and people who use computers learn new things all the time. Every time you buy and/or install a new package, you need to learn it (even in Windows). Every time you upgrade to a new version, there are changes and you need to learn. If you upgrade from Win 9x to Win XP, you will have to relearn some things. The same is true of learning to use Linux.

My parents, who are in their late sixties, got their first computer about five years ago. They have only ever run Linux and yet they manage to write e-mails, surf the Web, chat on IM, play games, etc. In other words, everything a typical computer user does.

Linux isn't that difficult. We're just constantly told that is it and the resulting fear is the biggest obstacle. Pick u a book with a good live Linux distribution and start playing. It's fun and the fear will quickly vanish.


19th and L Streets, Washington D.C.: I have two questions:

1. What is your impression of the Ubuntu distro?

2. What are the premiere apps -- no pun intended -- for editing audio and video on Linux?


Peter van der Linden: Ubuntu is a very nice distro. I'm not a Gnome fan, which is the Ubuntu default desktop environment, but it looks and works well on Ubuntu. Ubuntu recognized a wide range of hardware when I tested it on some of my systems.

Ubuntu is one of the desktop distros that approach the "Gold Standard" set by the Linspire distro. Linspire is the biggest and best of all the dozen or so distros which specialize on the desktop.


As far as non-linear video editing - this is still an emerging technology in Linux. There are some apps to do this - some of them was extensively discussed in LinuxJournal 2 or 3 months ago. But you would be a pioneer and should expect a rocky trail.

For audio editing, a lot of people like audacity.



Confused American Consumer: Please pardon my ignorance, but I am someone who struggles with new technology and I am indeed learning it. I am reading your discussion and I find I am lost because of one key essential detail: What is Linux?

Peter van der Linden: Linux is an operating system which controls your PC. It is an alternative to Windows.

Linux has been under development for about 14 years, and has steadily grown in popularity. Many people, including Bill Gates and other executives at Microsoft think that Linux will grow so quickly that it will take away really large amount of monopoly super-profits from Windows.

For this reason, Microsoft conducts a relentless, expensive, and basically dishonest PR campaign against Linux, calling it "communist" and "a cancer".

While Microsoft is making itself look ridiculous, the rest of the world is starting to find out whether Linux can help them on their PC.

One of the qualities of Linux, apart from its immunity to Windows viruses, is its very low cost - much cheaper than the $200 Windows XP Pro and the $500 Microsoft Office suite. One of the ways to find out more about Linux is to read my book "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux".



Portland, Oregon: How compatible is Linux with 3rd party hardware?

Can I walk into Fry's and buy a new video card or USB2 PCI card, plug it into my Linux system and expect it to work?

That's one positive I see about Windows everywhere is third party hardware support.

Marcel Gagne: The hardware support for Linux is, quite honestly, among the best there is. In fact, when you consider all the platforms that run Linux, its hardware and peripheral support is better than that of the Windows system you are leaving behind. Unfortunately, there are some consumer devices designed with Windows specifically in mind. Consequently, certain printers or scanners may have limited support under Linux because the manufacturer is slow in providing drivers. That said, the vast majority of standard devices work very well and you aren't likely to run into too many problems.

On the upside, you'll find that where you always had to load drivers to make something run in your old OS, Linux automatically recognizes and supports an amazing number of peripherals without you having to do anything extra or hunt down a driver disk. Furthermore, the Linux community is vibrant in a way that few businesses can ever hope to be. If you have your eye on a hot new piece of hardware, you can almost bet that some Linux developer somewhere has an eye on exactly the same thing.

As time goes on and more and more people run Linux, hardware issues become less of a problem.

Remember, though, that Windows isn't perfect either. Not every device works with every version of Windows and upgrading sometimes means leaving old hardware behind. Windows does not have perfect hardware support.


wiredog: I got my linux box (Fedora at the time, Ubuntu now) up on a 802.11g wireless network by buying an ethernet-wifi bridge. A bit pricey, but works with any distro, and cuts down on cables stretched across the floor.

Been subscribing to LJ since 98 or so, using Linux about as long (when did RedHat 4.2 come out? I remember the big stack of floppies...).

Marcel, what Wine do you and Francoise serve with Ubuntu?

Marcel Gagne: With Ubuntu, I would recommend a spicy and robust red such as one of the fine Barossa Valley Shiraz wines. If you take your seat, I'll send Francois down to the cellar immediately.


Washington, D.C.: I have been a Mac user for about 20 odd years now and when Mac came out with a FreeBSD core, I decided I'd give that a stab. I installed it on an old PC a friend gave to me (he bought a Mac) and after some fits and starts getting things to work, now use it as a backup machine for my Macs.

But now that I've gone through all that, I kind of wonder if I shouldn't have made that a LINUX machine instead of a Freebsd box. Are there any major advantages of LINUX vs. FreeBSD (I know this is flame war material for the slashdot crowd, but was wondering what are the real differences).

Peter van der Linden: For the vast majority of users, there are no visible differences between a FreeBSD kernel and a Linux kernel.

For most people, their computing experience is defined by the GUI and their apps.

Very sophisticated software professionals often have strongly-held preferences about one Unix flavor over another. But honestly, the biggest differences are in the licenses covering their use.

Carry on using FreeBSD with a clear conscience. Dabble in Linux for fun when you have some time and want to engage with it.

If you read slashdot with a filter that screens out posts scoring less than 4, it's actually a pretty good news aggregation site, in spite of the sometimes uneven editing/story sourcing. I usually check it out daily.



Wasilla, AK: My understanding is that updating programs or upgrading the operating system can be quite difficult in Linux.

Peter van der Linden: Yes, historically, Linux has been a "leading edge" technology that placed strong technical requirements on users.

In the last 4 or 5 years, that has changed radically. If you pick a Linux distribution (brand or "flavor") that specializes on the desktop, you will today find a very different, much improved situation.

One particular distribution is well in the lead in providing an excellent desktop experience for non-technical end users. This is the Linspire distribution, and I chose it as the example Linux in my book "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux" for this reason.

Also, for a new person to Linux, I would recommend acquiring Linux the same way you acquired Windows - buy a system which comes with Linux preinstalled. Many companies sell them, including Wal-Mart.



Sorrento Hills, Ca.: How critical is the use of open standards in file format compatibility?

Marcel Gagne: This ties in very well to what is happening in the state of Massachusetts where open document formats are now required. There's nothing more annoying than trying to open your own personal documents a few years later and discovering that you can't with the new software package you are using.

I believe that standards, more importantly open standards, are critical for the future of information exchange and archival. Consider that some older formats of proprietary "standards" are no longer readable by more modern versions of the same package. We should be alarmed (and frankly angry) that the data we own is no longer accessible because of some company's closed format. Do we really want to risk that critical archives . . . historical archives, are lost because we tied ourselves to a proprietary format. It's a frightening thought, or at least it should be.

It's a bit dated now, but check out "In the Beginning was the Command Line" by Neal Stephenson. Some interesting discussions on this topic.


Bolingbrook, Ill.: First, congrats to Peter on your new book on Linux and to Marcel for a second edition. Both are wonderful books. Now, my question: Do you feel there needs to be a change in the approach that the "elite" take in explaining Linux to the "newbies"? If so, what can we do better to have open arms as well as open source?

Marcel Gagne: Thank you for the congrats and for a great question.

I think it is vital that we start presenting Linux in as friendly a manner as possible. Linux gets a lot of underserved bad press for being too complex and difficult for the average person. This is, of course, nonsense. Linux is ready for the vast majority of computer users. We, as users (and in the case of Peter and I, as authors) need to get that message across.


Microsoft Linux: Any chance?

Can you imagine the reaction at /.?

Peter van der Linden: Oh yeah, some of the slashdotters would go nuts and run about in small circles waving their arms. Others would be developing a plan whose last steps are

3. ???

4. Profit!

The thing is though, that it is inevitable that Microsoft will eventually have to make some kind of accommodation with Linux. Whether it is porting some of their apps to Linux, or buying their own distro, or just ceasing the ridiculous "Linux is a cancer" FUD campaign.

Microsoft is an unregulated monopoly that has proven its willingness to break the law and exploit consumers over an extended period. All other monopolies are regulated in the US - the power company, the phone company, the water company, the gas company. But for historic reasons, Microsoft evaded that kind of regulation, and showed to the world why it is that we regulate super-monopolies.

The next chapter is still to unfold, but basically, Microsoft cannot abuse its market position to undercut Linux, the way it undercut Borland, Netscape, Sun, STAC, etc etc. Therefore an accommodation is the long term stable configuration.



Seattle, Wa.: Here at the UW in Seattle - which Linux distro works best with an AMD wireless b/g laptop and why?

Also, when will they port The Sims 2 to Linux - it's the only reason I have a WinXP OS in the first place ...

Will in Seattle

Peter van der Linden: Hi Will,

Different distros bundle different drivers, so the best approach here is to download the live CD from several distros, and try each to find one that works for you. It's a question of which drivers they bundle.

Pick the desktop distros to begin with - first Linspire, then the second tier like Ubuntu, Mepis, Knoppix, Xandros etc. There's a longer list at distrowatch.org.

There are a couple of other tricks to get wireless working - you can find out which chipset is in the wireless, and hence which driver to look for. You can try the ndiswrapper project to reuse the Windows .inf driver config file. I explain more about wifi troubleshooting in chapter 4 of my book.


I won't speculate about games ports to Linux! Suffice it to say that Linux is currently not a good choice of platform for those whose first priority is games (as you are aware).



Sydney, Australia: Marcel & Peter,

Where do you see Linux sitting in relation to Mac OS/X and do you think there is a possibility of both OS's being able to co-exist in today's marketplace against Windows ?

Do you envisage any synergy between them for the Open Source community ?


Marcel Gagne: Hey Jon,

I think Mac and Linux are already co-existing quite well, jokes about "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" aside. I find it amazing that people question the possibility that the world only has room for one OS. In pretty much every aspect of life, we have choices from a multitude of manufacturers and in the end, it's good for all of us. The world of the personal computer has been a little sick of late, but as long as Mac and Linux remain vibrant and continue to grow, there's hope.

Since much of the code is open source, there is shared development happening between the two. One project that comes immmediately to mind is Mac's Safari browser which was based on KDE's Konqueror. Code changes from both have flowed back into their respective products.


Julian, Ca.: I have tried various Linux distros and I can get them to install but once it is installed, I can never get my hardware working or figure how to install software! Why is it so darned difficult to install software with Linux?! Why can't they make it as easy as Windows where you just double-click on a file to install it?

Peter van der Linden: Julian -- what a frustratinbg experience for you. You probably just haven't found the right distro yet.

There are big differences between the distros in terms of install and use ease. A couple of weeks ago, just for fun, I installed Slackware. Only three hours later I had it running, but I would not recommend that to someone who just wants something that they can use immediately.

The distro that installs the fastest and easiest is Linspire - the current recordholder did a Linspire install in 4 mins 28 seconds! It takes me 15 minutes, and it will take you about the same amount of time, too.

Linspire also has a GREAT feature called Click N Run (CNR) that is a subscription service that lets you install new apps with one click of your mouse. I recommend you try linspire.com - and there's an active customer forum too.


Oceanside, Ca.: I have read "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux" and it really helped me to get started with Linux. Thank's for such an excellent book Peter!

Question: Do you feel that there will be any sort of 'consolidation' in the Linux field? Right now there are thousands and thousands of different versions of Linux to choose from and it is confusing to new users. Do you ever think we will get to a point where there will be a version of Linux that everyone knows about and understands?

Peter van der Linden: Well, thanks for the feedback. I wanted to write a book that would help people who are familiar with Windows, and let them engage with Linux easily and cheaply.

I think we are already seeing consolidation in the Linux world, and this will be an increasing trend. Lycoris just got folded in Mandriva (new name for Mandrake). SUSE was bought by Novell.

Many of the distros cooperate with each other - the Debian Common Core Alliance is one example. Ubuntu's wish to work in concert with Linspire is another.

Although distrowatch.org lists something like 428 distros, there are really only around one dozen top distros, and really only 1-3 contenders in each of the market segments: server distro (RedHat), desktop distro (Linspire), embedded distro. So it's coming together.



Los Angeles, Ca.: A friend of mine gave me a copy of Linux and I installed it. I have been pretty happy with it but I am having problems installing software programs. I found a cool program on www.sourceforge.net but, I can't get it to compile -- I keep getting error messages. Is there an easier way to install software with Linux? It is very frustrating to try to install software. Any suggestions?

Marcel Gagne: If you are running a modern Linux distribution, odds are you probably don't have to compile software. When people tell me they are downloading source, I generally ask them whether they've checked to see whether the package came with their distribution CDs. Vendors like SUSE, Mandriva, Xandros, and others provide simple interfaces to make software installation a breeze and most distributions come with hundreds, sometimes thousands of packages. Make it easy on yourself and use those tools. SUSE has YaST, Mandriva has the Mandrake Control Centre, Linspire has Click-N-Run, and so on.

Now, if you are trying to get some bleeding edge package or something that isn't particularly popular, you may have to go to source. In that case, check out http://www.marcelgagne.com/fivestep.html for some tips.


Wayne, NJ: For someone new to Linux who eventually wants to grow up to be a SysAdmin, what recomendations do you have for resources to learn Linux and can you recommend any print journals or online forums that would be useful for ongoing support and information?


Peter van der Linden: Excellent question. First of all, you want to pick a good book that introduces you to desktop Linux. My own text or Marcel's would be good (p.s. I like mine better). And they both come with a Live CD that lets you try Linux without installing anything - just boot from it.

Once you have the live CD thing down, you're already using Linux. Then start hanging out in the customer forums for the distro you chose. linspire.com has a VERY active customer forum, full of people exchanging ideas and helping each other - you might see me there occasionally (so say 'hi').

Then start going to the general Linux interest website:

http://slashdot.org for news

and reading the print and online magazines:

LinuxJournal, LinuxWorld, Tux, and others.

You can round yourself out with a level 1 or 2 certification from the Linux Professional Institute as a linuxc sys-admin - see http://lpi.org

I think you will have a great deal of fun following this, and you will gain a marketable skill as well.



Germantown, Md.: I know that laptops are always a strange duck as far as hardware configurations are concerned. Unfortunately, they are becoming more prevelant than desktops in new sales. Which distro usually has the best coverage in laptop hardware support?

Marcel Gagne: As you deal with modern Linux distributions, this becomes less and less of an issue. I have a Presario 2500 series notebook here with built-in wireless, Firewire, USB 2.0, diskette, DVD player, CD burner, etc. All of those things worked perfectly after installing Mandriva 2005 and SUSE 9.3 (and more recently OpenSUSE 10.0). The only issue I had (and SUSE took care of that) was that my wireless card couldn't 'scan'. I've been using notebooks as my desktop system for about six years now and I haven't felt as though I'm missing much (I've been using Linux as my desktop OS since 1996).


Pacific Beach, Ca.: With the Debian Common Core Alliance formation, will application creation become closer to standardized simplifying installation for the end user???

Peter van der Linden: When I was at the most recent LinuxWorld in San Francisco in August to launch my book "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux" (and what a nightmare our booth was - we were right next to a booth that had a fullsize rodeo mechanical bull - not just on display, but available for intrepid people to ride!!! - You try giving a talk on desktop Linux, when you're competing with a cowboy shill!) .... when I was there, I spent some time visiting with the Debian Common Core Alliance and understanding their aims and strategy.

It boils down to this - Linux has already conquered the server market, where its deployments are far higher quality and more robust than Windows. Linux OWNS the high end cluster space - Microsoft doesn't even have any products at all in that space.

The next soft target for Linux is business/administration desktops - and that's where you see the big wins really happening now, like the high school system in in the state of Illinois, like the cities of Munich, Paris, Vienna, and cities in New Zealand, like the state of Massachusetts. Like the desktop deployment internal to IBM and Cisco. Big technical companies understand the benefits of dropping expensive incompatible insecure Windows.

The DCCA is all about improving standardization (including meeting the Linux Standard Base standard) to give commercial businesses the confidence of a single vendor-neutral consistent platform.

Phew, long answer, but yes - DCCA basically aimed at commercial users, though home users benefit on its coattails too.



Guelph, Ontario: Hello

What do you think will be the next "Killer APP" to appear on the Linux Platform?


John, Guelph, Ontario

Peter van der Linden: Hi John,

It's very hard to predict what the killer app will be.

How about if I predict WHO it will come from: Google.

Google is really cleaning the clock of Microsoft right now. Microsoft is having trouble shipping old software, bereft of new ideas, and measures the slippage of its Windows flagship product in YEARS.

Google comes out with genuinely innovative fresh ideas on almost a weekly basis. The latest being the VOIP "cheap phone calls" initiative. And they have just turned on a beta version wireless network in the area around my home!

I just don't see killer ideas like that coming out of Redmond.


Bethesda, Md.: Can you explain in semi-layman's terms how RedHat and other vendors are able to place their own proprietary wrappers (installation and perhaps others) around Linux?

I just paid $1500 for RH Enterprise Edition on an 8-way server, at my sysadmin's request. I understand the rationale for such an expenditure on the basis of support, but am trying to understand the bigger picture.

(Conversely I run Fedora at home)

Marcel Gagne: The reason RedHat, SUSE, Mandriva, Ubuntu, and others can do this is that the source for Linux (and much of the associated components) is distributed under a license that allows the companies to freely modify and redistribute the software with their changes included. In the case of the GPL (the most famous of the open source licenses), they must also re-release those changes back to the community so that others can take advantage of the increased functionality.

This open source license allows anyone, not just businesses, to makes changes and redistribute Linux. For example, in my "Moving to Linux : Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye!", I included a modified version of the Knoppix Live CD (which I called "WFTL Knoppix"). I made changes to the distribution so that it would make a better companion to my book. The license allowed me to do that.

With RedHat's Enterprise edition, you are definitely paying for the peace of mind that comes with support and the certification that some companies (eg: Oracle, SAP) demand with the server OS. At home, this type of support isn't generally as critical.


Dutchie in Montreal, Canada: Peter, you just mentioned that you're not a big fan of Gnome (in e.g. Ubuntu). What desktop environment is your favorite and why? Can the different environments be classified somehow or do they all serve the exact same purpose and it's just the name that's different?

Peter van der Linden: Hi Dutchie, I probably put more emphasis into that than I intended. Gnome is a perfectly good desktop environment, and I am happy when I use it.

Gnome got its start when people were not happy with the licensing terms for KDE. Basically there was one TrollTech (not a joke, that's the company name) library that wasn't free under all circumstances. So people broke away to make a different window environment (same thing that was recently repeated with X.org in fact).

In the meantime, the KDE issue was fixed, and all libraries are now totally open source. But we are left with two loosely-compatible (at best) desktop environments. Competition is good - but using up scarce open source resources reinventing the wheel is bad.

For me, the bottom line is that ALL desktop environments - Windows, KDE, MacOS X, Gnome, CDE on Solaris - they all do the same thing. Providing I can get to my apps I am happy using any of them - it's mature technology these days.

When Microsoft's biggest invention of the last decade was the "clear desktop" menu entry, you know that desktop have essentially reached statis! There will be all kinds of cotton candy in Vista, but honestly, it will all be pointless tweaks.



Troy, Michigan: I recently purchased Redhat Linux for my Windows PC. What is the easiest way to install Linux so I have the option of booting my PC in Window XP or in Linux? Thanks.


Peter van der Linden: RedHat is more of a server distro, so possibly not the greatest choice for a dual-boot system that you will use as a desktop. I would encourage you to look at a distro that focuses on the desktop such as Linspire.

To create multi boot (I walk thru this in my book "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux" at length):

1. create a second partition on the disk of 4+ GB for Linux

2. boot from the Linux install CD, and do the install

3. At each subsequent boot, you will be prompted for the OS you want to boot in, Windows or Linux.

You must install Windows first, because Windows is poorly behaved and overwrites other OS's it finds on the disk, instead of co-existing with them.

Most people who install Linux manually choose a multi-boot system and you will be able to set it up too. Look at the customer forums of your chosen distro for more help.



washingtonpost.com: Thank you Marcel and Peter for joining us today for this discussion. Do you have any final thoughts or comments?

Marcel Gagne: Thank you for having me on the chat. I had a great time and I sincerely thank all the people who asked questions today. If I have to include a closing comment, it might be this. Don't be afraid to try desktop Linux. When it's all said and done, I honestly believe that it's a better product and a better solution for most desktops. And it's more fun than Windows [ insert appropriate smiley here ].

If you want more information, check out my Website at www.marcelgagne.com. Along with the information there, I also provide a free online Linux user group (look on the left hand side menu for WFTL-LUG) where you can ask questions and chat with other Linux users (newbie and experienced) from around the world.

Thanks again, and take care out there.

Peter van der Linden: It was a pleasure to take part in this lively exchange. many thanks to our host the Washington Post and all the forum members for their insightful questions.



Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive