Monday, September 28, 2009

Ubuntu Is Pretty Cool (My Linux Experiment)

I decided to install Ubuntu on an old laptop of mine this weekend and I feel, I have to say, more, well, resilient already. The intelligence implications are pretty interesting, too.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ubuntu, it is a Linux-based operating system (For those of you who are also unfamiliar with Linux, it is a catch-all term for a wide variety of operating systems based off a common, open source core. Linux-based operating systems are alternatives to operating systems offered by Microsoft (Windows) or Apple (Mac OS X). (For those of you unfamiliar with the term "operating system", you need to join the rest of us here in the 21st Century...)).

Now Linux is much loved by the technically proficient but not so much by the rest of us. As you can see in the pie chart, Linux has not quite captured a whopping one percent of the operating system market.

What makes it worse is that Linux has more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. Because the core of Linux (the so-called "kernel") is open source, anyone with the technical skill to do so can make a Linux variant (called a "distribution" in Linux-speak). So, the one percent? It is actually divided up among 50 or so different distributions and Ubuntu is just one of them.

Ubuntu is, however, one of the most popular and best supported of the Linux distributions. Because it is free and focuses on usability, it is often the first choice for newbies like me.

But why choose Linux at all? Here are my reasons (in no particular order):

  • I was curious. Trying out new tech widgets and gadgets is something I do for fun. I have been toying around with Linux for years now (using live CDs mostly) and had an opportunity to try it out so I decided, "What the heck?"
  • I had an old Windows XP laptop that was slow and required constant attention. One of the great things about almost any Linux distribution is that is small and efficient. It is often recommended as a good way to get some new life out of an older machine.
  • Ubuntu makes it easy. I picked the Ubuntu distribution because it was easy to figure out and install. The software takes you step by step through the process and even gives you the option to split your hard drive so you can have both Linux and Windows (or whatever) on the same machine.
  • I am not sacrificing much (if anything). As the title to this post suggests, Ubuntu is pretty cool. True, the user interface is a little different but, having oriented myself (and pretty quickly for an old guy, I am proud to say), it seems a little better than Windows. It does well all of the things my old Windows machine did poorly. I have faster web-browsing now through my trusty Firefox browser. Web apps (like Google Docs) are operating system agnostic and I have yet to run into a major plugin that is not also available for Linux distributions. Open Office (a free Office-like application) works very well with most of my Office files (and others). There are also tons of new productivity and gaming applications to explore as well, all with little (some would say no) risk of virus or malware infection.
Finally, and most interestingly, it makes me more resilient (Here is where the intelligence implications come in). Centralized networks attract attention. On the positive side (at least from the standpoint of those that control the network), the "rich get richer", meaning the most powerful node attracts other nodes to it. This is great if you have a product that dominates the market the way Microsoft does with Windows. On the other hand, it also attracts negative attention as well. One of the major reasons hackers go after Windows-based systems so much is because so many people use it.

Machiavelli first outlined the problems with centralized networks in The Prince (Don't believe me? See Chapter 4...). Good ones are difficult to take down but once taken down, they are easy to control because of the efficiencies inherent in the centralized system. Decentralized networks, on the other hand, are very difficult to take down but are also very difficult to control.

There ought to be (and, in fact, there is) an optimal balance between efficiency and robustness in any system. To me, a resilient system ought be closer to this optimal balance than not. I am not a Windows hater and will likely continue to use Windows. That said, I feel better knowing, understanding and owning a Linux-based system as well. A "black swan" event like a zero-day virus that wipes every Windows-based computer is pretty unlikely but if it does, I will still have a computer and (maybe) internet access (many servers run on some form of Linux already).

I am no cyber analyst and do not pretend to know the ins and outs of the subject matter. I am not the only person to note the problems with an over dependence on Windows, however. Fellow blogger, Jeff Carr, over at IntelFusion notes that Africa is in the midst of a "cyber pandemic" due primarily to an over-dependence on pirated versions of Windows.

In the end, understanding something about Linux, what it can and cannot do, seemed to make some sense -- an experiment in resiliency. As I proceed, my intent is to report here periodically about what I find. Your comments and questions about both the process and my findings are, as always, welcome.

Note: Two recent authors, John Robb and Joshua Cooper Ramo, have both written more extensively (and more eloquently) about this concept of resiliency for anyone interested.

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Welcome to the fold my friend. You made a really great choice of choosing Ubuntu to start your Linux journey with. You will find that using Linux is not so much as geeky as lots of people think, and you can always get all the support you need from the Ubuntu Forums. I also suggest you read this post on 5 easy steps to become an Ubuntu power user by Ghabuntu. Welcome to the world of Linux.

James said...

Another option for experimenting with Linux is to install the free VMWare Player software and download the appropriate files for Ubuntu or any other Linux flavors. This allows you to run the operating system from within Windows. This may be good for experimentation since it doesn't require you to fiddle around with partitioning and such, but it also requires a heartier system to run both of the operating systems.

ddade said...

I AM a Windows hater :) An even better option, in my opinion, is to install Linux as the host OS. Virtualization has been in the Linux kernel for a while now, and one can instead install Windows virtually, using not VMware, which is expensive, but rather the kvm program, which is most likely included in your Linux system already. This gives a few important benefits: 1) Linux systems upgrades are a non-event, so when the latest, greatest Linux is released, there's no cost associated with using it, and 2) the more reliable and secure OS runs on the actual hardware, 3) one's actual Windows installation will now reside in a big file on your Linux hard drive to be easily backed up, or even moved to and used on another computer altogether.

Administrator said...

Linux provides the flexibility to experiment and the stability to run a production machine. The one downside I see (personal preference) is the lack of Microsoft Office. I realize many dislike Microsoft products, but the truth is the Microsoft Office is the mainstream office productivity suite used in corporate environments and I have grown used to it. I also find Linux provides a much eaiser way to implement and configure multiple web sites as opposed to Microsoft IIS. If you want to try something different, try installing the server version of Ubuntu with only a command line interface and install webmin to control the server via a web browser from anywhere in the world!

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


Thanks for the suggestion but I know I am not ready for command line anything right now (the last time I did that I was working on an IBM 360 and struggling in my PL1 class...).

I do like Open Office though as a Linux replacement for Office. I have found good (but not perfect...) compatibility with most Office files.