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Kim Johnson

Issue #11, March 1995

Kim provides insightful answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Linux Journal had double-duty in Washington, D.C. this December at Open Systems World—in addition to running a two-day “Linux Conference”, we also had a booth in the exhibit hall where we handed out magazines, sold books and distributions, and answered questions about Linux. This created a problem on Thursday, when both the Linux Conference and the booth were in operation. If all the gurus were speaking and sitting on panels, not to mention listening, who would answer questions about Linux at the LJ booth? Although the people who knew about Linux did stop by to help when they could, for most of the day the booth was staffed by Linda Lacy and myself, both relative Linux novices. I use Linux at home, but don’t play around with it, and Linda knows people who know Linux and is fairly computer literate, but we are both mainly Linuxers by association. As it turned out, that was enough.

Here are some of the questions most often asked at the booth. They are fairly basic. Some of them I knew the answers to simply by having been around Linux people, others could be answered by reading LJ, and still others have answers in the wealth of documentation written for Linux, if you just know where to look! I think these questions shed light on what the outside community has learned about Linux and what it still needs to learn.

“What is, um, Li…”

This is my favorite question to answer—“It’s pronounced LIH-NUCKS. There is a good explanation on page 4 of this Linux Journal….” If the questioner smiles and nods as though he needs more explanation, I go on to explain that it is a free Unix-like operating system that can be run on the 386, 486, and Pentium chips. (At this point, the questioner is usually not interested in the ports of Linux to the Alpha, PowerPC, or other platforms.) If the questioner is interested, he might ask the next question:

“What is it useful for?”

The answer to this question depends on whether the person asking knows much about Unix. If he is totally satisfied with Windows or DOS and the software for those platforms, feels no need to multitask, and never wants to network his computers or connect to the Internet, then it is possible that Linux would not be useful for him. On the other hand, if the person is interested in one or all of these things, and is interested in working a little to learn how to use his computer better, Linux could be for him.

In addition, Linux is useful because the source code is “free”, a quality not appreciated by everyone, but interesting to the people at the conference who had just stopped at the Free Software Foundation booth next door to ours. booth.

“Can I run Linux on my home computer?”

Yes, and many people (including myself) do. It really does look just like other Unix systems, and it really does run on as little as a 386-SX16 with 8 megs (or less) of RAM; I’ve seen it done. On larger computers it runs as fast or faster than the workstations one would see in business.

“Can I run DOS and Linux at the same time?”

In other words, “My wife and kids use Windows for word processing and games, but I’d like to be able to do some of my Unix work at home.” This is made very simple for the DOS users by LILO, the LInux boot LOader, so that when you turn on the computer, if you press shift or some other key of your choice after the “beep” sound, you can go right into DOS and use whatever you need. Plus, you may be able to convince the other members of your family to use Linux—they may even like it. A “DOS emulator” (called “dosemu”) is available that runs most versions of DOS and most DOS programs from within Linux, as well.

“Will I have to repartition my hard drive?”

I always answered this question “yes” and encouraged people to page through Matt Welsh’s Installation and Getting Started to get some idea of what actually installing Linux involves. However, there is a way of installing Linux “over” a DOS filesystem without repartitioning, but for maximum performance, repartitioning is recommended. All the distributions come with a program called “FIPS”, which can split a DOS partition into a DOS partition and a Linux partition without destroying the data on the DOS partition.

“What is a Linux distribution, and what is the best distribution?”

A Linux distribution is the Linux kernel, together with essential utilities and whatever the person or people putting it together thought would be useful. The main difference between distributions is in installation and in what comes along for the ride. There is no best distribution in itself—everything depends on what the person installing it is trying to do.

“Are you affiliated with the Linux Company?”

Well…. the fact that there is no “Linux Company” really disturbs some people and amazes others. This question shows how many people misunderstand the Linux development process and how people expect all products (except for maybe shareware) to be developed inside companies and then sold. The people who make up the Linux Community (as close to an all-inclusive organization as Linux has come) showcase the power of the Internet to bring people together to produce something useful and are the antithesis of the crackers who use the Internet for vandalism and destruction.

“Are there any applications for Linux?”

The answer to this is “sort of”. Most free software for Unix is available for Linux. In addition, many software companies are selling their products for use under Linux—for example, the advertisers in this magazine. Finally, Linux has SCO, SVR3, and SVR4 emulation, so it is possible to run SCO, SVR3, and SVR4 binaries under Linux.

“Is it really stable enough to use in a business situation?”

See the articles “The Roger Maris Cancer Center—Depending on Linux” (Issue 5, Sept. 1994), “Linux in Antarctica” (Issue 7, Nov. 1994), and “Virginia Power—Linux Hard at Work” (Issue 9, Jan. 1995) for real life examples of how people are using Linux. (These articles—and more—are available in The Linux Sampler published by SSC.) This is not to say that they grab the newest patches off the net as soon as they arrive and install them willy-nilly on their systems without testing, but that with ordinary caution (all systems are breakable, no matter what the operating system) Linux is viable.

“How many people actually use Linux?”

No one really knows, since no one is required to register their copies. However, the CD distributors are shipping approximately 30,000-40,000 copies a month, which does not include the people who download Linux from the Internet or who borrow their friend’s distribution. Some have estimated that around a million people currently use Linux; whatever the number is, it is growing every day.

And finally,

“My (computerese) won’t (more technical terms). What’s wrong?”

Answer: “Um, I think that I see one of the speakers from the Linux conference coming this way. I’m sure he’ll be able to answer your question.”

Kim Johnson is a graduate student in mathematics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her spare time keeping her husband from spending more money than they have on excess computer equipment.

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