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List and Meta-List Ten Things I Like About Linux, and a List of Lists About Open Source

Originally published June 7, 2007

This spring seems to be the season of making lists about, against and for open source software. Some amuse, some inflame, some mystify; I list and link to them here, with my comments. And then I add my list of good reasons to use Linux (and open source software generally).

My List of Lists
These lists aren't actually all lists, and they don't all support my position on open source software – but they are all worth a look for the light they shed on the question of whether open source offers a viable model for usable software.

  • The list that started this whole train of thought in my mind is “The Five things You Aren't Allowed to Discuss About Linux,”  written by well-known (some might say “notorious”) Microsoft proxy, Rob Enderle. As near as I can interpret, Rob suggests that there is no such a thing as “Linux,” that it's not really secure because some of the people who use/work on/write about it use noms de net, that open source = communism, that open source advocacy in your company will cost you your job, and that open source isn't really open because people who criticize open source are, in turn, criticized.

    Perhaps most compelling about this list is the complete absence of any rational or logical discussion of the relative merits of open source software. After all, there are good reasons to use proprietary software (see my article, “Why Buy Proprietary Software?”). Unfortunately, Rob's list functions best as a showcase for rhetorical ploys like straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated accusation.

  • Far more to my liking was an entry on Dan Martin's blog “Things I can do in Linux that I can't do on Windows.” In this list, Dan includes specific examples of things that he actually cannot do on Windows, such as run Internet Explorer 5.0, 5.5, 6.0 and 7.0 on the same desktop (using software called IEs4Linux), or easily copying his entire desktop configuration (all stored in the Home directory) rather than dealing with endlessly complicated Registry databases.

  • Another open source enthusiast, Prakash Advani, offers a list of “101 reasons why Linux is better than Windows.” So far, Prakash's list only has 36 entries, and some may be a bit unsubstantiated (for example, #16 claims that the NSA has access to all Windows systems), but for the most part, they are sound. For example, Prakash points out that viruses are not a problem for Linux and that Linux systems don't need to be periodically defragged, rebooted or reinstalled.

  • William Hurley, Chief Architect of Open Source Strategy at BMC Software, Inc., wrote “Seven Reasons Microsoft Loves Open Source” in preparation for a panel he was scheduled to lead at a Microsoft conference, Mix07. William notes that Microsoft not only uses open source code in their own products (specifically, in their TCP/IP stack) as well as takes advantage of the endless press coverage on Microsoft vs. Linux, but Microsoft does more than that: from releasing some (not much – Microsoft’s Unix tools for Windows) to adopting aspects of the open source culture and supporting open source vendors such as MySQL, SugarCRM, Jboss and others.

    Not only does William lay out seven ways Microsoft benefits from open source, but he also gives his readers a platform for making suggestions about how Microsoft could do more to use open source to not only further their own corporate goals, but those of their users.

  • The Virtues of Monoculture” isn't really a list, but it could have been written up as a list if only the writer, James Turner, had taken the initiative to come up with an actual list. What he did was to write about his experiences as a mostly open source guy who signed up to work on a “Microsoft-centric” at his day job. His conclusion: sometimes the monoculture of a Microsoft-only shop provides freedom from having to make choices.

    “Microsoft offers the certainty of no choices,” he writes. It's true that while having many options offers the possibility of choosing the exactly correct solution to any given IT problem, at the same time, those options open the even greater possibility that you'll choose the wrong solution, or a solution that won't work with your environment. No wonder, as James suggests, that “IT managers and CIOs look at [the diversity of open source solutions] and call it chaos, confusion and uncertainty.”

You needn't Google very hard to find many, many more lists, but I think these are each exemplary – both in the sense of being “above average” and being good examples of their types – of the type of discussion of pros and cons of open source software.

However, I shall add my own list here, just because I think it best sums up the value that can be had from using open source software.

Top Ten Reasons to Use Open Source
The benefits to be had from open source software boil down to these ten things:

  1. Robustness: This is a matter of how software behaves when it is used in the real world, where software is installed on hardware with insufficient memory, where it is run on an over-burdened server, or where it encounters invalid data.
    Almost any software will work perfectly when it runs alone on a system with lots of resources and valid data. Many find Linux to be more resilient to the imperfections of the real world. Applications might crash, but those that crash don't bring the system down.

  2. Reliability: In practice, reliability has several different dimensions. If the system is up, will it remain up? Given the same data input, does the system produce the same output every time? Does the system perform as it is supposed to, and does the system do what I want it to? Reliable software won't cause unpredictable outages; however, it will produce consistent results and it will perform as expected.

  3. Efficiency: At the most basic level, efficiency relates to the amount of power needed to do work. Greater complexity in the software should not be the driving force behind frequent hardware upgrades, and open source software like Linux lets the user decide when it's time to upgrade hardware. Efficiency can be quantitatively measured, if not by a difference in the cost of electricity to run the computer, then by the lower costs associated with a longer usable hardware lifetime.

  4. Maintainability: Open source software offers advantages in terms of maintainability both in day to day operations and in long term maintenance of enterprise scale software. Linux software patches can be easily and automatically installed by both system administrators and users, and upgrades can easily be backed out when needed. Configurations, backups and data migrations are all made simpler when using open source software that adheres to open standard data formats.

    More important to the corporate software consumer, open source software makes it possible to choose a piece of software from one source and support from another source. Because the software source code is open, anyone with the expertise to do so can maintain the code even if the original developers are no longer available for any reason.

  5. No/low-cost: When Microsoft cut their deal last year with Novell, they signaled that they consider Linux a legitimate OS solution. Now that we can all view the OS as a commodity product, why use the more expensive one? In practice, individuals don't pay for Windows when they buy a new PC, since the already low-cost license is subsidized by third-party publishers who pay for inclusion in the standard OS pre-install. Microsoft's real cash flow comes from corporate sales, which is also true for Linux vendors. With Linux development going on across many thousands of groups, the cost of buying Linux can be channeled into providing support rather than R&D.

  6. Standards-based computing: Being based on open standards, from networking to data file formats to file systems and hardware platforms, Linux means you don't have to relearn system administration and development every time a new version comes out.

  7. Security: Linux is a more secure platform for computing than Windows. Despite an avalanche of hand-waving and corporate-sponsored research about OS vulnerabilities, those threats damage Linux far less than they damage Windows. Close readings of those studies usually reveal biases: does the survey report on perceptions of security, or actual numbers of successful attacks? Does the survey report on the number of vulnerabilities reported, without differentiating between critical and noncritical attacks? Does the survey differentiate between remote attacks and those that require direct physical access to the system? Does the survey differentiate between vulnerabilities in user applications bundled with Linux and those that can be considered an essential part of the OS? You get the idea.

  8. Openness: You could review the source code, even though most users don't. You could even change the source code, even though most users aren't able to. But being open means you can get support from wherever you choose, or wherever you can find it via Google. Or, you can hire someone to review the code or change it if you really needed it to do something that it doesn't already do.

  9. Usability: See the “standards-based computing” bullet. You don't have to relearn everything every time some vendor decides it's time to “upgrade” the UI. And I include configurability here, too, since you can configure just about everything, using one of at least two or more options for almost every bit of functionality under Linux.

  10. Portability: Windows runs on Intel/AMD PCs,  Mac OS X runs on Macs and Linux runs on everything from IBM mainframes to PDAs and cell phones. But Linux is also portable in the sense that you can easily store your entire system configuration on a USB memory stick along with a bootable version of Linux to run your desktop on almost any PC.

Did I forget anything? Or did I overstate the argument in favor of Linux? Let me know what you think.

  • Pete LoshinPete Loshin

    Pete is Founder of Internet-Standard.com, an open source and open standard computing consultancy providing technology assessment, needs analysis and transition planning services for organizations seeking alternatives to commercial software. Pete has written 20 books, including “TCP/IP Clearly Explained” 4th Edition, Morgan Kaufmann, 2003) and “IPv6 : Theory, Protocol, and Practice,” 2nd Edition (Morgan Kaufmann, 2004).

    Pete can be reached at pete@loshin.com or at 781. 859.9175.

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