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The Cost of Free Software

Who am I?
I live in the Portland, OR area and have a BA is CS from Western Oregon University. I am currently employed as a Network Quality Labs Tester at Intel Corporation. I am currently running Red Hat 7.2on Intel PIII / 533 with 384 MB RAM and a Vodoo3 3000 card. I am very much a dabbler. I have a test machine that I have set up for playing with operating systems. I?ve played with BeOS, Linux (manydistributions), PetrOS, MacOS, all the Windows platforms, Netware, and soon Darwin. Some of these have been on PowerPCs too. I don’t discriminate. I’m a cross platform kind of guy.

Currently, the only real players in the x86 game are Intel, and AMD. In terms of overall market share, AMD has always lagged behind Intel, unsurprisingly. Back in 1999, AMD had a winner on their hands, and slowly received much needed respect from the bigger companies through the successful (and more importantly, timely) arrival of their Athlon processor.

What is Free Software?When I refer to “Free” software, I am generally referring to Open Source and GPL licensed software. These are the kind that you can generally download and install without feeling guilty.

Why the big beef against free software?Well, as you can imagine, “playing” with all that stuff and getting it to run, can be a very time consuming and frustrating task. It is. Therein lays the rub with free software. It has taken me 6 years to get a stable and usable system. Why so long? Linux has a steep learning curve. You have to know a lot more about how Linux works and why things are the way they are, before you can effectively use it. Fortunately, I learned DOS very well when I was a kid. This helps immensely, especially if you are setting up a server vs. a workstation, since most configurations are in the .conf files or command line parameters.

Secondly, Linux is very notorious for not being able to support all types of hardware. I believe this is due to an engineering design decision and a pretty good one. Linux cannot run things like Win modems. That’s fine. However, if you do things backwards, like go out and buy the latest and greatest hardware; there is no guarantee that Linux will support it. However, no hardware company would still be in business if it didn’t run with a windows driver (Apple being the exception). As you can imagine, if I wanted to play a cool game that required hardware acceleration, Linux was usually out of the question.

This brings me back to time. I have played with many distributions of Linux. I started out with Slackware and then tried a few others. I would have to say, Corel was the easiest. I put the CD in a machine and 45 minutes later, had a nice working machine. Too bad it was my office PC and had to jump back into 2000. SuSe is also fairly easy to setup but I have settled on Red Hat. Mostly because Red Hat is widely supported and I prefer Gnome over KDE. I spend a lot of time on my computer figuring out where stuff installed and trying to configure it to work with my setup. Windows, on the other hand, takes a lot longer to setup but once it’s done, it’s very easy to change, add or remove hardware and software.

So, how much is your time worth? How much benefit are you going to get out of your investment into learning a new OS and compiling your own software? Looking back I would have to say that it was time well spent. I have breathed new life in to my computer by running Linux. It is not as hardware inefficient as Windows. I have also benefited tremendously at work. Everyday I install and configure many different operating systems to run our test scripts. Without the knowledge that I gained from doing this on my own, I would not have my job now. Installing software on the other hand, is a whole other story. That is still a huge pain. I don’t mind compiling my own software but making sure the environment is setup correctly and having all the kernel source headers? It is enough to drive a man insane. But luckily there is a support group.

Community/SupportThe Linux community is alive and well. Without it, Linux would not be growing nearly as fast as it is. As I have mentioned before, Linux is not easy. There needs to be people around to answer questions and keep the open source movement going. When you buy software, this support is usually included in the cost.

Security/UpdatesNow what about the cost of security? It seems like every week we hear about a new bug that has hit Outlook or IIS. To be fair to Microsoft, they are the focus of attack because they have the most market penetration. However, since they do, I feel it is their responsibility to keep users aware of security holes and have patches ready as soon as possible. As it stands, MS has chosen to take a non-disclosure stance when it comes to security issues and the patches are not complete. One needs to download 10 different patches to get a machine fixed… and none of that includes a firewall. How valuable is your data to you? Red Hat on the other hand, usually will be the first to let users know of potential dangers and have patches quite often. This leads me to…

Bleeding edge/experimentalLinux tends to be bleeding edge and experimental, which for me is half the appeal. This leads to a few issues. There are a handful of places that do Linux testing but for the most part, it’s compiling at your own risk. Microsoft has legions of people that test their software. That too, you pay for.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.