Friday, January 25, 2008

Choice in Computing

An old article I wrote for a computer magazine. Not quite sure if it ever saw the light of day before, but I found it in my Sent box.

Choice is a consequence of freedom, and though many will claim that this
is one of the liberties they aspire to, the reality is that it can be a very terrifying thing. Choice implies commitment and responsibility; in the face of this, some people really prefer the comfort of tyranny or of a monopoly.

Please bear with me as I open on this slightly philosophical bent. It's not meant as a statement on these turbulent times (though one could take it as such), but as a reflection of the choices made possible by free and open source software.

Linux is a prime example. Linux itself refers to the kernel, the heart of the operating system. It takes care of scheduling tasks, managing memory, communicating with devices, and handling input and output.

Of itself, the Linux kernel is not immediately usable to end users like you and me. That's why it has to be made part of a distribution, a collection of the Linux kernel, the GNU tools, utilities, and other applications. Most people's experience with Linux takes place through a distribution. Among the more popular ones would be Ubuntu, Mandriva, Red Hat, SuSE, Fedora Core, CentOS, Debian, and Slackware.

One would think that having seven to ten variants of Linux was confusing enough. But that figure really hardly scratches the surface. lists 498 distributions of various persuasions, and this list is not even complete. Some distros are for servers, some are for desktops, some are
for routers, and some are for PDAs. Some have been assembled for to meet specific needs, some have been put together just for kicks.

Too many distros? Indeed, that seems to be the case. It's this sheer number that daunts some people from making the switch to Linux; after all, a controlled environment where most choices are made for you seems so much safer. One columnist in a business daily even went so far as to suggest that for Linux to succeed against Windows on the desktop, it should unify
into one single distribution.

While all that sounds good in theory, the follow-up questions are a little hard to answer: which one single distribution will that be? what features should it have? what applications should be included? I would be careful, too, as to how I answer this question because some people can get
very passionate about their favorite distribution.

Really, it's not so much a matter of Linux overthrowing Windows on the desktop or anywhere else. It's more a matter of adapting the tool -- in this case, Linux -- to one's needs. For that reason, it's hard to envision a one tool or a one configuration that fits all. And really,
that's the beauty of Linux and open source in general: it's highly adaptable and customizable.

This is not to say that it's all-out anarchy in the world of Linux. Industry initiatives like the Free Standards Group, a nonprofit organization, are accelerating the use of free and open source software by developing and promoting standards. Projects of the FSG include the Linux
Standard Base (LSB), and OpenI18N, the internationalization initiative. The group aims to have common behavioral specifications, tools and binary interfaces across Linux platforms, but not at the expense of sacrificing its flexibility.

In practical terms, though, how does one approach the problem of selecting a distribution? Here are some steps:

* Choose according to your needs. As with any IT-related decision, the choice should be driven by the application. Do you need the operating system for your desktop applications? Choose a general-purpose distribution like Ubuntu, OpenSuSE, Mandriva, Fedora Core, or Red Hat. Do
you need the operating system to run a commercial enterprise database? Discuss with your vendors and consultants which distributions are officially supported by their hardware and software.

* Choose according to your acceptable support requirements. Can you live with best-effort community support? Maybe so, if you're a home user or a hobbyist or a DIY person, in which case, you'll want to look at community distros like Fedora Core, CentOS, Slackware, or Debian. Or do you require guaranteed technical support with levels of escalation all the way up to the developer? If you're a commercial entity running critical systems, you'll want to consider Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise.

* Choose according to your community of support. Are you in close contact with people who use Fedora Core? Or perhaps you have friends who are very much into Ubuntu or Mandriva. Perhaps that's the distribution you should start with, until you become more confident to try out others. It only makes sense because these are most likely your first level of support.

* Choose the most popular distributions. If the first three criteria fail you, you can visit The web site tracks the most popular distributions on the Internet. While it's not very scientific (and the maintainers admit as much) it does give you some idea as to what people are using.

* Ask. Visit the Philippine Linux Users' Group web site at and sign up for the mailing list. Most likely you can find someone in your area who can help you with these decisions, whether for free or for a fee.

* Try it out yourself. The proof of the pudding, as the old saying goes, is in the eating. Many popular distributions are available as a free download and will install on typical PC configurations. Take it out for a spin to see what you like and what you don't like.

Choice, indeed, can be a frightful thing, especially when you're in the dark. But if you take time to understand and seek out help, it need not be paralyzing. Instead, it can be liberating.

1 comment:

  1. funny how i saw myself on the first paragraph of an article for a computer magazine.
    you put it down for me real well. i chose not to make a choice because making it would mean brokenness and humility. so i have shackled myself to the "comfort of tyranny..."..not exactly the picture of a free woman as i've regarded myself to be.
    btw, i used to work for GP Rehab, Dgte City.