The Caboteria / Tech Web / GnuLinuxForTecsChange (06 Jul 2006, TobyCabot)
(see also UbuntuInstallationNotes)

Non-profit organizations increasingly depend on computers to help with day-to-day activities. Computers are very useful devices, but they are expensive and don't usually work well, thus taking time away from the organization's principal goals. An organization like TecsChange can help other organizations by providing computers and especially technical support to allow them to focus on their core goals.

TecsChange has traditionally been a provider of "wintel" equipment and expertise, i.e. they specialize in Microsoft operating systems running on PC-compatible machines. This is a good choice because the hardware is reliable and inexpensive and the software is very commonly used in commercial environments. PC-compatible hardware has very few disadvantages relative to the alternatives, but Microsoft software brings several problems along with its benefits. The most important problem is cost: Microsoft products are expensive and getting more so. Another important problem, though, is control. Microsoft has increasingly tried through various mechanisms (technical and legal) to take control away from the users. For example, the license to use Microsoft operating systems has consistently become more rigid and intrusive as the operating systems became more expensive in terms of cost and hardware requirements. Microsoft's development and support of "Digital Rights Management" also indicate that their overall strategy is to become more closely involved in how people use their computers.

Until recently, there were very few alternatives to the Wintel duopoly, and in some areas there still aren't. Macintosh computers, while easy to use, are expensive and substantially less likely to be used in a business setting (thus less likely to be donated to TecsChange). Unix workstations are both more expensive and less common. On the hardware front, then, it appears is if the PC-compatible machine is still the best option, and likely will be for several years. Since high volume drives low prices, the only way I could imagine a better cost-benefit ratio from an alternative hardware platform would be video game consoles, but that won't happen for a while.

So our focus turns to software, and a search for alternatives to Windows that work well, cost less, and allow greater freedom of use. There are many, but the most obvious (and likely most viable) is GNU/Linux. GNU/Linux is Free Software; it is an operating system based on the Linux kernel and including tools and technologies from many other groups. It's developed by communities organized on the Internet, and has matured rapidly, especially in the last few years as corporations have begun to invest in it. IBM has committed to investing $1B in Linux annually.

The GNU/Linux operating system has two principal advantages over Windows: entry cost, and freedom of use. The entry cost is $0, so we don't need to go much further. The more important issue from the long term perspective is freedom of use. While Microsoft has been busy inventing "license management" and "digital rights management" technologies to take away their user's control, the GNU/Linux operating system is released under a license (known as the GPL) which guarantees 4 freedoms for all users (quoting from the GNU project web site):

Freedom 0 is the most important in this context, so I'll repeat it: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose. You will find no such freedom in the Microsoft shrinkwrap license; on the contrary the terms of their licenses (especially when backed by intrusive new laws such as the DMCA) have become more and more about taking power away from the users and giving it to Microsoft, who get to decide how their operating systems can be used, and for what purposes they cannot be used. For most business users this isn't a problem, because their goals (to make money) are roughly aligned with Microsoft's and they have the resources to buy the additional privileges that used to be free, but organizations that want to use computers for social change are at a greater disadvantage. They have less money and they are less likely to be using their computers for purposes that Microsoft agrees are appropriate. The faculty senate of SUNY Buffalo recently passed a resolution that enumerates many of the problems with lack of freedom of use of Microsoft software, and calls for increased use of Free and Open Source software at the uniiversity.

Given the cost and freedom benefits of Free Software in general, and GNU/Linux in particular, it would seem to be an obvious conclusion (at least in theory) to immediately dump all proprietary software and use only Free Software. While this is a laudable long-term goal it may not be feasible in the short term. The problem is that many organizations and people have invested tremendous quantities of time and effort to learn how to use proprietary software tools effectively, and these skills and techniques will need to be transitioned over to different Free Software tools, which will cost time and money. This is one key reason that GNU/Linux is often called unfit for desktop use.

There is another area, though, where GNU/Linux is immediately useful: for servers. Because users don't typically interact directly with servers, we can substitute different technologies without impacting the users. In cases where the user community has no servers then they have no investment in administration of proprietary servers, so there is no retraining cost at all. GNU/Linux interacts very well with Microsoft desktop computers on their own terms, so the combination of GNU/Linux servers with Microsoft desktops works very well.

GNU/Linux is weaker than Windows, even on servers, in one area: ease of installation. This is where TecsChange brings value as we will configure tens of systems and therefore bring expertise and experience to the process. We will deliver preconfigured systems to customers who can then simply use them, for whatever purposes they choose and for as long as they want to.

What services might be useful?

All of these services are well within the reach of a basic GNU/Linux system: Samba for file sharing, sendmail/qmail/postfix for email transport, CUPS for print management, etc. Many collaboration tools are available, too; often written in PHP.

GNU/Linux is provided by its authors in source code form, so most users get their software packaged in a form called a distribution. There are many different distributions (hundreds in fact), but the most common are Red Hat, Mandrake, and Debian. Red Hat is the most successful enterprise that specializes in Free Software. Mandrake is a distribution that took basic Red Hat and polished it for desktop use. Debian is a non-profit organization than maintains a distribution using volunteers organized in much the same way that Linux volunteers are organized.

My preference is for the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. It's not as polished during installation, but it's very stable and well-maintained, and the software and infrastructure for distributing Debian are second to none. The apt tool set is very highly regarded and is often cited as a model of how software distribution tools should work in the other distributions. For example, to update my system with the latest security patches only two commands are required:

$ apt-get update
$ apt-get upgrade

In addition to the practical benefits of using Debian come the intangible benefits that come from Debian being a non-profit organization. While Red Hat is financially in reasonable shape, Mandrake is in financial troubles and many other distributions vendors have gone out of business. Debian is less likely to suffer from financial problems since it doesn't depend on making a profit to stay in business.

So what's the next step? Using a new operating system is not a task to be taken lightly. We need to plan thoroughly - what software to use, how to configure it, how to support it, etc.

References

http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html - the GNU Free Software manifesto
http://www.linux-mag.com/2003-01/palladium_01.html - information on Microsoft's "Trusted Computing" efforts.
http://orange.math.buffalo.edu/csc/resolution2_april2003_approved.html - SUNY Buffalo faculty senate resolution in favor of Open Source software
http://www.debian.org/ - the Debian GNU/Linux distribution

-- TobyCabot - 13 Apr 2003

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Tech.GnuLinuxForTecsChange moved from Tech.GnuLinuxForNonProfitOrganizations on 13 Apr 2003 - 21:04 by TobyCabot - put it back
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