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The Choices We Make

This is a reconstruction of a post from my first blog,, with text pulled from The Wayback Machine

Posted by Steven, 3/13/00 at 4:46:49 AM.

What a great weekend. The whole family had fun on Lego build night Friday, with lots of models built (and pizza eaten). And we finished The 10th Kingdom, which we had been taping. Saturday morning we all went to Karate, then in the afternoon James visited a retirement home and did some crafts with the residents (a church youthgroup project) while I spent a few hours at the library, finishing up my OS article. James and I stayed up way too late, playing StarCraft. After church on Sunday we just relaxed, playing basketball and some more computer games, reading, then watching Fox Family Channel’s movie The Legend of St. Patrick (somewhat lame but passable entertainment). And of course, The X-Files.

Anyway, I’ve been promising to talk about Operating Systems for a while now, so…

The Choices We Make
I’ve got a friend, Tom, who works for our favorite Redmond-based software company. I happen to be doing some work with Linux these days (who isn’t, other than the Microsofties?) and of course tossed some pro-Linux words his way. We were talking about a particular client where he wanted some assistance installing Windows NT and various applications. Nah, I said, let’s just pick up a copy of Red Hat Linux and toss that on instead.

Well, no world wars erupted but we had some fun jousting about the various merits of both NT and Linux. This piece was born of that discussion and the way it made me think further about operating systems and the choices that we all have, whether we know it or not.

I’m platform-agnostic
Sure, I’m working a bunch with Linux these days – who isn’t? That doesn’t mean that I’m anti-NT, or even truly anti-Microsoft (though I am anti-monopolistic, which some might take to be anti-MS. Tom, of course, disagrees, but that’s an entirely different article). I use and support (or have supported at one time) Windows 98, Windows NT 3.x and 4.x, Windows 2000, Office 2000, IIS, Flight Simulator, InterDev, MS SQL Server, Visual Basic, Internet Explorer and many other tools shipped with the Microsoft logo on their box.

Some of them I even enjoy using, though not the HTML they create.

I also enjoy using Linux. And Macintosh. And OpenVMS. And Perl. And Netscape Communicator, when it doesn’t crash. And I’m getting into something called Frontier.

At one point in the past, I was fond of saying “I’ve never met a computer that I didn’t like.” Since then, I’ve worked with an MVS system and don’t say that any longer. Sorry, Bob.

I do enjoy poking fun with people who claim that there is only one true answer to all situations. I poke at the “Linux everywhere” people too. And the pure-Macintosh lovers. And the “OpenVMS is the only system anyone needs” folks. And the “nothing but Solaris” people. Sorry, Mike.

Yes, I realize that one must at least pretend to have loyalty to “he who provides the paycheck.” It’s tough to tell a customer or client “no, you really don’t need the product that I sell, you need my competitor’s product.” Honesty is the best policy, though, even if it means sometimes loosing a sale. If your clients know that you truly have their best interests at heart, they’ll come back.

What I do enjoy doing is helping people find the correct solution for their needs. Often this shows a requirement for a little thing called interoperability. The days of running your business on one mainframe and a few dozen terminals, all from the same vendor, are long gone. This shouldn’t be news to you.

For quite a while I was in a true multi-vendor support organization. One of the things that I loved about it was the fact that we could talk about and sell whichever fit the customer’s situation best, be it NT, Windows, Macintosh, OS/2, Unix, OpenVMS, or microwave ovens. Ok, maybe not the ovens. But all the rest were ok – just like we said they should be back when we were learning about this stuff in school. Pick your applications, and then base the rest of your decisions on that choice.

Desktop Apps
The number one rule in choosing a platform must be this: look at your application requirements first.

For many of you thinking about your desktop system, this will mean that you’ll be tempted to use the Microsoft Office suite – that’s what your co-workers use, that’s what your partners use. You feel you need to share files with them, and you’re right about that last part. But sharing files with Office users, though, doesn’t mean that you’re tied into one choice for your operating system.

If you want to use “the standard” but still have a little rebel in you, Apple still has a viable alternative to offer. Microsoft Office continues to be one of the best selling titles for the OS for “the rest of us” – the Macintosh.

For those with even more adventure in their heart, Applixware, Star Office, and others provide file-level compatibility with your co-workers while opening your OS choices up even further.

Most every major word processor and spreadsheet vendor knows that MS Office is number one in the marketplace and most make darn sure their products can work in a Microsoft-centric world. It doesn’t matter if your platform of choice is Windows, Macintosh, or Linux, the main tools will likely share files without problem.

The major consideration, then, is the remainder of your tools. Does your office have a requirement to use a particular package in order to do business with the head office, your vendors, and your partners? If so, your platform choice has probably been made. I say probably because there are often options. That’s the topic of yet another article – application sharing.

Who’s at Home?
So, to return to the point, what OS do I recommend to my friends or family? Well, for home use, I still have to say Windows 98 Second Edition or Macintosh, whichever you prefer. Often this is determined by what mom and dad use at work or what the kids use at school.

I don’t see many reasons at all to look into Windows NT. If you are a little adventurous and have a system with enough horsepower, Windows 2000 Professional might be an option; it’s a little more stable than Win98.

Why not Linux? If you’re ready for an adventure, dive right in. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t pick up a copy and see what all the fun’s about. Most bookstores have dozens of books, many of which have a CD in the back with a reasonable distribution.

What I would recommend first, though, is to look at the requirements of the rest of your family. Does your husband or wife also want to share in the adventure? Can you (and they) get by without their data for a few days while you get the system and applications installed and configured? And what about the kids – it’s pretty likely that you’re not going to get Age of Empires or StarCraft to run on a Linux system.

Fear not. Linux is very happy co-existing with other operating systems, including Windows. Make sure you’ve got some spare disk space, document which disks have what data on them, and find the section in your book of choice that discusses LILO, the multi-boot loader. It is possible to have your cake and eat it too.

At The Office
For office “desktop” use the decision, as it should for everything, is really determined by the software that the end users will be using. Start with a good read through the section above on home use, and then throw away the part about the kids’ games.

In most offices, you as an individual are likely to have less of a choice of Operating System than many of us would like. Corporate politics, support policies of the company’s IT department, and specialized applications all tend to force your hand. Remember, your boss most likely wants you spending your time on the company’s business rather than learning a new computer system.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t use your off-hours exploration of “non-standard” software. If your office uses Windows or NT, challenge yourself to see how much of your required duties you can duplicate on your home Linux or Macintosh system. Use that as a way to expand your capabilities, to stretch yourself. You’ll also be able to speak up on a more authoritative basis when someone says “why don’t we…” and are told that it won’t work. “Sure it will, I’ve already done it” opens people’s eyes more than “I saw something about that in a magazine.”

Serve Me Well
“Server, to many, means either “File Server” or “Web Server” though there are actually many other uses of the word in our industry.

Where’s That File?
File serving is still easiest using the tools native to the systems used by your users.

If your office has standardized on Microsoft Windows, an NT server is the obvious choice. Not so obvious, perhaps, but still a viable candidate is the Samba server running on a Linux system. Why? Microsoft Networking is built on the SMB specification, something that is fairly easily built into other products. Sun Microsystems, Digital Equipment (now Compaq), and Hewlett-Packard, all have also used this technique to allow Windows users access to their minicomputer-housed data.

Likewise, a Macintosh office probably prefers to use a Macintosh file server. Again, there are other choices. Windows NT has an option to include the Apple Filing Protocol on it’s server, and a similar AFP server may be available for your other non-Mac systems.

Web, Web, Who’s Got The Web?
For web server use, choices can be even more open, thanks to standards. The Internet is built on standards – without them the Internet could not have been built much less grow into what we know today. Why does this mean that you have more choices? Because every vendor knows what the standards are and that their products need to meet them to work on the net. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a Linux system running the Apache web server or a Windows NT system running IIS or a Macintosh running Frontier, the people in your office and around the world can use the same web browser to view your data.

Consider the source of your content – the data that you’ll be putting on your web documents.

Does your data come from a corporate database residing on a minicomputer somewhere deep in the bowels of the corporate IT department? If so, you need to make sure that you have an easily automated method of getting to that data. Many may love graphical interfaces these days, but a pretty face is often more difficult to automate. Consider the use of Perl or other scripting technology for automation.

Are you putting together a server for your non-technical writers to publish documents? Think about how they’re going to put that data on the server, and how much are you going to teach them about HTML? Perhaps something like Frontier would be better for them, allowing them to type freely without worrying about the details of HTML tags.

Do you have a community of users who want to build fancy web pages, full of graphics, counters, and sound? Check out FrontPage and a server with the FrontPage extensions installed. Be aware that you may be unleashing some non-standard HTML on the world, but as long as your users are all using Microsoft’s web browser they’ll never know the difference. Just double-check any documents that you’ll be publishing outside your company. Customers who happen to be using other browsers and can’t read your pages properly will likely not remain your customers for long.

It’s All About Choices
So, why did I give Tom such a hard time and tell him he should be installing Linux on some of his customers’ computers? Was it because I think that Linux would have been better on the desktops for the particular users in question? No, not in that case. It was mainly to remind him, as hopefully I’ve reminded you here, that there are other choices. No single operating system, hardware vendor, nor application can be pointed to and proclaimed “best” without considering all the factors. This is not a Borg collective; this is the Internet.

(C)Copyright 2000, Steven Vore. Please contact me for information on redistribution.

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