The Many Faces of Linux
Linux may have started out small, but it’s grown by leaps and bounds. Today, Linux can be found on everything from a home wireless router to the gigantic mainframe in the data center. Although the spirit of openness surrounds Linux, thanks in part to the GPL, distinct communities have sprung up to support the different environments, each with a slightly different take on what it means to be in the Linux community.
Desktop The most famous form of Linux, the type that used to get the press, has got to be Linux on the desktop. Supporters of the Linux desktop range from those who value the open source license above all else (the same type of Linux user who posts words like FREEDOM in ALL CAPS in online flame wars), to technically inclined people, to the simply curious. I’ve personally been following the Linux desktop “movement” since 1999, back when Linux Magazine was “Chronicling the Revolution”, a reference to Linux’s impending superiority over Windows as the operating system of choice for personal computers. Year after year, Linux has gotten better, but dominance on the desktop remains elusive. For many users, this is not a problem. They have their customized Debian desktop just the way they like it, thank you very much, and don’t need anyone’s approval for it. For others though, recent developments in the next category of Linux users has people asking, “Does Linux Need the Desktop?”
Mobile Mobile Linux has exploded in the past year, thanks to Google and their Android operating system. With Android, Linux is finally able to reach the casual user audience that was so difficult to reach on the desktop. Android is the top competitor to Apple’s iPhone, and possibly soon to be with the iPad as well. Android has done the one thing that was seemingly impossible on the desktop, surpass Microsoft on a consumer device. However, the freewheeling development of the desktop doesn’t perfectly equate to mobile devices. Carriers retain a lot of control over what you can and can not do to your phone, and even approved apps still need to play by Google’s (admittedly lax) rules.
Server It is here, in the datacenter, that the true domination of Linux is apparent. Before Android, there were really two main camps of Linux: servers and desktops. Many distributions support both, and some even have a different ISOs to download for the server. Linux can provide all of the services of Windows, all of the power of Unix, and the web hosting genius of the LAMP stack that has really pushed the platform forward. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that many of the latest revolutions of the web would not have been feasible, or at least more expensive, under Unix or Windows. As a sysadmin, I obviously fall squarely in this camp, and while I believe that Linux and open source software is the best choice for the data center, I continue to be skeptical of it’s performance on other platforms. That is, of course, with the notable exception of the next form of Linux.
Embedded I would be amiss not to mention Linux in firmware, and the several projects that exist to replace proprietary firmware with open source Linux versions. Years ago I updated my wireless router with the DD-WRT firmware, and had absolutely zero problems with it. Other projects, like Coreboot aim to replace the BIOS in PCs with open source systems that have more options. Linux has even made its way into devices that in no way resemble their desktop or server cousins. Linux is powering everything from televisions to cameras to GPS units, and even the popular Kindle from Amazon.
When talking about Linux, it helps to distinguish what kind of Linux you are referring to. The core Linux kernel is amazingly capable and flexible, and has made its way into as many devices as there are CPUs to power them. It’s important to take note that Linux on the server is a world of difference away from Linux on the desktop, in both purpose, use, and functionality.