Ubuntu Linux : a Fast, FREE, & Secure O.S.
Ubuntu : Why this Modern Linux Distribution Beats Windows Hands Down
An introduction to Ubuntu & Free Open Source Software
Ubuntu Linux is maintained and distributed by a European based company called Canonical Ltd. Originally founded in 2004 by Mark Shuttleworth of South Africa, Canonical adheres firmly to Mark's personal vision and love of free open source software (FOSS) and has the overarching mission of delivering a very high quality operating system to everyone for absolutely no cost. As of late 2009, Ubuntu is estimated to hold between 40% and 50% of the Linux desktop market share - an impressive feat considering there are currently hundreds of Linux distributions available including the long running and well known ones such as RedHat, Fedora, and Suse.
One of the first questions that newcomers to the world of FOSS ask is "If it if FREE then how do they make money?" or "Well, if it is FREE how can it possibly be as good as [insert expensive commercial alternative]?" Perhaps the answer to those questions would best be addressed by an article dedicated specifically to the subject, but the short answer is that unlike commercial software which is driven by a desire to increase the bottom line (financial gain), free open source software is driven more by passion.
In fact, this difference generally gives FOSS an advantage over commercial software for several reasons. First, commercial software is developed by a very limited and controlled group of employees working under the constraints of time and financial limitations of the developer. Remember, at the end of the day they need to make a profit. Because of this, commercial software is often (arguably always) rushed to market and riddled with shortcoming and inherent flaws. Open source software. on the other hand, is developed by a huge (usually world-wide) community of programmers and is continually subject to peer review and improvement. It is this very simple difference which tends to push FOSS programs toward a constant state of improvement and which fosters a goal of functionality instead one of profitability. Where a commercial software application may be financially limited to x number of man hours to "complete" it, FOSS applications have no such constraint.
But, what about the money? Isn't Canonical a commercial entity which needs a stream of revenue to operate? Certainly, but rather than generating revenue from the software itself Canonical generates revenue through selling technical support, training, and engineering services to companies and even governments around the globe. The beauty of FOSS though is that even if Canonical would cease to exist the Ubuntu project would almost certainly continue through community development. It is, in a sense, a self sustaining system!
Ubuntu Linux -vs- Windows : What Exactly is the Difference?
I suppose that before delving into the many differences between Windows and Ubuntu it is probably a good idea to start with the similarities. While it seems blatantly obvious to those with a bit of computer savvy, I am constantly amazed at how many people seem to think that Windows is the computer. With that said, it seems that announcing the fact that Windows and Ubuntu are both complete and independent operating systems - the core software upon which the rest of your programs run. Ubuntu is, essentially, a replacement for Windows. Yes, believe it or not, there is a choice!
Like Windows, Ubuntu has all the things one would expect to find on their computer. Things like: a "desktop", a menu (actually several of them!) full of programs, a bar where things go when "minimized", a "recycle bin", folders, etc... In fact, it even has the Internet and email! (I am often amazed when people think MSN is the Internet and that Microsoft invented it!) Ubuntu has a graphical user interface (GUI) and, despite what a few misguided people think, is not merely a textual interface where you are presented with a command prompt.
In fact, Ubuntu allows you to do all of the things which you have come to associate a computer with. I am certain that I personally do far more with a computer than the average user and I have, as of yet, not found anything which I am unable to accomplish on my Ubuntu machines. You can, for example:
- Create and save documents and other files
- Browse the web and send email
- Save, view, and edit photographs & videos
- Listen to your favorite music
- Watch a movie
- Play a game
- Burn a CD or DVD
- Create a slideshow, a spreadsheet, or even a web page
- Share files, folders and printers on a network
That is pretty much where the similarities stop though and it is the differences which make Ubuntu the hands down winner. Perhaps the biggest difference between Windows and Ubuntu (or any Linux distribution for that matter) is the underlying assumptions upon which the two different systems are built. In fact, I am confident that it is this fundamental difference which is really the heart of all the benefits of Ubuntu over Windows. So, what are the underlying assumptions which account for the fundamental differences?
The Windows Assumption
When Microsoft first set out to develop the Windows operating system they made a decision to focus on ease of use for the personal computer user at home and do away with much of the security which was built into the operating systems used previously. (Yes, its true, Microsoft did not invent the computer!) This early mistake has carried through all of the various forms of Windows and remains the core assumption today. The assumption is, simply put, that whomever is using the computer must be the owner of it and should be allowed to do whatever they wish.
While this may appear to be a good thing on the surface, we all want to be in control of our stuff after all, once you understand the implications of this assumption it gets to look more like a very bad idea very rapidly. Not only does Windows assume that the user of the machine is the owner of it, but it carries this a step further and assumes that since the owner is using the computer any process or program running on it must have been initiated by the owner. The end result of this is that processes and programs are allowed to execute and even install without explicit permission. It is precisely this mistaken assumption which makes Windows so vulnerable to viruses and so easy to compromise.
Another result of this assumption is that Windows opens all (or at least most) incoming and outgoing ports by default and when connected to a network or the Internet all but screams to the world "here I am, come on over and have a look!" Windows, in effect, almost begs to be probed and accessed by the outside world. It is like leaving your doors and windows unlocked and posting a sign in the front yard telling everyone (thieves included) that they are open.
The Linux Assumption
Linux, on the other hand, is born from a Unix background based on the client-server model where multiple workstations were connected to a central server and a user was merely a user and NOT the owner or administrator of the entire system. Because of this assumption which is founded on maintaining security and preventing disaster, installing applications and other tasks which make changes to the system require root (owner) privileges.
What this means is that viruses and other malicious programs are effectively rendered harmless. Although there are not really any viruses written to run on Linux, even if there were they would be unable to install themselves and, even if installed, would not have system wide access they enjoy in Windows making any real damage next to impossible. Sure, this means you have to use an administrative password now and then in Linux, but it seems a very small price to pay to stay virus free and be much more secure. Also, keeping with the whole system security theme, Linux keeps ports closed by default resulting in a Linux machine being virtually invisible to the outside world.
File Systems, Fragmentation, & Such
Another big difference between Windows and Linux comes from the type of file system used and the basic structure of how the system operates and keeps track of files. Unlike Windows, which uses such things as DLL files and a registry to deal with a file system run rampant (FAT & NTFS both write files in a noncontiguous manner all over the disk), Linux uses an EXT file system which never needs defragmenting and keeps things orderly all by itself. The end result of this difference is that Linux does not continually get slower due to fragmentation of files, invalid DLL files and invalid system registry entries. With Windows, the longer you use it the slower it gets. With Linux this is simply not true.
Free Today & Free Tomorrow
Ubuntu is free. It is free as in speech and it is free as in beer. What this means is that you are absolutely free to download, install, share, and even modify it if need be as much as you want - forever. There is no licensing fee and no limitations on what you can do with it. To make the whole free thing even sweeter, the software you run on Linux is also free. There are quite literally thousands of applications which you can install and run on Ubuntu for free. With Windows almost everything requires paying yet another licensing fee. Not so with Linux. Need an application to perform specific function? Just open up the Synaptic package Manager or the Ubuntu Software Center, choose from thousands of applications, download and install instantly for free.
On a related note, a very nice feature of Ubuntu is that everything is completely customizable. You can easily change the look and feel of the whole system to suit your own preferences and style. With Windows it is pretty much true that if you have seen one system you have seen them all (sure you can change the desktop wallpaper & screensaver, but that is about all!), but with Ubuntu you can change anything and everything including: style and color of window borders, fonts used in various places, icons, 3D effects, how you access files and programs, and much much more. Your computer can truly be your computer while still maintaining the basic system such that anyone familiar with Linux can easily and quickly use it.
Acquiring & Installing Ubuntu
Ubuntu releases a new version every 6 months with a major long term support (LTS) edition coming out every 2 years in April. Ubuntu version numbers consist of two numbers separated by a period (such as 9.10 or 10.04) where the first number indicates the year and the second number indicates the month of the release. Each release is also given a code-name during the development cycle which is usually used by many to refer to it even after release. For example, 8.04 was called Hardy Heron and 9.10 was called Karmic Koala. As of the writing of this article, the next LTS version to be released will be 10.04 (code-named Lucid Lynx) which will be available for download on April 30, 2010. To download the latest version of Ubuntu simply go to the Ubuntu Download Page where you can download the CD image directly from Canonical or via a torrent file. Alternately, you can request to have a FREE CD mailed to you!
Having either downloaded and burned your copy of Ubuntu to a disc or ordered a pre-made CD, it is time to install your new operating system on the PC. This is a pretty straight forward process and the installer walks you through it pretty clearly. The main things that you should know are that there are several installation options: (1) you can install it alongside Windows or another operating system as a dual boot, (2) you can install it as the sole operating system on the PC, or (3) you can use the WUBI installer to install it inside of windows as if it were any other program. Another interesting feature is that the Ubuntu CD is actually bootable. This means that you can run the operating system straight from the CD without installing it. Running from CD is mainly used for checking it out (a test) or for repairing a computer. In fact, I often use a live bootable Ubuntu CD to repair Windows computers or recover files from otherwise unbootable machines! The WUBI installer, inside of Windows, is not really recommended, at least not by me, as it is both slower than a real install and pretty much negates the benefits of using Linux anyway. Like the live CD, it is really just to let new users get the hang of it.
When I am installing Ubuntu I use a few more advanced options to partition the hard drive and make the system both faster and easier to upgrade later. I create a separate /home partition where all of the users files and settings are stored separately from the system files. If you happen to be in the Billings, MT area I offer a very affordable installation and configuration service for Ubuntu Linux.
Well, now that you have Ubuntu installed it is time for the good part. Actually using your new operating system and enjoying not only the peace of mind which comes from not having to worry about computer viruses, but also having a fast computer which just works and does not continually lock up or crash for no apparent reason. In no time at all you will be completely at home with Linux and I guarantee you will ask yourself how you ever managed to use Windows for so long!
Getting Support for Ubuntu
Unlike trying to get support for Windows, getting support for Ubuntu is fast, easy, and often even enjoyable! Not only does Canonical maintain a complete help section on their site with full documentation and answers to many questions, but there is a HUGE network of Ubuntu geeks, hobbiests, and even programmers who hang out at the Ubuntu Forums eager to help you get going or solve a problem.
Looking for personal assistance with Ubuntu? Well, if you are in the Billings area feel free to give me a call or drop me an email to schedule an appointment!