The lowdown on Linux

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Surf's up for Linux

What is it? Linux is an open-source operating system that runs on a wide variety of hardware platforms, available in a variety of commercial and free distributions. It is replacing Unix servers and workstations in the private sector, and has found a home in many scientific, engineering and academic applications within government.

How much does it cost? That depends on how much support you're looking for. Linux itself was developed under the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License, so the source code for each distribution is free, as are the executable binaries; you can generally install it without restriction. Some commercial distributions, however, come with proprietary software and services attached to them, as well as professional support'which you won't get for free.

Is it ready for the desktop? Linux is better for servers than for the desktop right now, but the wide availability of both commercial and open-source applications for office automation, software development and database management on Linux suit it for some desktop users. It can also be coupled with thin-client systems in kiosk and locked-down desktop environments.

Who's using it in government? The Energy Department and NASA are leading Linux users. Novell recently signed a contract to provide SUSE to the Homeland Security Department, and has users at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other research sites. Red Hat counts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the General Services Administration, DHS and the Defense Department among its customers.

Must-know info? Linux is an approved component of the Federal Enterprise Architecture, and the Office of Management and Budget has told federal CIOs to consider Linux and other open-source software on equal footing with proprietary commercial software. SUSE Enterprise Linux has earned a Common Criteria Evaluation Assurance Level of 4'the same as many commercial secure OSes. The National Security Agency has developed a 'Security Enhanced' Linux, called SELinux, which has been incorporated into several Linux distributions. So, generally speaking, Linux is as safe as anything else'and it doesn't have the widespread security issues that face Microsoft Windows installations.

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