Unix-like Linux OS has garnered good reputation and fed fans
- By Bill Murray
- Sep 08, 1997
The Unix-like operating system Linux, developed by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds,
has found its way into many agencies, including four NASA centers. It will run on a PC
with as little as 4M of RAM.
Despite a lack of commercial applications, the freeware Linux has millions of users,
according to its proponents. Users can download it for free or buy a CD-ROM version with
maintenance, priced as low as $50.
Its noncommercial nature is a strength as well as a drawback. Developers and
distributors such as Caldera Inc. of Orem, Utah, and Red Hat Software Inc. of Research
Triangle Park, N.C., charge nominal prices for Linux packages, but they lack the marketing
muscle of a Microsoft Corp. or a Sun Microsystems Inc.
Users can run MS-DOS emulation under Linux, and Santa Cruz Operation Inc. Unix
emulation is built in. SunSoft Inc.'s Windows Application Binary Interface middleware runs
on top of Linux. The OS has been ported to Digital Equipment Corp.'s Alpha processor.
Dave Burchell, a network administrator at the National Park Service's Midwest
Archeological Center in Lincoln, Neb., has used Linux since 1996 to maintain a World Wide
Web site, browse the Internet and support his users. He runs Linux and Netscape
Communications Corp. Navigator 3.01 Gold on a 90-MHz Zeos International Pentium system
with 32M of RAM.
Burchell said Linux outperforms Microsoft Windows 95 at multitasking, which makes him
more productive. "I wanted to keep my Netscape browser and Telnet windows open to
display changes," he said. "But I found that when I hit a bad uniform resource
locator, the CPU time was going to the Web browser, and I couldn't do anything else."
When Navigator bogs down, Linux lets Burchell go to another window to work.
Philip Schaffner, an electronics engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton,
Va., said he has used Linux for more than two years to run radar simulation and modeling
software, as well as for writing to CD-ROMs and other work. "It's a cost-effective
platform," he said.
"The stability is as good as with Silicon Graphics Inc. and Sun, and the patches
and security fixes come along more quickly than with commercial vendors, because there are
so many system administrators running Linux," Schaffner said.
NASA's Goddard Space Center uses Linux 4.2 for its Beowulf supercomputer, which was
built from commodity hardware to run earth and space science applications.
Dan Ridge, a member of the Goddard technical staff in Greenbelt, Md., said he prefers
Linux to commercial OSes like Windows NT because his organization has access to the source
"If you're an investigator, such as a parallel computer coder, you can find out
what's going on," he said. "Commercial operating systems are opaque--you don't
know what's going on."
Ridge said the NASA Inspector General's Office uses Linux in the field as a packet
sniffer, to monitor networks and for forensic investigations such as analysis of disk
Jon "Maddog" Hall, senior leader of Digital's software group and executive
director of Linux International, a user organization, said NASA Johnson Space Center
engineers turn to Linux to monitor the control room before they come to work so they can
know the status when they arrive.
Hall said the Postal Service plans to use Linux for optical character recognition,
because the savings from buying 5,000 Linux licenses rather than commercial operating
system licenses will make up for any Linux customization they have to do.
Other Linux users are the Army Aviation and Missile Command, the National Weather
Service, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and
Technology and the Geological Survey.