Report on the DECUS Free Unix Seminar

This took place on Monday the 18th September in the luxurious surroundings of Digital's Birmingham Offices.

There were over 30 delegates form a wide variety of backgrounds and five speakers.

The introductory session was by Martin Houston, organiser of the Uk Unix User Group Linux SIG. The presentation was in the form of a series of Web pages that explained what Linux was, how to get it and what the repercussions are of having a truly Open System as a level playing field for the computer business.

This was followed by a session by Ian Nandrha of Lasermoon Ltd. on Commercial products for Linux. Although there are now millions of Linux users worldwide this is still an area in its infancy. The number of different variants of Linux and the lack of proper test software makes marketing commercial products for Linux an uphill struggle. However things are changing. Increasing convergence with Unix and the ability to run programs sold for SCO or Solaris systems gives the Linux user increasing choice. The biggest problem with commercialising Linux is high expectations that support can be done for costs as low as the software itself.

The most exciting part of the day was the presentation by Dave Rusling of Digital Equipment about the work being done to port Linux onto the super fast 64 bit Alpha processor. An operating system with full source code coupled with a clean architecture and serious number crunching ability should prove very attractive to many academics. A free operating system will also let Alpha based PCs compete in the Intel Pentium and P6 marketplace for people who want up to a BILLION instructions per second on their desk tops. Alpha Linux is aiming to be binary compatible with DECs own Unix based operating system so Alpha customers have a clear and attractive choice between open, self supported Linux and fully supported and controlled DEC Unix for different tasks.

DEC is co-operating with Lasermoon to produce easy to use distributions of Linux compiled for Alpha. An Alpha PC running Linux with X Windows was demonstrated but it will be a few months before speed demons will be able to order Alpha with Linux as an off the shelf solution.

An excellent buffet lunch was then enjoyed by all followed by an afternoon session that had a more technical rather than the visionary content of the morning.

Steven Tweedie of Edinburgh University gave a fascinating talk on "The Performance of the Linux Operating System". Steven emphasised that Linux is a modern system with much current thinking in its design. The operating system is also still quite small and compact when compared to other Unix systems. There are many big changes happening to Linux in the 1.3 release currently under development including a new way of organising Linux virtual memory called kswap that increases efficiency to the extent that just 8MB of physical memory is enough to run X Windows and the Linux version of the Netscape Web browser with very acceptable performance, the system as used by an Edinburgh Cyber-Cafe.

The often frightening prospect of having to install Linux on a PC was then covered by Colin Bruce of Coventry University who has installed Linux on the PCs of thousands of students. There are many ways to install Linux. By far the easiest and the preferred method at Coventry is to connect the PC to a network where Linux is available and install it by using a Linux boot floppy and Network File System. Linux is also available on CD ROM and a minimal system can be installed from floppy disks. The full installation process was demonstrated bringing a 4MB ram DOS PC up to a minimally configured Linux machine in about half an hour.

The last talk of the day was by Alan Cox, the author of much of the current Linux networking code on configuring Linux. The talk was a real eye opener as to how a Linux machine with its multi-protocol networking support can act as a common bridge between Unix, Apple Mac and Windows for Work groups setups. The latest versions of the Linux SAMBA Microsoft compatible protocol are even able to turn a Linux machine into a file-server for a Windows 95 network, long filenames and all!

A rich set of software emulators is also available for Linux ranging from the serious ability to run most of the software intended for SCO Unix such as the Oracle database, through a DOS emulator that can run many of the 32 bit DOS games through emulators for the Mac and even the Sinclair Spectrum and Nintendo Gameboy! The ability to run most Microsoft Windows programs (including Microsoft Word even) is rumored to be available soon.

Linux is not for everyone but the extreme flexibility means that in skilled hands it can solve problems that would be impossible, or at least very expensive to solve in any other way.

A very interesting time was had by all and it was heartening to what interest there is in Linux from the business community as well as the hobbiest/enthusiast following. The prospect of fully open Linux systems based on low cost Alpha PCs leaving the Pentium/P6 for dust is electrifying.