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Linux Basics for the Non-technical Manager

As an employee, you may report to a manager who is not, shall we say, technically oriented. Or, you might be an executive that needs to explain IT decisions to a CFO who finds the intricacies and acronyms of the software world barely more relevant to their business goals than celestial mechanics. When it comes to Linux OS, if they know anything at all, such decision makers have probably heard that it is cool, free, scares Microsoft, and hackers made it. For those reasons, they are quite apt to go running for the exit at the mention of the word, Linux. This article is for such managers.

Let's look to some facts in light of those perceived Linux qualities. Cool? Yes, to folks that find "free" software and robust operating systems cool. Free? Not exactly. Scares Microsoft? It does and it should, but why should your CFO care or find that desirable? Made by hackers? Let's start there.

Linux is, indeed, the product of hackers, but these are not the hackers frequently portrayed in the media; pasty-faced geeks with personalities corroded by the glare of the cathode ray tube, who in their madness seek to commandeer our military computers and send nuclear tipped missiles toward Grand Luxembourg*. No, these are the hackers who, in the original spirit of of the computing community, have a passion for continuous improvement and a collaborative sort of competitiveness. These folks take pleasure in constantly poking at each others' code, ferreting out security and stability vulnerabilities, and extending the system's power and services. This is the spirit of a philosophy given definition by such programmers as Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond, among the best known of the Free Software visionaries.

Another such hacker, Linus Torvalds, created the kernel of Linux while hacking away long Finnish nights to create the basis of an OS to give away to the world. Today, perhaps half a million software writers are adding to the source code of Torvalds' Linux and its subsequent iterations. They're writing applications for it, as well. That's were the so-called free part comes in.

Linux is free in the sense that anyone who works on it has to make their own source code, complete with whatever extensions or improvements they've made, available at no charge to the rest of the Linux-hacking community. That's the licensing deal; you're free to sell your shrink-wrapped version of the OS, and several companies do, but you also have to give away the uncompiled source code from which it was created. This sort of arrangement is often called a copyleft, and along with the sturdiness of the software that such an arrangement can create, it is what the software community finds cool about Linux.

Along with the subtleties of the true nature of free software, the coolness factor is one often misunderstood by non-technical management. Lacking an understanding of what exactly is prompting such enthusiasm among the folks in the IT department, and "knowing" that Windows "is the industry standard", cool is equated with dangerous. Dangerous, like hackers. (Memo to IT professionals: keep your Linux enthusiasm bridled and emphasize the business case, should you be recommending the Linux for your organization.)

With that admonition in mind, let's take up the issue of Microsoft and its purported fear. Ask yourself why the non-technical manager should care. He wants to run a company and make a profit, not engage in a religious war. If the Department of Justice sees some logic in standardizing their computers on the Windows platform at the same time they're charging Microsoft with being an abusive monopoly, that's their business. All this person wants to know is, "can I trust my mission critical IT and MIS functions to Linux?" Well, Linux is a reliable, widely available OS based on decades of Unix development. Support for it is becoming widespread among IT professionals and such companies as Compaq, Dell, Sun, Silicon Graphics. and IBM are moving to ship and/or support it with their hardware products.

Still, as with most decisions regarding software, there is no pat answer, and the search for the right answer leads to many complex and mutually dependent potential choices. Further, there is often more than one good answer, and mixed environments of various server and desktop OSs are increasingly common. In the end, the non-technical manager finds himself in what is surely becoming a familiar situation, beset with an abundance of choice in an arena he barely understands and a need to make a decision based on the advice of his professional IT staff.

Sean McGlannahan, 1998

*It is worth noting that within the software community, a distinction is drawn between this sort of person, as Scientific American calls them, the "Black Hat" hacker, and the more benign "White Hat" variety. The former is generally referred to as a cracker, as in safe-cracker. This term is not widely used in the general media due to its meaning across much of America being synonymous with "white trash".

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