The alternative OS conundrum

Some people say that if your VCR still blinks 12:00 then Linux isn’t for you.

But if you’re seeking an operating system that offers greater security and stability than Windows, Linux or another OS may be the solution for which you’re pining.

Before one hurls rocks at Windows, however, it must be admitted that it isn’t the mass OS by default. It’s easy to use, accessible, versatile, and it usually offers up new software ahead of the rest of the pack, because developers recognize its status. And Windows boasts unparalleled support for its hardware.

“No operating system made by anybody in the past, present or future will do everything for everybody,” said Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president of software systems for International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. “They all do a number of things very well, and a number of things badly. It is a fallacy to think one OS can do everything that you need.”

The downside of using Windows is one of conformity: it is designed to be all things to all people. Ergo, many features will never be used and it is more susceptible to bugs. Kusnetzky said most organizations run a number of operating systems in a variety of areas, as all boast their own set of strengths and weaknesses.

“Microsoft has some products that fulfill many requirements for many people but not all things for all people,” he continued. “For example, if you need a flexible, super-fast operating environment run on small commodity computers, you’ll likely need Linux, FreeBSD or NetBSD, as Windows 2000 is probably too big.”

The buzz word is Linux

Linux is a Unix-like, kernel-based, fully memory-protected OS, originally developed by Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki in Finland in 1991.

It is a robust, powerful, compact, free OS that offers multitasking and incredibly fast TCP/IP networking, and it runs on a variety of hardware. The continuing development of this dynamic OS is a communal effort: countless developers worldwide contribute to Linux, adding new features and fixing bugs.

There are also software companies such as Red Hat, Caldera and Ottawa-based Corel Corp. that have developed their own flavour of Linux for those users who prefer the added security of dealing with a recognized entity. Corel’s rendition of the OS is considered the best for beginners to explore, in addition to being a sound multi-user OS which allows for access from any machine.

“The stability of Linux is an important feature that may not be paramount to the casual user…for business it’s a no-brainer when one considers the stability and cost,” said Derek J. Burney, Corel’s chief technology officer. “Linux is an IS department’s dream: it’s easier to manage and it’s more secure than Windows. Multiple users can login but only you, as a specific user of a machine, can access data specific to you. As a user, you can’t go to the systems’ directory and render the OS useless.”

Since the Linux source code has been freely available to developers for years, it has been debugged. Thus, the kernel has become extremely stable and features such as protected memory and true multitasking ensure that if an error occurs it won’t crash the entire system.

To date, over 280,000 users have downloaded Corel’s free Linux offering via

“With all the people around the world working on Linux, it’ll be a winner (over other Unix-based operating systems) by virtue of mindshare alone,” Burney said, adding that Corel’s Linux is not difficult to learn. “Linux wasn’t easy to use…the main difference (with Corel Linux) is the ease of use and the interoperability. We recognized no one would be throwing out Windows over night, which is why ours is designed to be completely compatible with Windows.”

And thanks to an open source plug-in dubbed Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator) – a Windows compatibility layer that provides both a development tool kit for porting Windows sources to Unix and a program loader – most Windows applications can run on Linux. Wine also works on popular Unix variants, such as FreeBSD and Solaris.

“Linux and BSD compete but are also cousins in another sense as they both support Web infrastructure,” Kusnetzky said. “Web caching, firewalls, Web-based software, these are the types of things that run well on Linux or BSD, while databases run well on Unix.”

Concerns have arisen over the state of symmetric multi-processing for Linux. Currently, Linux can only support up to eight processors at one time. Burney said work is being done on this at the kernel level and he expects improvements in the next version.

Meanwhile, Michael Silver, a research director with the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., said Macintosh, not Linux, is the only substitute to Windows.

“As an alternative desktop environment to Windows, Macintosh is your best choice,” he said. “Linux is interesting but look at its strengths: it’s more accepted on the server network than the desktop. We haven’t seen a huge uptake in alternative operating systems.”

The elegance of BeOS 5

BeOS 5 is the veritable Donovan Bailey (circa 1996) of the operating environment.

It’s lean, mean and equipped with powerful features such as a 64-bit file system and multithreading capabilities, making it one of the speediest OS offerings available, replete with an elegant GUI. Plus, according to Menlo Park, Calif.-based Be Inc., BeOS 5 is significantly easier to install and begin using than any flavour of Linux currently available.

But Kusnetzky wonders where this terrific OS fits in.

“BeOS is a wonderful OS, it’s small, fast and it is absolutely wonderful for graphic designers. The trouble is, they have no market to speak of. Few companies write everything for themselves anymore; people walk right past their booth at conventions simply because they’re not writing their own applications.”

BeOS was initially intended for Macintosh users but Apple backed out of purchasing the company in 1996. Be then shifted its focus to developing an OS for Intel-based PCs as a new foundation for the next generation of digital content and media design tools. BeOS made its debut in July 1997, with Release 5 going public in March 2000.

BeOS defends data with a memory protection system that ensures safety by allocating exclusive memory areas to each application. When one application crashes, it won’t take down any others.

Frank Boosman, Be’s vice-president of marketing communications, said users shouldn’t necessarily see BeOS 5 as an alternative to Windows.

“The two can live quite happily together,” he said. “BeOS 5 Personal Edition can be installed within one’s Windows partition of a hard drive and launched just like any Windows application – the difference being that BeOS completely takes over the computer when it is active. BeOS 5 Pro Edition can be installed into a separate partition of one’s hard drive for maximum performance.”

The BeOS 5 Personal Edition – one million copies have been downloaded since its release on March 28 – is for Intel-based PCs and adds more support for USB and IEEE 1394 (FireWire) peripherals, along with improvements to the user interface and audio support. The Professional Edition can be installed on both PowerPC and Intel-based machines and can handle larger amounts of memory. Along with expanded support for multimedia formats, the Pro Edition comes with 26 applications.

“It’s important to remember that BeOS is not built on layers and layers of previous operating systems. BeOS was designed and built from scratch specifically for high levels of performance on modern personal computers,” Boosman explained. “We enable the highest possible performance from the PC you already own.”

FreeBSD: Let the exorcism begin

Inside your computer is a daemon waiting to be set free. FreeBSD 3.2 is the key to unleash the beast.

FreeBSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) evolved from the efforts of students at the University of California at Berkeley who wanted to strengthen Unix. Originally, an OS dubbed Net2 was developed as the base for the modern BSD code, but due to legal wrangling over how Net2 differed from Unix, Berkeley released 4.4BSD and washed its hands of the whole affair.

Net2 had taken off, however, and it morphed into what is known as FreeBSD.

FreeBSD 3.2 is an all-in-one Unix server which includes total access to its code. Thus, developers can rewrite any part of the OS, even commercially.

This OS will run on a 386SX with 5MB of RAM, yet it can also take advantage of advances such as multiple processors while faster than Windows 98. Like BeOS 5, FreeBSD has better memory protection than Windows, according to proponents.

“If you were an average person looking for an OS on your desktop I’d tell you to stick with Windows,” admitted Jordan Hubbard, a software engineer and the de facto leader of the FreeBSD movement since its inception in 1992. “The average user wants their OS preinstalled. If you were seeking a platform on which to run your business I’d suggest FreeBSD to you hands down…it’s more efficient; the BSD platform was built for network platforms from day one.”

Unlike NetBSD, which is a platform developed by academics that are less interested in its user base, and OpenBSD – which focuses primarily on security and which was born from the aftermath of a bitter feud amongst those aforementioned academics – FreeBSD was built to appeal to the masses.

“You get maximum bang for your buck with FreeBSD,” Hubbard said. “We consider what users want. The end result is there is about three million users of FreeBSD and about 150,000 users of NetBSD.”

FreeBSD offers users advanced networking, performance, security and compatibility features such as bounce buffering – a means to get around a limitation in the PC’s ISA architecture that limits direct-memory access to the first 16MB.

Hubbard described FreeBSD developers as custodians of the BSD code and reiterated the benefits of running the OS far outweigh those offered in Windows 2000. “Windows won’t scale as well and it uses too many resources to do what FreeBSD can do,” he said. “Plus [FreeBSD] has benefited from their (NetBSD/ OpenBSD) work to some extent…we’re not inferior on a security front but it certainly helps to have a bunch of academics thinking about nothing but security.”

FreeBSD also appears to be the rebellious, raucous troublemaker of the OS class, and users tend to be of the colourful variety themselves. On the FreeBSD Web site’s FAQ page one user inquired about the physical temperature of running the OS compared to running Linux. The FreeBSD brain trust responded: “We have done numerous taste tests on blindfolded volunteers who have also had 250 micrograms of LSD-25 administered beforehand. About 35 per cent of the volunteers said that FreeBSD tasted sort of orange, whereas Linux tasted like purple haze. Neither group mentioned any particular variances in temperature that we can remember. We eventually had to throw the results of this survey out entirely anyway when we found that too many volunteers were wandering out of the room during the tests, thus skewing the results. I think most of the volunteers are at Apple now, working on their new scratch and sniff GUI.”

Amiga: Plotting a return

As a company, Amiga Inc. – based in Snoqualmie, Wash. – has come perilously close to flat lining more than once, but like a Duracell battery they keep going.

History doesn’t faze Bill McEwen, president and CEO of Amiga Inc. McEwen, a former truck driver who bought the company’s remaining assets in December 1999, said Amiga is forging a comeback with the June release of the Amiga Software Developers Kit. For long-suffering Amiga users, McEwen is either a Godsend or another hollow promise. McEwen intends to be the former.

“The Amiga OS 3.5 is targeted for the existing Amiga community,” he said. “I believe that once we have delivered on the promises that we have made, the current user community will be very pleased.”

Amiga OS 3.5 is the company’s current upgrade and the last upgrade planned for the Classic Amiga line of computers. McEwen said Amiga’s next series of products, which includes a new OS, is completely software based and will be available on numerous platforms and computer systems.

“Amiga is a true multimedia operating system from the ground up,” McEwen said. “The entire OS is under 3MB, Windows is over 640MB. Speed and efficiency is [Amiga’s] key and strength.”

McEwen added the Amiga OS 3.5 is versatile enough to run on Web appliances, cell phones and PDAs in addition to desktop systems. Boasting an updated interface, enhanced file system, easy Internet connectivity, improvements to the shell and scripting language and a myriad of smaller enhancements, OS 3.5 provides a smooth transition between Classic and future Amigas.

According to IDC’s Kusnetzky, both Amiga and BeOS have marketshare issues. “It was important to media content creators but now their hardware is out of date. Those adherents to it absolutely love it…it’s a religion more so than an OS for those people. But unless it has applications that suit an organization’s needs no one wants it.”

Amiga OS 3.5 is capable of being self-hosted or it can sit on top of other operating systems. A single application can run on X86, Power PC, M.core, ARM, StrongArm, MIPs, SH3/4, and others. In a hosted environment the new Amiga runs on Linux, Windows 95,98/NT/CE, OS/9 and QNX4.

McEwen said OS 3.5 performs smoothly alongside Linux. “We enhance the Linux offering by providing a multimedia, gaming digital environment for Linux developers,” he said. “The new Amiga provides great 2D/3D visual, sound, Java and other features.”

Aaron Digulla, a software developer with Sowatec AG in Schweiz, Germany, and co-founder of the Amiga Research OS (AROS) user’s group, said despite Amiga Inc.’s unstable past its OS is superior in its simplicity.

“Windows is very big and complicated and therefore it is easy for a user or a developer to make mistakes,” Digulla reasoned.

Although AROS and Sowatec AG are not affiliated with Amiga Inc., Digulla admitted he’s working on a portable version of the Amiga OS that will run on PCs.

“Amiga’s hardware is very slow and expensive and there aren’t very many killer applications left,” he said. “All hopes go to the new machine Amiga Inc. is currently developing.”

Gartner’s Silver reiterated that he believes Windows to be the best OS for an enterprise at this stage in time.

“With all non-Windows platforms, (a shortage of) applications is the biggest inhibitor,” he said. “You want an OS that has a good five to 10 year tra