Living without Windows!

by Jos Visser

Part 1: Prologue

Go back to the index

The real introduction

Imagine the following: a UNIX specialist with more than 10 years experience as a systems specialist, somebody who teaches in-depth UNIX courses, assists customers in setting up complex NFS/NIS configurations and who developes UNIX software in C and C++. Furthermore, imagine this person sitting at his laptop running Windows NT Workstation, using the Win32 edition of the Java Development Kit, editing documents with Microsoft Word and creating presentations with Microsoft Powerpoint.

What is wrong with this picture?

I think we can safely leave the answer as an exercise for you, the distinguished reader.

As I have been proclaiming for a lot of years, I truly believe that UNIX is vastly superior to Windows NT in almost every conceivable situation. There is just this little thing of over 8,000 Windows applications designed to fill the every need of a Windows user: general office applications but also games, tools, bookkeeping programs, databases, development tools, networking stuff and so forth. I like to think that for most (if not all) of these there are workable UNIX solutions that, when evaluated in combination with the powerful UNIX operating system lead to a higher quality solution. I have been in many a project where we encountered problems with Windows NT that we would not have come across had the customer chosen UNIX. However, if even one of the most ardent UNIX followers does not run UNIX for his day-to-day office work, how can we expect "ordinary" persons or organisations to do so.

Now, most of the stuff I do with my laptop are general office things: editing documents, creating presentations, writing course materials and so forth. In addition I develop the odd (Java) program and write some HTML. However, my environment is hardly static: I move (with my laptop) from my home to my office, to a customer and back home again. On any site I like to connect to the local network and use network services such as file servers, network printers and Internet proxies. In case a customer does not support "telnet" or POP/IMAP access to the Internet, I like to dial out to the office to read and send e-mail. To make matters worse, I have different user id's (and sometimes passwords) at all different locations. So as you can imagine, I constantly struggle with things like TCP/IP networking parameters, remote printer definitions, DHCP servers and different userid/password combinations. Obviously, a lot of flexibility is called for.

Being used to UNIX, I have always found my struggle with Windows NT very tiresome, never seeming to be able to do the things I wanted in the way that I wanted to do them. My general aversion against NT (which had been growing over time) was further fed by things like rebooting all the time, bad (or arguably, non-existing) scripting, sluggish performance, strange unexplainable quirks, enormous inflexibility and an impenetrable system configuration (the NT registry). All this lead to long-winded moans about Windows. I entertained scores of friends and customers with remarks like "It is not that it is badly implemented, it is conceptually wrong" and "UNIX is just like Lego, you can build everything. NT is just like Duplo, it looks nice but for all practical purposes it is useless".

I am however not your typical Windows hater. I know Windows (especially Windows NT) really well. I am a Microsoft Certified Professional (on NT) and I have taught courses on NT system administration, TCP/IP (as implemented in Windows NT) and Microsoft System Management Server. I developed software under Windows NT, implemented NT based Internet servers and I participated in a project where our goal was to replace over 40,000 Windows for Workgroups desktop computers and over 2,000 OS/2 servers with an NT based solution. I think I am better equiped then most to configure an NT workstation and to keep it running in complex situations. However, once you are accustomed to the relative simplicity and the powerful toolset of UNIX, it is very hard to image doing things any other way. Furthermore, even with my in-depth knowledge of NT, I regularly encounter situation in which I can only wonder what is going on, and how to solve them. When working with NT, I am always glad when, and if, it runs. When working with UNIX I have a completely different feeling: that it runs is obvious, but I am always childishly enthusiastic about the way in which I can tweak the system and make it run! As we constantly remind ourselves at our company: UNIX is Really Really Cool!

What kept me from dumping NT in favour of UNIX for quite a long time was Microsoft Office. For all its quirks and odd behaviour, it is really a very powerful and elegant Office suite and in my opinion it is great value for money. It contains zillions of features (most of which I do not know how to use) and, since most of the rest of the world runs it too, allows for easy exchange of information with customers and co-workers. I had promised myself that as soon as there would be a credible Microsoft Office alternative for UNIX, I would remove Windows NT from my laptop and replace it with UNIX.

Now at a project I am involved with at a large Dutch bank I started a massive, all out, UNIX evangelisation effort, converting the local bank folks to the True Belief. I organised a UNIX (HP-UX) course for them and in general leave no stone unturned to sing UNIX's praise. You can imagine my joy when I returned from a holiday to find that most of my room mates there had installed Linux on a free partition of their office desktop PC's! While working there a few weeks ago we were discussingUNIX topics and in the course of the discussion I was tempted to surf to the web site of ApplixWare. Guess what: an Office application for UNIX! From what I could see on the web site this looked Really Interesting. Maybe this was the office suite I had been dreaming about? Maybe now the time had come for me to switch to UNIX, and start Living without Windows!  Although I had known about ApplixWare for somewhat longer I had never looked at it quite seriously. Applix's web site contains enough information and the latest version (4.4.1) even promised to read and write Microsoft Office 97 files! This looked like what I needed! To make a long story short, I ordered ApplixWare for Linux ($99,=), installed it (on my desktop PC at home), tested it for an hour or so, and decided that this looked like a workable UNIX Office solution.

Time to convert!

Which UNIX?

Now, as UNIXes go, I am a BSD person. I have no real arguments for this, it is an emotional thing. I've used SunOS, installed early versions of NetBSD (on Sparc) and I very much like the general setup and atmosphere of BSD UNIXes. For Intel CPU based computers I am a great fan of FreeBSD, having used it at the office to build our main Internet server and having run it at home and on a small partition on my laptop. In general I think FreeBSD and other BSD derivates (like BSDI and OpenBSD) are well thought out, stable and consistent UNIX operating systems with a mature codebase.

Unfortunately, ApplixWare does not currently exist for FreeBSD. The web site at promised that they were working on it, but currently I could only buy ApplixWare for Linux (see ApplixWare for Linux, a bargain at $99,=). I had paid some attention to Linux a Long Time Ago (we're talking 0.9 kernels here) and on top of that a collegue and I have used Yggdrasil Linux (in 1994) to build an Internet server and gateway to be used in a series of Internet courses we ran for Hewlett-Packard. We ran into all kinds of problems and decided (in early 1995) to ditch Linux and go for FreeBSD instead. Although Linux made its entree again in our company in 1996, I have mainly stayed with FreeBSD. In my experience Linux is a much more messier operating system than FreeBSD. One can clearly see that it is (relatively) immature and its distributors sometimes seem to pay more attention to compiling and packing every open source or public domain software package in the known universe than they care for maturing and stabilizing the O.S. However, for this particalur project it seemed to make good sense to choose Linux: it ran ApplixWare, it offers more integration features with Windows environments and it is much better at making sense of my PCMCIA ethernet and modem cards. For environments that do not have these requirements (like an Internet server), I'd choose FreeBSD in an instant, but for now I thought it better to choose Linux.

Which Linux?

Choosing Linux immediately poses the next question: "Which distribution?" After I received ApplixWare for Linux I installed Red Hat Linux 5.1 on a free partition of my desktop tower at home in order to be able to check ApplixWare out. I knew Red Hat 5.2 was already released, but for this small test I did not care and ran the "old" version. Red Hat 5.1 installed flawlessly, and so did ApplixWare. The test documents I imported looked more or less OK and other ApplixWare features looked good. This looked promising! However, I did not have the time to convert just yet......

From November 18-20 I went to the SANE conference in Maastricht and I knew that I would receive a Red Hat Linux 5.2 distribution there as part of the conference materials (together with the proceedings and, amongst other things, a really nice yo-yo). I would wait until after the conference so that I could use RH Linux 5.2. By the way, Linux was strongly represented at SANE: Bob Young (CEO of Red Hat) gave a key note presentation, Ralf Flaxa (of Caldera) spoke about one Linux subject or another, SuSE had a stand at the vendor exhibition and there even was a BOF (Birds of a Feather) session on Linux standardisation.

My initial preference for Red Hat Linux was caused by its availability (the Dutch UNIX User Group NLUUG is a primary distributor of Red Hat Linux in the Netherlands) and the fact that we use it in our company for UNIX software development. Things turned out differently however. During the conference I had some discussions with the nice folks from SuSE, a European Linux distributor, based in Germany. They borrowed some equipment from us (in return we received a free SuSE Linux distribution which was immediately confiscated by a former student of mine: Fred Donck) and they donated three SuSE Linux boxes as prizes for the InSANE quiz (which I co-hosted  with industry phenomenon Rob Kolstad). I got to talk with them some more during conference breaks and at the conference social event (and a really nice event it was, staged in the caves of Geulhem). They looked like an amiable bunch who knew what they were doing, albeit perhaps somewhat young and inexperienced. I had heard very favourable reports of SuSE Linux and hey, Germany and the Netherlands are neighbours with a good standing long friendship, so I decided to go for SuSE Linux 5.3. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I did not feel like forking out a hundred guilders for a full SuSE Linux 5.3 box, but it seemed there was an alternative: SuSE was handing out free SuSE Linux 5.3 evaluation CD's at SuSE's stand at the SANE exhibition. Lenz Grimmer (from SuSE) convinced me that it was really a full blown Linux distribution, but obviously one which consisted of only 1 CD, so therefore contained fewer packages. In the knowledge that I could always download and install any extra packages I required, I decided to go for the SuSE Linux 5.3 Evaluation CD.

And then.....

I returned home from the conference on Saturday 21st, just in time for the annual arrival of Sinterklaas in my home town of Zeewolde. We (my wife and I, our daugther Merel and Deirdre, a friend of Merel) went out to welcome Sinterklaas, who arrived with a rather luxurious motor yacht while his helpers messed about with a smallish sailing boat.

After the end of the ceremony we went home.

The show could begin! Now would be the time to start Living Without Windows!

Last change: 23rd November 1998 by Jos Visser