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GNU/Linux Reliability and Security


Every computer user has seen the infamous "blue screen of death" when a Windows computer crashes. Most people think it's just a part of life -- that computers crash often and viruses riddle all computers.

We've got news: it doesn't have to be that way.

A side effect of GNU/Linux's radical new development process is that it has been and continues to be a very stable and secure system, whether it is used as a desktop PC or as a workhorse server computer. This is largely due to the fact that the computer source code (the actual code that the programmer writes before compiling the code into the program we use) is open for all to see and inspect.

Consider this analogy. Let's say we're going to build a skyscraper to replace the World Trade Center. Two teams of architects are working on the skyscraper's design.

One team of architects says, "We've used some of the best professionals in the world to design this building. To keep terrorists from knowing how to best attack the building we have kept the design plans secret so they won't know where to attack. Trust us, this building is rock solid."

However, the other team of architects takes a different approach, saying, "We've had an open design process for this building, and we've used some of the best professionals in the world to design it. We have publicly posted our design plans and have asked for input from college professors, students, researchers, hobbyist architects, other professionals, along with anyone else who wants to give us input as to the design's strengths and weaknesses. We consider this building to be rock solid, trust us."

Which building design would you favor? This analogy is very close to the closed design process Microsoft and other commercial software companies use, and the open GPL-based design process free software like GNU/Linux uses.

Right now, GNU/Linux has hundreds of thousands of people all over the world using it and examining the system for bugs and problems. Linux is used in advanced college classes worldwide to teach students computer programming and other concepts. Companies like Microsoft cannot dream of employing this many programmers to work on their programs -- there is a huge advantage to writing software in an open, cooperative, public manner.

GNU/Linux programmers have learned that the more eyes you have looking for bugs and security problems, the higher the odds are that you'll find those problems!

But there are many reasons for GNU/Linux's legendary stability, reliability, and security. Since engineers and researchers are critical in the Linux design process, an emphasis is put on doing the job right. Linux development is a collaborative process of professional programmers from companies like IBM, Red Hat, and Hewlett-Packard to college students/professors to hobbyists. This decentralized, cooperative design means there are no marketing people or accountants pressuring programmers to get the program out the door. There is no pressure to release new versions just to force users to upgrade in order to generate more revenue.

GNU/Linux is also based on a modular design which contributes to its stability. This design means a "problem" in one part of the system tends to be isolated from other parts of the system. For example, with GNU/Linux the Graphical User Interface (GUI; the desktop part of the system you use with your mouse) is separated from the core operating system. So let's say you're printing a long file and you're also playing solitaire. If the GNU/Linux GUI system crashes your solitaire game also crashes -- but your print job will just keep printing along with no problems.

The emphasis on solid design also means that computer viruses don't flourish in GNU/Linux systems! Some people will claim that the reason there aren't more Linux viruses is because there aren't as many Linux systems as there are Windows systems. While that's true, it is not true of vulnerable Internet server computers. GNU/Linux powers about 1/3 of all Internet web servers, more than Microsoft Windows (which has about a 1/4 marketshare). Yet the smaller number of Windows systems are constantly crashed by viruses, worms, and other security problems. The biggest reason for these problems is simple: bad design and bad engineering.

Security issues are critical in modern computing. Bad design and bad engineering make it very difficult to write good software. But as Microsoft's vice president of Windows development, Brian Valentine, bluntly stated, "Our products just aren't engineered for security." This is the reason the German Ministry of Defense has stopped using Windows. The Chinese government is moving to GNU/Linux systems for similar security reasons. Here at home, the US Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is a dedicated user of open-source code and free software, again, primarily for security reasons. When your company's networks are connected to the worldwide Internet -- and all the potential threats that implies -- doesn't your business deserve the same protection as a Ministry of Defense or our own Dept. of Defense?

A key indication of stability is the "uptime" of computers -- how long computers typically run before they are rebooted. The independent Netcraft company collects and sells data on the uptimes of Internet-based computers. Based on this data, not only do GNU/Linux computers have longer uptimes than Windows or Macintosh machines, but some GNU/Linux servers have run for years (literally!) without having to be rebooted.

This reliability and security makes GNU/Linux a common-sense choice for server-based computers which perform mission-critical functions. But why not enjoy that stability and security for your desktop computer too? Why waste your money on anti-virus software or have your employees wasting time looking at "blue screens of death" when they could be working?