Most computer users know one brand of operating systems – Windows. Apple's Mac OS X has emerged as a serviceable alternative, but the latest data from Netmarketshare shows that the world's top five operating systems are all Windows products. Windows may be the face of commercial desktop systems, but for many techies, it's either Linux or bust. Based on the kernel created by Linus Torvalds, Linux is probably the most versatile operating system in existence. You'll find it acting as a workhorse for high-volume web servers, and embedded inside devices such as smartphones, routers, and GPS systems. Since Linux is open-source, the source code of the Linux kernel is freely available for use, distribution, and modification. The modification aspect is important to note because it means organizations and individuals can create their own versions of the software, which has resulted in numerous independent versions or distributions (distros) of the software. Linux also works as a desktop operating system, but using it in this environment isn't necessarily a cake walk. Depending on the distro, getting everything up and running can be a chore. For instance, simple things like configuring your mouse may require you to edit a configuration file from a command line interface, program the buttons to function to your liking, and then set those actions to take effect during startup. This is stuff that generally takes minutes to complete on Windows and Mac OS X thanks to built-in utilities that prevent you from having to tamper with the core of the system. Despite its reputation for being a rather complex beast to tame, Linux has made great strides in the area of ease of use. In fact, Fedora, Ubuntu, and Linux Mint are among the variations considered ideal for everyday use. These distributions are recommended for a useful suite of native applications that support business tasks such as office productivity, email, and instant messaging. More importantly, they come with graphical user interfaces other versions lack, which makes everyday computing manageable on a level similar to Windows and Mac OS X. Choosing a Linux Distribution Excellent built-in security, superb performance on most hardware, and unrivaled reliability makes Linux the type of OS companies need to support their operations. But due to its mystique, there are some critical factors to keep in mind when choosing a Linux distribution for your business. Examine your needs. Different versions of Linux tend to be suited for different needs. As we've touched on, some are ideal for desktops, but others are a fit for servers, switches, and firewalls. If you're looking for a solid business-friendly distribution, it's hard to go wrong with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The biggest commercial distribution, Red Hat comes bundled with virtualization, plug-and-play functionality for peripherals, first-class technical support, and other features enterprises demand. Consider stability. For being such a reliable operating system, Linux can be pretty buggy. Some of these bugs are easy to fix. Others are not. If you don't have the IT expertise to handle all the quirks you may encounter, distros like Fedora, which has a reputation for being a frustrating ride right out of the box, are best avoided. Nothing's free. Technically, you don't have to pay anything for Linux. You can grab a distribution like Debian and go at it alone. In this case, however, your ability to get anywhere is going to hinge on your in-house IT staff. If your IT resources are limited, you could end up making a bigger investment than you bargained for in terms of fixing bugs, performing updates, and dealing with other technical challenges. The high level of maintenance Linux requires makes a compelling case for simply paying for a commercial version that comes with premium support. Think about the future. Just like Windows and Mac OS X, Linux receives updates on a regular basis. However, the update cycles are specific to individual distributions, and some see new releases more often than others. While the community generally considers a distro that receives fewer updates to be more stable, making sure you're always using an up to date version of Linux is vital. Once a distro is out of date, patches, security fixes, and other enhancements are no longer available. Then you're vulnerable! Community matters. Whereas Windows and Mac OS X are closed proprietary products, Linux is a community project built on the efforts of many. Individual companies like Red Hat and SUSE do their own thing, but it's fair to say that the community keeps Linux thriving as a whole. Made up of developers and users, this community acts as a support group that helps others through the aforementioned quirks and tricks of the trades. Every version of Linux has its own community, some more friendly than others, so choose one that offers the level of support your business needs. Is Linux ready for everyday use? Absolutely. You have your user-friendly desktop in distros like Ubuntu, and flavors like Oracle Linux that cater to enterprises. Find the right distribution, and you'll have an OS that delivers everything your business needs to flourish.
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