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A Story of Conversion

Novell Cool Solutions: Feature
By Scott M. Morris

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Posted: 14 Dec 2004

Several years ago, I was in my home office, programming on my computer. As I was working, I happened to glance over at my hub. The lights were blinking like crazy. I thought, "That's interesting.... I'm not downloading or uploading anything." I ran a monitoring program or two. After a few seconds and a few checks, it hit me: Someone had breached my machine. They had installed a small server of some kind. They were using it to transfer data to and from my computer. What were they doing on my machine? Were they using it to send spam? Were they giving me viruses? Were they stealing personal information? Though I was able to yank the connection, remove the server, and verify that I had no viruses, that experience got my attention.

It was shortly thereafter that I set out on a mission. I wanted to know how to protect my computer from such attacks. I learned all about adware, spyware, trojans, viruses, script kiddies, and crackers. I installed software to use as a firewall. I ran software that would scan my computer for viruses, spyware, and adware. After the software was installed, I made sure to do my daily updates.

After about a week of such obsessive-compulsive behavior, a hard-hitting realization came into my life: My current operating system would have to go. There is no end to the list of viruses, exploits, and other malware that have affected and do currently affect the Windows operating system. I would spend the rest of my computational existence updating virus, adware, and spyware definitions. I'd be obsessing about my hub's lights. If I had to do all that, I'd be in a mental institution within a month.

Wishing to spare my family the cost of a mental hospital, I had to find myself a new operating system. I didn't have to look very far to see that Linux was the obvious choice. While I'm baring my soul here, let me be forthright with you. I was very intimidated by the prospect of using Linux. I thought I would have to know everything about my hardware. I thought I would have to manually configure every file by hand. I was overwhelmed by it all.

One day, a friend of mine, seeing me deep in thought, asked if everything was okay. I explained my quandary. Almost chuckling to himself, he explained that it was not as bad as it seemed, and if I had any questions, he'd be glad to help. So, he gave me his personal RedHat install discs.

It had a beautiful graphical installer. When I didn't understand the options it was giving me, I simply accepted the default, and continued. Before I knew it, I had a fully functional Linux machine at my command.

Most importantly, I knew it wouldn't crash. I knew it wouldn't be hacked. I knew my life was finally mine again. (I think my self-esteem even improved that day.)

The excitement of this momentous occasion was almost more than I could contain. All the free software I could ever want. The power of a true operating system that was built from the ground up on the very concept of networking. The freedom to poke and prod and learn and tweak. (I felt very much like calling all of my closest friends together to join me in celebration of this important milestone in my life.)

The next weeks were spent learning everything I could find about Linux. I set up my own web server. I set up my own database server. I put PHP onto the machine as well. It was at this point that I had all the tools, but no practical application. I needed a project that would teach me about these amazing systems.

It was also around this time that I became a private investigator. I wondered if there was a way that I could do some investigation with my new knowledge of Linux. HTTP headers were the first thing I studied. I learned that when someone viewed an HTML web page from my server, I could learn information about that person's computer. If they had javascript enabled, I could learn even more. If their browser supported Flash, Shockwave, or VBScript, I had access to ever more information about their computer. This was not hacking, merely accessing information that gets sent every time that any person on any computer accesses any web site.

I had a friend who had been scammed on Ebay for over $5000. I used this tracking server to track the scammer down to an Internet cafe in a foreign land.

After this, many ideas came to me. Using Linux as the operating system, Apache as the web server, MySQL as the database, and PHP as the scripting language, there was no end to what I could accomplish. I wrote a system that I could use to manage my finances. I wrote a knowledge management system.

As my excitement grew, a realization came to me. All the work that I had heretofore done had been mostly on my server. I hadn't even looked to see what I could do with my desktop. A friend of mine suggested that I try Mandrake. He explained that it was a good distribution for use as a desktop.

I plugged it in and fired it up. The first thing I sought out was how to install additional software. Again, not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how applications, utilities, and other software were out there. The most mind-boggling part was that it was all totally free.

I went and flagged for installation every game I could find. When the total download exceeded 5 gigabytes, I thought I would break down and cry for joy. I looked at some of the other software. I found CD burning software, media players, email clients, chat clients, an entire office suite (did I mention the games?).

After several months of blissful use of a solid desktop operating system, another good buddy of mine came to me with a challenge. He told me about another distribution out there called Gentoo. He dared me to try and install it. He explained that it was just about the most difficult and painstaking installation he had ever done. He told me that I would have to know every detail about my hardware, what functionality I would want to support, and just about everything about my system before I ever installed it.

Not one to take challenges lightly, I decided to try it. I hit snag after snag. I spent untold hours going through message boards and Google groups trying to find answers to the countless problems I was having. Finally, after about two weeks, I had a fully working Gentoo desktop machine. After another week or two, I was able to finally get the hang of installing software. Gentoo didn't have a gui-based installer. It was all done from the command line. This was definitely not the distribution for a family man with very limited time.

I spoke about this experience with my neighbor, an electronic engineer. I value this guy's opinion, as he designs electronic boards, circuitry, and chips. I asked him what he thought about all the other distributions I had tried. He said, "I've used SUSE for many years, now. Check it out and see how it feels." I returned to my office, downloaded, and installed SUSE.

I had it installed in well under an hour. This included not only the actual operating system, but a very liberal amount of software. The first time I fired it up, it already had on it. That was a pleasant surprise. It had 3 or 4 email clients from which I could choose. In half the time of a conventional Windows installation, I had not only a hearty operating system, but also a generous lot of software at my fingertips. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I had more toys than I knew what to do with. In the true spirit of Christmas, I wanted to share some of those toys with others. I wanted to burn a copy of the SUSE installation CD for another friend of mine.

I threw a blank CDR into my drive. I thought to myself, "I wonder which program I will have to use to burn this CD." No sooner had I thought this than K3b popped open, saying, "It looks like you are going to burn a CD, is this correct?" I clicked through and burned the CD. What a wonderful experience. A truly useful operating system.

So, which distribution do I like the most? Well, let's lay out some criteria. It has to be easy to install. It has to just work. I want a powerful operating system, without having to give up my family life to spend the time learning everything there ever was to know about it. Lots of different options for software is a must. I require an operating system that doesn't crash constantly. It can't be susceptible to viruses. It can't be a wide-open door to all of my personal information. It must be secure.

With all of that criteria, I would have to say, hands down, that SUSE is the one. It is incredibly easy to install; it's only requirement being the ability to click a mouse button. The staggering amount of tools in this distribution will blow your socks off. One of the wonderful things about SUSE is that it has gui-based tools that you can use if you are intimidated by the command line. To date, I am not aware of a virus that even runs on Linux. When it comes to security, SUSE is absolutely rock-solid. It simply offers all the power, stability and security that I need. It's easy to install, use, and learn.

If you want the suggestion of someone who's been around the block, go with SUSE.

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