Differences between Windows & Linux

A few differences between the typical GNU/Linux desktop environment and the Win9x or Win 2000 environment.

A person approaching GNU/Linux for the first time but having experience of other computer systems will, inevitably, bring certain preconceptions and expectations with them.In order to quickly learn to use GNU/Linux effectively it is useful to be aware of certain matters where GNU/Linux differs from Win9x in ways that are not immediately obvious.

Content revision history:
Article first written, spring 2004
Material added, September 2004
Win9x Win2000 GNU/Linux

As far as the operating system itself is concerned, Windows, in all of its variants, are created and sold (legally) by a single company.There is a relatively small range of products to choose between and you more or less get what you are given.

The licence agreements for Windows, and most Windows application software restrict the number of copies you can make, if any, or the number of concurrent users of the software.

GNU/Linux has been developed, organized and distributed by diverse individuals and organisations.Obtaining a working set of Linux software means choosing one of the collections of software that are referred to as “distributions” (or “distros”, for short).Some distributions are created by commercial entities and some are created by specialist task groups or enthusiasts.

A commercial distribution is usually a good way to begin because they tend to be created with less experienced users in mind.Later you will discover that the different distributions tend to be targetted towards different categories of users and, as a result, one distribution might aim to appeal to beginners, another might aim to provide the most recent versions of software, another might aim to provide the most proven applications and another to provide applications that will ease the migration of an entire company from Windows to Linux.

However, your choice of distribution does not fundamentally restrict your choice of application software and, until you have a specialist task in mind, you can choose a distribution the same way you might choose icecream — just pick the flavour you prefer.

Many excellent distributions are available on the web for free download or are supplied as cover disks with Linux magazines.

The licence agreements for Linux and most (but not all) Linux application software and utilities do not restrict the number of copies you can make or the number of concurrent users.Indeed, copying is often actively encouraged.

In the Linux world, free-of-charge does not necessarily imply poor product quality although it will generally imply little or no personal support.

Most popular distributions come with a vast set of application software. However, this should not automatically be considered a wonderful thing since many of the applications are obscure or otherwise of little use to the ordinary user.

Application software is available for all the general purpose things that people often want to do with their computers — word processing, spreadsheets, drawing, watching DVDs and games and so on.

Also there is a wide range of specialist commercial software such as personnel management and accounting.

Software for handling large corporate databases is readily available.

Application software is available for all the general purpose things that people often want to do with their computers — word processing, spreadsheets, drawing, watching DVDs and games and so on.

The range of specialist commercial software is not highly developed although it is increasing and there are many good software packages available.

Software for handling large corporate databases is readily available.

There are many tools for computer programming.

Much software is available for using a computer in “server” situations. At the time of writing (2004), the best available information indicates that GNU/Linux based machines are hosting approximately 60—70% of the world's web sites.

The graphical user interface (GUI) is an essential and inseparable component of the operating system.Shutting down the GUI is pretty much the same as shutting down the computer.

The GUI is not an intrinsic part of the GNU/Linux operating system but, instead, is simply another program that can be used or not used as desired.There are several popular GUIs available including WindowMaker, Gnome, KDE, ... Because the GUI is simply another program, it can be started and stopped as desired and other processes that are running and that do not depend on the GUI will continue to perform and will not be affected.

Win9x pretends to be multi-user but this means little more than that the system keeps a record of different user's names and preferred background images; there is no effective access control and no significant security.

Win2000 appears to have a security model that is more effective than the Win9x model and appears to be able to maintain some sort of useful separation between user's files.Also uses a system of groups to allocate permissions.

GNU/Linux provides a true multi-user operating environment.Each user's files and settings are kept separately from everybody else's files and settings. It is possible, using extra terminals, to have more than one user working on a computer at the same time.Because there is effective access control and security, each user must log-in to the system before they can use it.

File names are not case-sensitive and so the two names “Report.WPD” and “report.wpd” both refer to the same file.

File names are case sensitive and so MondayData.txt and mondaydata.txt refer to two different files.Problems can easily arise when web-sites created using Win9x software such as Dreamweaver are hosted on GNU/Linux platforms because the Win9x software does not care whether the case of the names used in the links matches the case of the actual name of the files and, as a result, the links work on a Win9x platform but are effectively broken on a GNU/Linux platform. Problems can also arise when the Samba software running under GNU/Linux is used to provide a file server for a Win9x computer but, in this case, the problems can be avoided with careful configuration of the Samba software.The problems that can arise when sharing files between Windows & Linux can be avoided if you are aware of them.

Long file names are used but are converted to “mangled” names for use with software (usually older or DOS programs) that only recognise the 8.3 file name format (8.3 refers to eight characters before the dot and three characters after the dot).

Long file names are always used.

Various file systems can be used and each has its own possibilities and drawbacks: FAT, FAT32 and NTFS are common ones.Win9x cannot understand Linux file systems.

Various file systems are possible and each has its own possibilities and drawbacks: EXT2, EXT3 and ReiserFS are common ones though there are several others.GNU/Linux can understand all Windows file systems.

File names may contain spaces.

Allowing spaces in file names is, in my not at all humble opinion, a very bad idea and using spaces in filenames is, I think, very foolish.Actually I don't know if it is possible to use spaces in GNU/Linux file names but one would hope the creators of the GNU/Linux file systems were not that stupid.

With Win9x file systems the file permissions are defined by the read-only and hidden and system attribute bits.This means that actually any user can get access to a file if they know where it is.

The NTFS file system claims, and appears, to have an effective means of restricting access to files by combining the users group settings with the attribute bits.

With GNU/Linux file systems, file permissions are defined by three sets of three bits, plus user names plus group names.Each file belongs to a user and also to a group.There are nine permission bits which define read, write and execute access for the files owner, the files group, and everybody else. This system, while offering more control than Win9x, is not fool proof and there are several ways of leaving files unprotected or, more generally, just getting confused.

Win9x file systems have an archive bit for each file that can be used to determine if the file has changed.

Not known.

GNU/Linux file systems have no archive bit.Files have three time stamps which can be used to provide similar functionality:The time stamps are for creation, modification and access.So, for example, if the modification time is more recent than the access time then the file needs to be backed-up again. As with the Win9x archive bit, care must be taken to ensure that things happen as expected.

The Win9x operating system is notoriously unstable and unreliable.A Win9x system might run for a couple of days before it needs to be restarted.

Win2000 is reputed to be more stable than Win9x and might run for a few weeks before it needs to be restarted.

The GNU/Linux operating system is generally stable but some software is not. Also some combinations of software or hardware do not work well together. However, because processes are quite well separated, it is often possible to bring a crashed program to a halt without stopping any other process.GNU/Linux based systems have been known to run for months without needing to be restarted. Our own web server, aiming for one full year of uninterrupted up-time, attained seven or eight months of continuous operation before being brought to a halt by a power failure.

Recovering deleted files is usually relatively simple when equipped with suitable knowledge and software tools.

File recover facilities not known ... ??

Recovering deleted files is theoretically possible on some file systems (EXT2?) but difficult or practically impossible on others.If the information you deleted is likely to be of interest to government intelligence agencies then you should assume that there will be a way of recovering it somehow.However ordinary GNU/Linux users should assume that they personally will not be able to recover anything that they delete and consequently they should ensure that backups are held.

Software for Win2000 or Linux will not run on a Win98 system.

Software for DOS or Win98 might run on a Win2K system.

A subset of software for DOS or Windows can be run on a GNU/Linux system using special software interpreters; user satisfaction with the results is variable and improving.If you have some particular DOS/Windows software that you wish to continue using it might be a good idea to find (perhaps via newsgroups) the comments and opinions of somebody who has already attempted the migration and succeeded or failed.Key terms to lookout or search for are “WineX” and “Crossover Office” as these refer to major compatibility projects.

It would not be dishonest to say that the problems of computer viruses, trojans, and similar problems that plague the world are a direct result of problems within the world of Windows software.

The various Windows operating systems, and also assorted significant Windows application softwares, are infamous for their vulnerability to attack.

Practically speaking a software virus is (a) very unlikely to successfully install on a Linux system and (b) even if it did install the damage it can do would be constrained and easily contained.Furthermore because GNU/Linux based systems present a less productive target than Windows based systems, the people who are capable of creating hostile software tend to direct their malignant energy towards attacking Windows based systems.

GNU/Linux based servers are regularly subjected to hostile probes but weakensses in the server software tend to be found and corrected very rapidly.

Overall, therefore, while typical GNU/Linux systems are not immune to hostile approaches they are less likely to be attacked, easier to protect and, if a successful attack does occur, the damage is moderately easy to contain and the system reasonably easy to cleanse.

A very wide range of hardware is supported but some of the driver software is badly written and, it has been suggested, this is a common cause of instability and poor reliability.

In an attempt to improve stability and reliability hardware driver software requires certification from Microsoft.As a result it is posible that a smaller range of hardware is supported but also that there should be less problems from poorly written driver software.

Hardware support with Linux has generally not been as wide in scope nor as up-to-date as with Windows but this is likely to change as hardware manufacturers realise that GNU/Linux is now a well established platform adopted by many major corporations.

However, in our experience, hardware support is noticeably deficient only in the areas of laptops, certain modem adapters, and relatively obscure equipment that is unlikely to be of interest to the average office or home user.Also it has been our experience that some hardware actually works better with GNU/Linux than with Windows.

Although it is not of much interest to the average home or office, Linux will also operate successfully on certain notepad computers, mobile telephones, corporate minicomputers and the biggest £M mainframes.

If you are planning to use GNU/Linux with some relatively little used hardware or with a laptop then (as at 2004) you would do well to research compatibility first.


Other things

Below are some links to the web sites for some well known Linux distributions. You can find other people's comments about these distributions by checking Linux discussion web sites, reading magazines or, in some cases, checking the Amazon web site.If you are considering Linux for corporate use then you might find it helpful to read some of the Linux magazines as this will introduce you to the names of different Linux distributions, offer suggestions about where you might find further advice, and inform you of any upcoming trade shows.There are magazines aimed at both hobby users and professional IT managers.

Links to linux distributions.

The fact that a distribution is included in this list or excluded from the list doesn't imply anything about the quality or anything else about the distribution. The only reason a distribution is in this list is I happened to be able to remember its name when I was writing the article.There are a goodly number of other distributions and the best way to learn about them would be from other Linux web sites, magazines and Linux User Groups.Naturally this list will also go out of date as new distributions come along.

Links to other helpful sites

Distrowatch provide information and links for many Linux distributions.
The Yo! Linux web site provides tutorials and other helpful information.
T.L.D.P is the The Linux Documentation Project and is a good place to begin a search for information about GNU/Linux commands and configuration files and so on.


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