Linux at the U of C

By Вen Li

Linux, from a System Admin-istrator’s point of view, is a good thing according to Eric Williamsen, a U of C Computer Science system administrator responsible for one classroom of Linux PCs amidst a sea of Sun workstations.

“Basically Linux is cheaper, which in a university with a budget is good,” says Williamsen. “The PCs that we run are Pentium 800s, with a quarter gig of RAM and a 10 gig hard disk which is a really decent machine. It’s got a heck of an NVIDIA card in there, too. The cost including the monitor is $2,500 to $3,000 apiece. If you look at a comparable Sun box, you’d be paying a heck of a lot more.”

Williamsen notes that there are disadvantages to Linux.

“Linux is a bit harder to use than Windows. You have to be a bit more savvy to use it,” says Williamsen who recently compiled a “rescue CD” which can install an entire Linux distribution.

He notes that while administrative costs of computer workstations are about equal across all platforms, Linux can be more efficient.

“One thing I love is that from right here, I can run one script to update all the machines without having to leave the office,” says Williamsen. “Every couple of weeks, I patch (update) the machines. Basically, there’s no administration after I’ve set them up.”

Williamsen has had to use this mechanism before, to resolve problems with a program compiler issued by Linux distribution publisher Red Hat.

“We had problems with students not being able to compile the programs when we went from Red Hat 6.2 to 7.0,” says Williamsen. “Red Hat got into a whole lot of trouble because they did not release an officially sanctioned version of the GNU C compiler. Now after a couple of patches, they managed to get it right and make everyone happy, but we did have to downgrade to an older version of GCC for a while.”

“Basically, we put the replacement older package on a central server and then ran a script to connect computers to the server and install it. It was effortless,” says Williamsen.

Minor issues do not discourage his support of Linux, however.

“Personally, I think Red Hat Linux is strong. It makes a great workstation platform and it’s supported by a company. I think it’s just what the university likes to hear when we tell them we’re using a free operating system.”

There are other concerns with Red Hat, however.

“By default, when you install Red Hat, it installs a lot of extra junk that people don’t necessarily need,” leaving computers vulnerable to attack.

Some say Linux in general is insecure, but Williamsen is confident about the security of his boxes.

“Amongst the staff, Linux is considered less secure than Solaris but we haven’t had any problems with break-ins so far. We see the same number of attempts to crack the Linux boxes as the others. I find Linux [programers] are great for releasing [security-related] patches in hours. So long as we keep up with it, there’s really no reason that there should be any problems.”

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