An Introduction to Ubuntu
A free, stable, and secure operating system that you can try out risk-free? Open-source operating system Ubuntu comes at a tempting price and offers many of the advantages of popular commercial operating systems such as Windows and OS X. But do its potential drawbacks — manual installation and possible compatibility issues — outweigh its many benefits? We'll show you how Ubuntu stacks up to other operating systems and help you decide whether this increasingly popular solution is right for your nonprofit.
What Is Ubuntu?
Ubuntu is an operating system that is developed by a worldwide community of programmers as well as by employees of Ubuntu's commercial sponsor, Canonical. Ubuntu is based on the concept of free or open-source software, meaning that you do not pay any licensing fees for Ubuntu, and you can download, use, and share the operating system free of charge.
Being a Linux-based operating system, Ubuntu has a well-deserved reputation for stability and security. Historically, Linux has proven itself to be a workhorse server operating system, and this is where, up until now, it has been most widely used and best known. As of June, 2007, 78 percent of the world's top 500 supercomputers were running Linux, according to Top500.org.
However, in recent years, Linux has also become viable on desktop and laptop computers, making it an option for individuals and businesses. Ubuntu is generally acknowledged to be the most widely used version of Linux available, and Mark Shuttleworth, the founder and CEO of Canonical, estimates Ubuntu has between six and eight million users. Because the software is free to download and share, it is difficult to track exact usage numbers.
Ubuntu versus Windows and OS X
How does Ubuntu compare to the two best-known operating systems — Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X? The most obvious way is in the licensing and distribution terms. Ubuntu is "free software" — a term which is often misunderstood to mean only free of cost. While Ubuntu is free of cost, the term "free software" more accurately refers to the freedom to run the program for any purpose, to study how the program works and modify it to your needs, to redistribute copies, and to improve the program and release your improvements to the public (see the Free Software Foundation's Web site for a detailed definition).
Ubuntu also includes many of the programs used for everyday computing at no cost, unlike Windows and OS X. Some examples are:
- Office Suite: OpenOffice.org, a full office suite with a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software that can read and write in .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats and can also output to PDF, and supports the ISO standard for electronic office documents, Open Document Format. (Free training for OpenOffice.org is available at LearnFree.org.)
- Desktop Email Client: Evolution, an email program with a similar interface to Microsoft Outlook.
- Web Browser: Firefox, the increasingly popular Web browser.
- Databases: The two best-known open-source databases on Linux are PostgreSQL and MySQL, but commercial databases such as Oracle and IBM's DB2 are also available. There are also tools like Glom that provide an easy-to-use graphical interface for designing and editing databases.
- Others: Ubuntu's online Applications Guide lists some Ubuntu-compatible applications that allow you to edit images, listen to and manage music, edit and watch videos, read PDFs, connect to instant messaging services from MSN, AOL, Google, Yahoo, and more.
- Updates and bug fixes: Security updates and bug fixes for applications and the operating system are managed by Ubuntu, and users are notified about these updates through an icon in the taskbar, which they can click on to install. (Note that you must be connected to the Internet to receive these notices.)
Another way in which Ubuntu differs from Windows and OS X is in the way it releases new versions. Whereas Apple releases a new version about every 18 months to two years, and Microsoft took nearly five years between Windows XP and Windows Vista, Ubuntu makes a new version available every six months, which users can update over the Internet without reinstalling the operating system, programs, or settings. (By contrast, neither Windows nor Apple offers online updates, and both require the purchase of a CD/DVD to install.)
Each release includes bug fixes and security updates at no cost for 18 months. After 18 months, security updates and bug fixes will no longer be provided, but you're free to keep using that version of Ubuntu if you like, or update online (free of charge) to a newer version that is supported in this way. Moreover, every two years, Ubuntu releases a version that provides bug fixes and security updates for a longer period of time — three years on desktops or laptops, and five years on servers — making it a good solution for those who want a longer rest between releases.
Of course, being open source gives Ubuntu one other major difference over Windows and OS X, and that is the ability for users to modify it in any way that suits them. There are two types of modifications most relevant here:
- Bug fixes, security fixes, or feature enhancements, which are contributed back to Ubuntu or the original application authors if relevant.
- Customizations to Ubuntu for a given set of circumstances, called a derivatives. Some examples are highlighted below, but a full list can be found on Ubuntu's Web site:
This all sounds great, but are there any disadvantages to using Ubuntu? Below are a few common challenges Ubuntu users may encounter.
The biggest disadvantage is that whereas Windows and OS X usually come pre-installed on your PC or Mac, a lack of widespread retailers offering pre-installed Ubuntu often means that you must install the system yourself. A technical audience may be familiar with installing operating systems, but the average user will want to avoid this process at all costs.
Ubuntu works hard to make the installation process as easy as possible for the everyday computer user. The installation files for Ubuntu, which you can download and copy to a CD for free, are "live," meaning that you can preview the operating system and applications on your computer directly from the CD without having to install anything onto your hard drive. While your computer may run a little slower because it's running directly from the CD, this offering gives you a good way to test out Ubuntu and determine if it works well with your computers before deciding to install it on your hard drive.
A growing number of retailers are beginning to offer computers pre-installed with Ubuntu, however. The highest-profile vendor to announce this offer in recent months is Dell, but there are other retailers as well, including System76, EmperorLinux, and ZaReason.
2. Hardware Compatibility
Another potential disadvantage related to the lack of widespread pre-installed Ubuntu is the issue of hardware support. A small number of wireless networking cards and display drivers may have issues or reduced functionality because some hardware manufacturers do not release the drivers that are Linux-compatible. This is another area where things are improving as the number of users increases ― Intel has very good Linux support, as does their main competitor AMD and many other manufacturers. Again, the Live CD can help determine if a computer's hardware is well supported in Ubuntu before you commit to installing the system.
3. Software Availability
A final area that is a potential problem for people switching to Ubuntu from Windows or Mac OS X is the availability of compatible applications. However, with the exception of commercial games, in almost every case there is an equivalent application available for Linux. Ubuntu comes with a program in its System menu that allows users to browse a directory of available software and install with a single click. Another approach to the issue of application compatibility is a program called Wine, which allows many Windows programs ― including iTunes and Photoshop ― to run on Linux.
Bottom line? Users should not be put off simply because Ubuntu is different; the differences between Windows XP and Windows Vista, or MS Office 2003 and MS Office 2007, are arguably just as difficult to overcome as any differences between Windows and Ubuntu.
Linux has a reputation for requiring technical wizardry to operate, but Ubuntu has gone to great lengths to make things "just work" as much as possible, and to offer a user interface that's simply laid out and easy to use.
Technical and non-technical workers alike have been able to get started with Ubuntu within the first few minutes of installing the operating system.
The good news is that Ubuntu is no-risk. Ubuntu can be tried out in a number of different ways without removing an existing operating system altogether. In a "dual-boot" configuration, every time the computer starts up, the user is presented with a choice of which operating system to run. A fast computer with a lot of RAM can also run Ubuntu in a virtual machine, which treats the entire operating system as a program.
Is Ubuntu Right for Your Nonprofit?
The philosophy behind Ubuntu, and open source or "Free Software" in general, has similarities with the philanthropic goals of many nonprofit organizations. Both seek to empower people, and in Ubuntu's case they do it by providing people with access to technology that enables them to participate as full members of the digital world at no cost. This attribute may be even more relevant for nonprofits with a technology angle.
If you are providing others with technology, open-source or "Free Software" makes absolute sense, because it defines your right to pass on the technology to others and preserves their right to do the same. It also has relevance if you are capturing and storing data in some way, because it promotes data standards and discourages vendor lock-in. Furthermore, if you are serving a non-English speaking community, Ubuntu might be attractive to you as the desktop environment offers support for 48 languages.
Ubuntu is equally well-suited to the server as it is to the desktop or laptop. It can very capably perform a variety of functions, including:
- Everyday office tasks, including Web access, email, instant messaging, and office applications.
- Web development. Developers can run a full Web server and development environment on their local workstation to test changes in a similar environment to a production Web server that runs Linux.
- Server tasks. File sharing, Web-serving, mail-serving, database-hosting, backups, or any other server task.
How do you determine if Ubuntu is right for your organization? The first thing to consider is what you would like to improve about your current IT setup. If the answer is nothing, then there may be no reason to switch to Ubuntu. However, if you would like to cut licensing costs or are interested in some of the functionality, flexibility, or stability offered by Ubuntu, start by evaluating it in specific areas. There are many factors to bear in mind when considering technology change:
- How will you manage the migration process? Before making the switch, do you have the resources to conduct user testing, to evaluate Ubuntu-compatible applications to ensure they provide the features you need, and to determine if it's appropriate for each business function at your organization? (For information on making the switch from Windows to Ubuntu, see the documentation on Ubuntu's Web site.)
- How will you provide support for the new technology? In the case of Ubuntu, do you have IT staff or others who are familiar with or comfortable with Linux? Commercial support is also available from Ubuntu's commercial sponsor Canonical for about $250 to $4,000 a year. (See Canonical's Web site for services and pricing.)
- How will you train users? Do you have the staff and resources to teach users how to use Ubuntu and the new applications that come with it?
- Is Ubuntu compatible with your existing programs? Are there any essential proprietary applications that might make transition to Ubuntu more difficult?
How Are Other Organizations Using Ubuntu?
In Andalucía, Spain 185,000 desktop computers in 1,100 schools use Guadalinex, a Spanish-language operating system based on Ubuntu that has been tailored to the local market. Technical support for these 185,000 desktops is provided using approximately 50 overall support and technical staff, including a call center staffed by 16 people.
The John Hopkins University has chosen Ubuntu to be the open-source platform of choice on which to build a support system for technology-enabled classrooms. "We liked that Ubuntu met all our development needs and that we could just download it and get to work," said JHU’s Sean Stanley. "We didn’t have to engage in any commercial relationship or even register the software. This makes Ubuntu very attractive for developers looking to innovate quickly and cost-effectively. It also combined the right amount of reliability with an unprecedented ease-of-use for Linux. It was a turnkey solution that was inherently secure, something that made the Microsoft users in my group relax."
On a much smaller scale, I've been working with the Hayes Valley Learning Center in San Francisco. A community volunteer approached her local Linux User Group (SF-LUG) and asked for help in setting up a community computer lab using donated computers and Edubuntu, a version of Ubuntu that's tailored for educational environments.
SF-LUG was able to get donated hardware for a server and 15 workstations, install Edubuntu on all of them, and provide a working community lab as well as offer ongoing technical support for the computers in that lab. All workstations are connected to the Internet, and include a full range of educational applications such as typing tutors, math programs, image-editing application GIMP, and constellation mapping programs, among others. Additionally, the lab is set up with content filtering so that inappropriate content can be blocked from younger users, and reports can be reviewed to audit what sites have been blocked when.
About the Author:
Tom Haddon has been working with computers since 1998 as a systems administrator, and using Linux for seven years. He is currently employed as an Operational Systems Administrator for Canonical, which provides research, development, and support for Ubuntu.
Article originally published on TechSoup, a project of CompuMentor.
Copyright © 2007 An Introduction to Ubuntu. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.
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