Large and small Computers — but please with UNIX

Von ma

Here is the first article from Matthias Apitz <>

No article should start with “I”, (so first this sentence). I, Matthias, am glad to accept the invitation from my long-time colleague/partner Roland Dürre. From time to time I shall write about UNIX or other Open Source Projects. For more than 25 years I have worked with and for UNIX and believe that I have thereby learnt a bit. I am happy to pass on whatever I have not meanwhile forgotten. Enough of introduction; anybody who wants to know more about me, please see my home page.

First, something about large and small computers. A few days ago I bought my smallest computer yet, (excepting the programmable calculator TI 59 that I had as a student). It is a so-called sub-notebook, Asus eeePC 900: What is super about it is that is so small, but just big enough that one can really write on it and also read from the 9 inch (1064×600 pixel) display. It has no disk, only a 20 GByte SSD (Solid State Disk). That is storage as in a USB stick, but the operating system sees it as a normal ATA disc. 20 GByte is plenty. The operating system with everything needed for reading, writing and working takes 3 away, but then 17 remain. It weighs less than two pounds and is completely silent (unless one plays music or watches a film on it). And it comes not with Windows, but with a Linux-derivative from the firm Xandros, (more about that later). A version with XP is coming, but the SSD will then be only 12 GByte, because after all Microsoft must be paid (bad quality has its price) and the total price should not exceed 400 Euro. This is the smallest UNIX computer I have had so far. More about it later; but what about the largest?

Whoever looks at my home page will see that I come from East Germany (DDR). I went to University there, and later worked, researched and lectured on computers and programming languages at the Technical University in Leipzig. Germans of my age may well have heard of CoCom. Others can find it in Wikipedia. We were then not supposed to have any computers and certainly none with UNIX. That could not work, so the DDR built its own. Some were clones of IBM machines (IBM /360 and /370 became the DDR ESER 1055 and 1060) or of DEC (the PDP-11 was our SM4-20). Usually cloned operating systems of the American makers were used, but not always. The DDR universities had a research project to get various UNIX versions to run on this hardware. (Again contrary to CoCom rules, we had the sources). We managed this very well on the ESER 1055. It ran there in a virtual machine of the SVM as VMX (Virtual Machine uniX) and was used for teaching and research. The computer filled the whole computer room; the biggest disks were 29 and 100 MByte and looked like top-loading washing machines. I cannot remember the main store size (ferrite core store), but it was certainly less than 1 GByte. That was the biggest computer that I ever installed UNIX on, and yet its performance was much less than that of the eeePC, my smallest.

In those days, it was not easy with UNIX. It needed enthusiasts to beg for valuable computer time on the mainframe. Mostly we got this in the middle of the night. I shall skip other matters, such as the security aspect when visiting the holy machine room. There was also resistance as today from colleagues and chiefs who thought that an operating system could only come from IBM (today from Microsoft). But we prevailed.

Now naturally I work with a proper notebook, about 2 to 3 times as powerful as the nice little eeePC. OK, the display is 15 inch, not 27, but otherwise 2 to 3 is right. Neither XP nor Vista runs on it, nor will they ever! For many years, (with a short Linux interlude), I have used FreeBSD. The desktop with KDE or Gnome looks just like modern Linux, but still FreeBSD is for experts and admirers. Normally, as alternative to XP one would use a Linux version such as that from Novell, the (once German) SuSE Linux, or simply Ubuntu. Essentially they are all the same; they differ only in the installation and in outfitting. That holds for FreeBSD too. When it has been properly installed and configured, the difference from Linux on the desktop (KDE) is hardly visible.

I keep hearing four arguments against Linux/FreeBSD. All four are false!

Missing Hardware Support – that was earlier! Today almost all hardware is supported by Linux. When some exotic driver is missing, it usually soon appears. The cooperation between manufacturers and the Linux community (publication of specifications etc.) has improved; some manufacturers and service-providers themselves support Linux, e.g. Skype. The situation is now reversed, some hardware works with Linux, but not with Vista, (so Microsoft cannot take XP from the market).

Missing Support – false! If support via internet is not enough, one can get commercial PCs and laptops, with Linux pre-installed and with support. The internet support is unbeatable; a solution for every problem, or an answer to any question, comes almost immediately. And look how hard it is to get a solution to a Microsoft problem. I don’t think I need to give examples.

Compatibility – we need compatibility in our internal file formats and office products, and even more so compatibility with our customers. But that is really no argument against Linux. If the whole firm used Linux, we would certainly be internally compatible; certainly more compatible than at a firm where both MS Project 2003 and MS Project 2007 are running. Customer compatibility is no problem with the new Open Office products Version 3.0.

Nobody can really run it; nobody understands it – that was earlier too, when UNIX had only the command line. Modern desktops (KDE, Gnome) are more ergonomic than XP, simpler, faster and especially better documented. My wife comes from Columbia and is a computer amateur. She uses the computer mainly for surfing in internet (browser Firefox), email ( with the browser), watching films (MPlayer plugin in Firefox), putting her photos in internet (Krusader, a sort of Norten-Commander where one drags and drops the files from the local file system to a remote ISP). Her notebook runs with FreeBSD and KDE. She knows that (because I once told her), but she doesn’t notice it. She has no problems and no viruses.

Occasionally I am forced to use XP, because some document is required to come from XP, e.g. an MS Project Plan, (that one could perfectly well do with GanttProject). For such cases I have a virtual machine with XP on my laptop. That gives the required compatibility.

Linux and FreeBSD have great advantages. They cost less (no license fees). They are more robust (no crashes). They are more secure (no viruses; any holes in the security get fixed at once). They are modern, open and ready for the future. Whole countries are changing to Linux. Munich city is changing thousands of workplaces to Linux. Perhaps I shall live to see my firm change completely to UNIX.

Why have I bought this little eeePC? There were two main reasons. The eeePC comes with a Xandros Linux, and everything else that one normally needs: Firefox, Skype, WLAN, OpenOffice, … and everything is nicely available via icons and tabs. Any child could operate it. I briefly scanned round it and saved a few files (e.g. the graphic-config of the X-servers) and then deleted everything! I was simply eager to manage to install FreeBSD on this midget without any CD/DVD for booting. Whoever wants to know how that is done can look at this link. Everything worked, except the on-board camera. The second reason was more normal, (and important for me). Almost all the books that I read privately are in Spanish, so I need the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary when I am traveling. Now I have that too on my eeePC, which is no bigger or heavier than a book..


Matthias Appitz will contribute regularly to the IF-Blog about the chances that the Open Source world offers.

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