The most important thing that came to light this year is how much Linux and FOSS drive the computer industry. It’s not the oldtime traditional commercial companies that are “driving innovation” as they like to say, and which makes me want to hit something every time I hear it because it’s such a big fat fib, but Linux and the FOSS world. So rather than getting all violent, let’s take a look at some of the ways that Linux is leaving everyone else in the dust.
Innovation Poster Child: OpenBIOS
I’m not a programmer, so perhaps I’m not understanding the issues here. It seems to me that something as tiny as the PC BIOS should be simple to update and modernize. But the two remaining BIOS companies, AMI and Phoenix, don’t seem very interested in exploring new possibilities (except for some bits of hateful DRM guff), or fixing ancient bugs, and are still stuck in the MS-DOS era. They often require a 3.5″ diskette for BIOS updates, or even Windows, which is breathtakingly lame. So as usual, them FOSS hippies have to lead the way, and thus we have the OpenBIOS project. This has launched a number of BIOS project such as LinuxBIOS, which is used in the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child), and is finding its way into mainstream motherboards. The OLPC is an amazing innovation story in itself, and which would never, not in googol years, have emerged from any of the billionaire whiners who can’t stop badmouthing it, even as they try to horn in and cash in.
Security is a more pressing issue than ever since organized crime discovered the power of the Internet. The openness of FOSS is a powerful security mechanism all by itself, because the code can be inspected by anyone at any time for mischiefs and weaknesses. In this modern world it’s a toss-up who the bigger threats are- mysterious, shadowy crackers who want to conscript your systems into the world-wide botnet and steal your data, or insane corporate interests who think we’re all thieves stealing the very bread from their children’s mouths.
The traditional approach to security is an endless cycle of reacting to threats; uncover a new exploit, fix it, repair any damage done, and then wait for the next one. But at long last the FOSS world has two powerful tools to protect us from the unknown: SELinux and AppArmor. The concepts are similar: both craft a sturdy layer of mandatory access controls over the time-honored, but increasingly inadequate, Unix-style discretionary access controls. Their goals are to confine processes as narrowly as possible, to de-fang the power of privilege escalation, and to take away the ability of malware to exploit unprivileged processes and accounts.
SELinux has been around for a few years now, but this year in Fedora Linux it reached a state of polish and configurability that allowed admins to customize it for their own systems without having to spend months in deep study.
Linux has long led the way in networking support and utilities. Combine these with Linux’s endless customizability, and you have excellent power tools like a portable ASUS Eee PC set up as a network administrator’s diagnose-and-fixit laptop. You don’t have to be an expert at reading source code to discover unhealthy activities on your network; with tools like nmap, tcpdump, arpsniff, Metasploit, Kismet, and so forth you can get a good detailed picture of exactly what’s traveling over your wires.
A lot of shops leave common sense and simple precautions out of their security plans. Don’t be embarrassed by taking care of the obvious and implementing low-tech wherever it’s appropriate, like putting locks on doors and writing down passwords. It’s more embarrassing to leave obvious holes for intruders.
We covered a lot of wireless topics this year, some of which you can find in Resources. The biggest story was the shiny new unified wireless networking stack in the Linux kernel. No longer must we struggle with a motley, patchwork collection of drivers and subsystems, but are well on our way to having excellent support for the major wireless chipsets, and full functionality for everything from simple clients to sophisticated access points.
A nice thing about Linux is it encourages you to share, so there are community wireless projects all over the place. Ad-hoc wireless networks have played important roles in disaster relief, if you’re wondering how to put your wireless skills to good use.
Linux Boots From Anything and Rescues Everyone
Linux leads the pack by several country miles in the number and variety of customized distributions for all occasions, including a large number of bootable rescue Linuxes on every bootable device: USB devices of all kinds, from flash storage to hard drives, CDs, DVDs, solid-state hard drives, good old 3.5″ diskettes, netbooting, you name it. Linux supports a sizable number of filesystems, so you can use it to perform rescue operations on virtually all modern operating systems, and even a few obscure old-fashioned ones. Bet you can’t name any other operating system that offers such a wealth of versatility, and especially not any commercial, proprietary ones that don’t even offer decent rescue tools for their own selves. Look, here’s my ten dollar bet right here!
Ubuntu Storms the Planet
The popularity of Ubuntu Linux grew like mutant weeds for yet another year, displacing old favorites like Fedora, Debian, Mandriva, and Red Hat. In classic FOSS fashion it spawned a growing family of derivatives: Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, Gobuntu, Linux Mint, Ubuntu Studio, Fluxbuntu, gOS, and gosh knows what else. Canonical, Ubuntu’s parent company, has gotten Linux into arenas where it’s never been before, and is attracting a whole new generation of Linux enthusiasts. Ubuntu is on Dell desktop PCs now, the very first Tier 1 vendor to blatantly do this. Yes, the same Dell that pulled the old Lucy-with-the-football stunt two times before with half-hearted, half-baked, quickly-withdrawn Linux desktop offerings, but this time they actually followed through. gOS has been a great success on the Everex PC, which flew off the shelves of Wal-Mart in record time.
Ubuntu is not just for the desktop, for they offer a (over-hyped, in typical Canonical fashion) Server edition as well. Of course here at the good old ENP ranch we had our own take on Ubuntu Server. In a nutshell: a nice package, but please less hype, more quality control, and for gosh sakes how about some actual Ubuntu-specific documentation?
Not that these issues are special to Ubuntu; they’re just the loudest at singing their own praises, which is why I pick on them. The pace of Linux development is so rapid that there is chronic war between the “Please for crying out loud will you FIX stuff” and “More power! Newer! Better!” camps, and it seems that striking a balance is an elusive goal.