Jim Salter: My Linux Story

A great time to be a Linux person

Posted 16 Sep 2015 by 

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It's 2015, and there are no computers in my house that run anything but Linux. Yep, I'm one of those people.

My name is Jim Salter, and I'm a professional Linux sysadmin and developer. I'm the chief technologist of Openoid, and the author and developer of its product, Sanoid, an open source project that aims to make your servers functionally immortal. But, somewhat unusually for people who have taken the full plunge, I didn't start out that way.

I'm older than MS-DOS, so "what I grew up with" was never really an issue. But my career in IT kicked into high gear coincidentally with the appearance of Windows 95—so as a professional, I "grew up on" Windows 9x and Windows NT. And I loved them! I didn't really understand all the Microsoft hatred back then—Microsoft seemed OK in my limited perspective, and at the consumer and small business level, Windows really did blow the doors off anything else I had seen. To make things worse, the few hardcore Linux people I knew argued all the wrong bullet points. I didn't really care about making old hardware run better, and in the days before global broadband, and the security problems that came with it, uptime wasn't much of an issue either. (Sure, Windows95 wasn't great for uptime, but I had NT 4.0 workstations and servers with several years of uptime.)

I tried dual booting Linux for a while, but it left me feeling underwhelmed. OpenSUSE in the late 90s was... OK. But even getting the GUI working on a very vanilla set of hardware was a real challenge. In the end, in my case, getting X and KDE working right meant several hours of poking and muttering from a very neuroatypical friend-of-a-friend. The results didn't really impress me, either—on my fast-for-the-time hardware, it was no faster than my Windows NT main install. Since none of my day-to-day software was available, I was constantly giving up and rebooting into NT. I booted into Linux less, and stayed for shorter amounts of time, the longer it was there.

I did always know that Windows had its weak points, though, and Internet services were definitely one of them. Walnut Creek CD-ROM was serving up more internet traffic than absolutely anybody, and they were doing it with this snazzy OS called FreeBSD. FreeBSD was also Unix-like, and ran the same open source (free software!) applications, but at the time was doing it tremendously faster and more reliably. I knew whenever I managed to start doing things on the Internet, I wanted a FreeBSD server. So, I built one.

I'd learned at least one thing from failing to get to know OpenSUSE—if I was going to accomplish anything with FreeBSD, dual booting wasn't going to cut it. I needed to build a dedicated machine, and I needed to make myself use it. So I installed Samba, and made it my day-to-day fileserver. My primitive little FreeBSD 4.2 server had no GUI whatsoever, and I wasn't even vaguely familiar with a real shell, so the learning curve was pretty steep. But it worked, and I learned, and then I started leasing a dedicated server with a small ISP in Florida. Before I knew it, I was getting that dedicated server lease for free, because I was supplying technical support to my host himself.

Fast forward a few years to 2002, and I was running my own one-man local consulting firm in Columbia, South Carolina. By this point I had several years' experience with FreeBSD and Samba, and I was impressed. An accounting firm's hoary old NT 3.51 server was going down for the count, and they didn't want to spend a lot of money. I'd gone over and over the hardware itself, and it seemed fine—it was just the OS itself that had gotten creaky and unreliable. Heart in my throat, I suggested FreeBSD and Samba. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to sell the idea of this "free software" as anything but something I'd found in a cereal box. To my surprise and relief, the firm didn't bat an eye, and I'd sold my first BSD/Samba fileserver. Emboldened with one success, I started pitching FreeBSD servers to other businesses all over town, and discovered that it really wasn't difficult at all.

I still liked BSD better than Linux by a long shot in the early 2000s. That was all on the server side, though—on the workstation side, I was still very much a Windows person. I did set up FreeBSD with X11 on my laptop, and played with both KDE and GNOME (I preferred KDE), but it was very clearly not as polished as Windows. Eventually I set up Debian on the same laptop, and it had better hardware support and an easier path to a GUI, which was nice—but in the early 2000s, X11 and KDE or Gnome were still no real challenge to Windows in terms of desktop usability. They were good enough that I started getting interested in cross-platform design, though—Firefox rapidly became my browser of choice, and Thunderbird the mail client, because it seemed like a tremendous step forward not to have to give up your applications when you change your operating system.

2007 is when desktop Linux really shifted into high gear for me. A friend had told me that he'd tried Ubuntu and it was really awesome. "It's designed to be immediately usable as a desktop OS, and it shows," my friend said. So when my roommate started crabbing about how much he despised Windows on his laptop, I started trying to convince him to install Ubuntu Feisty Fawn. He seemed dubious, and I wasn't really using my laptop very often, so I did an install on my own laptop and showed it to him. As I answered his questions and solved his potential adoption problems, I started looking seriously at it myself. Feisty was nice, in a way that desktop Linux never had been for me before—it was actually easier to get simple day-to-day tasks done than it was with Windows! Of course, it also had the reliability of Linux, and it was nice using something more like my servers on my desk.

So I took the plunge, and wiped and reloaded my own daily driver workstation with Feisty. To my delight, I discovered that I didn't miss Windows at all. Most of my apps followed me from Windows, since I'd already been deliberately choosing open source and cross platform apps. The few apps that didn't follow me over were easily and satisfactorily replaced with a few apt-gets. Better yet, my treasure trove of "install directories" on my server became obsolete overnight—replace the machine? No problem, apt-get fixes everything, no more hoarding required. (And no more, erm, "extra-legal acquisition" of overpriced proprietary tools, either.)

A year later, I started mostly deploying Linux servers instead of FreeBSD. Then the rise of KVM had me deploying even Windows "servers" virtualized on Linux, rather than on the bare metal, and when ZFS on Linux got stable, I shifted entirely from FreeBSD to Linux, and Sanoid began to emerge shortly thereafter. These days, literally everything I or my family runs—servers, laptops, workstations, you name it—is run on Linux. (Usually, the latest Ubuntu LTS release, by preference.) And now that Steam is on Linux and the majority of the games I'm interested in are easily available there... well, it's a great time to be in computing, and it's a great time to be a Linux person.

My Linux Story

This article is part of a series called My Linux Story. To participate and share your Linux story, contact us at: open@opensource.com.

15 Comments

Jean-Francois Messier

I also had a similar story, although I did not have my own company, I am working in a government, I started with PC-DOS 1.1 (1982), then discovered Windows 1.01 French on floppies (now, THAT is slow). I also evolved on Windows, until I heard about Linux in late '97 and started playing with it, back then with RedHat 5.2, with kernel 2.0.36.I evolved on this and quickly became a pro-Linux, as I became a Windows hater, when I found out (too late) what Microsoft was doing to crunch other companies (and anti-trust, etc.....). Since then, I've always been an Open Source promoter, and seven years ago, I had the chance to get a job that was using Linux, and it will continue using Linux, in the coming years, until I retire. I am happy with Linux, and although it might not be labeled as LINUX, we use ChromeOS, Android and other Linux-based OSes, My wife almost exclusively uses her Chromebook at home.I also now have the full Ubuntu on my Chromebook, which is so great. Unfortunately, we had no choice but to have an iPad for my son, as his high school requires it. But he now wants Linux on his laptop. I want to install it there instead of Windows 10. We'll see.........

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Jim Salter

Jean-Francois, I truly despise the "mandatory ipad" thing too. I feel that schools and universities should *specifically* be embracing open source, both because its ideals (the sharing of knowledge) align with theirs, and because schools and universities should not be used as indoctrination tools for commercial companies.

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AJ Burch

What made you actually make the shift from FreeBSD to 100 Linux? I am curious because ZFS seems more stable on FreeBSD that Linux.

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Jim Salter

By the mid-2000s, Linux was blowing the doors off of FreeBSD performance wise in many areas that had previously been FreeBSD's strong points. In particular, storage - mdraid is RIDICULOUSLY more performant than geom raid, which I had been using very heavily for years.

Package management had also improved tremendously. In the 90s and early 2000s, the ports tree was pretty much the height of awesome in my opinion. By the mid to late 2000s, though... dude, it's hard to beat apt and yum.

TL;DR I eventually found myself using the minority shareholder OS that also performed worse and was harder to maintain than the majority shareholder, and I didn't like that position. So I started transitioning the majority of my stuff to Linux. The big problem was that ZFS, at the time, was still only on FreeBSD, and I have always been a HUGE proponent of ZFS ever since I first started using it with its very first appearance in FreeBSD mainstream, at 7.0-RELEASE. So for several years, I had to choose between the package management I could live with and better performance - or the storage I could actually trust implicitly. Those were some sucky years with some sucky hard choices for me!

Finally ZoL got stable, around 2010, and I could start transitioning EVERYTHING over to Linux and not have to make that awful decision anymore, and that's exactly what I did, rapidly.

The reports of ZoL being "unstable" are pretty wildly off base. I still see them a lot, but seriously... I've got machine-centuries of experience with ZoL, and it's been rock solid. I have had roughly three or four problems, in aggregate across all those machines and years, each one of which was due to something going wacky in between a kernel upgrade and a ZoL upgrade causing the DKMS module not to build. Fix was the same in all cases - just remove the DKMS module using apt and then reinstall it, then poof, everything's back, no data loss, takes about 5 minutes to remedy.

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Don Watkins

Great read, Jim! I toyed with FreeBSD but I'm nowhere as familiar with it as I am with Linux. I too have used Samba quite a bit and had Windows 9x machines authenticating to it. I'm sold on the stability and security of Linux. I too like Ubuntu. I've been using it for just about ten years now on the desktop. I've even run it as a server and as a VM inside ESX Thanks again for taking the time to share your story. I'm going to read more about Sanoid.

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Harald

I started with CP/M in the 80s and since then I used many operating systems. Working in a software company we transitioned in the 90s with our software from MS-DOS to Windows and that defined my desktop environment. I was quite happy with Windows NT 4 (as a desktop and server OS) although I had a great time with OS/2 in the 90s. Then, in 2003 I had to setup a server by myself - something I hadn't done since many years. Although I had the experience with NT4 I found the Windows 2000 server setup time-consuming, complicated and not logical. Out of desperation I gave Debian a try and to my surprise I had a moderately well configured server up and running within 2 days (and that without any previous Linux experience). When Windows Vista got released I decided that it is time to switch also my workstations and laptops. Due to my Debian background I chose Ubuntu. That worked much better than expected although my adoption process was lengthy. Now, after a nearly a decade on Ubuntu (currently using Mate), I have to say that switching to Linux was the best decision I made in my IT business career. Once in a while a have to help out people with Windows PCs or servers and I then I even more happy having made this switch. Digging into all this Linux and Open Source stuff triggered also to switch the focus of my IT business (from conventional software to web-based software). With Linux in my back I wouldn't been able to do that and I wouldn't experience the satisfaction which I have today. Windows was always a weight on my legs, a burden and a cause for annoyance (only NT4 was at some extend an exception). Linux gave me freedom, it is inspiring me, I am loving it, it became a life-style. Seeing Linux now taking off with great momentum is also a nice thing :-)

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archuser

I checked out ArchLinux and stopped distro hopping , archlinux is the best distro in the world,you will understand the freedom that comes with Linux by using Windows .

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mitcoes

Do you recommend ZFS for SOHO use?
I am using XFS after last summers temperature issues at my btrfs and ext4 data partitions, and this last summer was great, without incidents at my XFS partitions, so much i have just reinstalled my Manjaro using XFS for the root partition too
Do you think XFS will become better than ZFS (or not)?
And when do you think will it be available for root partitions at install guis?

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Jim Salter

I absolutely recommend ZFS for SOHO use. I have ZFS in every client I do business with, literally, including the little independently-owned barbershop where I get my hair cut. =) I *do* recommend a bare minimum of 4GB system RAM, and preferably 8GB, though.

XFS is not attempting to address the same problems that ZFS is. So I can't really answer a question like whether it will ever be "better". It's not a copy on write file system, it does not have data integrity features, it does not have volume management, it does not have self healing features, it does not have block level replication, and I doubt it ever will have any of those things because it isn't designed to - it's a "traditional" filesystem, not a next generation one.

ZFS will be available for root partitions from the installation GUIs within the next couple of years, I would guess, because Debian has already announced that they will start shipping ZFS with the base system. Exciting news!

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CFWhitman

I was interested in computers from a young age and had a Timex/Sinclair 1000 with 16K of RAM as the first computer I actually owned. I used MS-DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.1 before I went back to school for a CIS degree. It was then, in 1997 that I first heard of Linux. I was introduced via Slackware and Red Hat. Then when I left school and got a technical job I acquired Mandrake 6 which I used at home and put Debian 2.2 on an old machine I scrounged out of old parts at work.

Unlike you my experience with Linux was more positive at the outset. My use as school was mostly remote from a command line, and it didn't seem that foreign to my previous experience with computers. Then when I put it on computers I had afterward, Mandrake was friendly and Debian was very stable. I also used Slackware quite a bit. It was some work to get X11 going on Debian or Slackware, but didn't seem too difficult.

I found at work that the parallel port CD writer I had to burn CD's for people (the only CD writer we had at first) would only burn one CD on my NT Workstation (a Pentium III 500) before requiring a reboot or everything after would be a coaster. Also, even the first burn wouldn't work if you tried to use the computer while the write was going on (this was typical of Windows machines in those days). On the other hand the Debian machine I had scrounged (a Pentium 233) would burn discs reliably time after time even if I browsed the Internet with Mozilla while the burn was going on.

I found myself using Linux more and more on any dual boot machines I had right from the outset. It wasn't that long before I kept Windows around only for games. I actually still have a Windows install as a secondary boot on a machine at home, mostly so my brother can play certain games. I almost never have a reason to boot into that. At work Windows has been relegated to a virtual machine, though I still need to use it a significant amount (though not the majority of the time).

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winman

Funny. I thought I was reading my own bio there. I too am a native of South Carolina hailing from Columbia also. Did almost everything except give FreeBSD a fair chance 20 years ago. Now I have 1 windows gaming machine. The rest are either Linux, FreeBSD or OS X. Most of my machines are virtual now too. KVM and LXC plays a large role at home.

It's amazing how much the field of computers has changed over our lifetime.

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dboth

Great story! I enjoyed it very much.

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sk43999

I guess my path was a little different from others here, since I started with key punches, teletypes, and selectrics, and thought that the most awesome invention was the character terminal (this was before the VT100). I was using Linux before even seeing Win95 (which I never used), and for many years Linux (and perhaps FreeBSD) was the only preemptive multitasking operating system available on a laptop that supported "plug-' n-play" with PC cards. Maybe there were others I'm not aware of.

That comment regarding the time evolution of FreeBSD v. Linux is great - haven't seen such a straightforward comparison of the two before.

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bmaynard

It's funny how most people that are "older" (over 30ish) remember the Apple II and Commodore 64 as our first computers. I wrote my first program on an Apple II. Then left the computer world until almost Windows 95 came out. We still had the Windows 3.1 at home. It wasn't until very late that I started using Linux. Less than 2 years ago. But I can fully say that the journey into Linux has been great. I have turned a lot of people into Linux users. I still have to use Windows for work. But using Linux as my server, media center, and main computer OS has been.... as one might say..."plug-n-play".

Thank you for your story. It helps illustrate what the IT industry as a whole should look towards.

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dragonbite

A good read.

Because of my experience with Linux I have been given charge of our web servers that run FreeBSD. So I'm glad to see somebody who is straddling *nix variances.

I agree with you, that if you are going to learn something you have to jump right in, and dual-booting can be a crutch! Especially if you spend most of your time in one system or the other because of all those updates waiting for the next time you log in ... :)

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I'm a mercenary systems administrator located in Columbia, SC. My first real hands-on experience with open source software was running Apache on FreeBSD webservers in the late 90s and early 2000s. Since then, I moved on to Samba, BIND, qmail, postfix, and anything and everything else that grabbed my attention. I currently support Windows, FreeBSD, Debian, and Ubuntu workstations and servers doing just about everything that you can possibly do with any or all of them. RAH said it best -