Netspan Relies on Free Software
The Principle
 
Quoted from the Gnu Organization's home page:

``Free software'' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ``free speech,'' not ``free beer.''
``Free software'' refers to the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

In practice free software means that one can get the software for no charge, together with the source code. Having the source code means one is free to change and improve the program. While most users are not interested in doing this nor have any need to do so, having the possibility has several important consecuences. When a program is free, it quickly gets a large number of users. The big user community finds any errors in the code very quickly, and reports them to the author or project coordinator of the program. Part of the users fix the bugs themselves, and submit the fixes back to the author. Practice has shown that this model works very well, which is proven by excellent quality and fast development of many free programs, such as those mentioned later on this page. There is a very good paper The Cathedral and the Bazaar that explains this development style in depth. As the source is subject of wide study by the international community, the user can be also sure that the code is secure to use even in critical applications. This is hardly true of commercial programs whose source code is only seen by employees of the company that sells the product, and which is likely to keep quiet of any security problems the product has.

Gnu's not Unix
Gnu's not Unix

An essential aspect in free software compared to commercial software is that every choice made during the development is made on technical basis. In the commercial world, many choices are made purely on commercial basis, maximizing the company's income, not the quality of the program. Commercial products tend be visually exciting and give appealing first impression, because first impression is what purchase decisions are usually based on. On the long run, however, free software is often more reliable, robust and efficient to use -- features that really count.

Why do people still choose commercial alternatives? Perhaps the biggest reason is simply because "that's what they have always done". Companies and individuals are used to acquiring things from stores, where they pay money in exchange. To many, it is a foreign idea to use things they haven't paid for.

People also do not know enough about the free alternatives. Free software projects can not put commercials in the newspapers or TV, simply because they can not afford that. Commercial software, on the other hand, gets a lot attention in media through both commercials and articles in magazines. Until recently free software has been an unknown concept also in the mainstream press, which is used to publishing articles based on press releases and other material that the sales divisions of commecial software companies send them.

Many people also find it easier to trust commercial products created by well known companies whose products they are used to hearing about, instead of an inpersonate group of internet-connected developers behind the free software.

People are also keen on getting paid support. They pay money to have a guarantee that somebody is responsible when things go wrong with the product. They get a number to call to. In practice, the people working in the support have usually all too little knowledge of the product to be able to solve the user's problem. It is quite common to spend hours in phone with support people, and get no useful help. Effectively, the only guarantee one gets is that there is some place they can call for support -- not that their problems will get solved. We feel that too often using commercial support is waste of time. And money.

With free software, the internet is the support organization. You have web page, manual pages, how-to's and FAQ's full of knowledge. You have newsgroups and mailing lists, where co-users can respond to questions. This usually works amazingly well. On more difficult issues, you can consult the developers forum -- mailing list or newsgroup. You can also directly contact the author. Or, you can look at the code and fix the problem. However, there is no guarantee of anything -- but then, neither is there with commercial software. In practice this works astonishingly well, and problems tend to get solved in timely fashion. That is why free software products such as RedHat Linux has been getting several "Best Customer Support" prizes lately.

There are companies such as Red Hat and Cygnus that sell commercial support for free software. Some of these companies, Cygnus in particular, contribute actively to the free software projects. Cygnus has even initiated some of the projects. This way, they get a lot of enthusiastic developers over the internet for free, but they can't charge for the program itself.

For us, the reasons mentioned above are more than enough to rely on free software.

To find out more on free software philosophy, see

Operating Systems
  The Linux penguin Finnish as we are, we use Linux as our server and workstation operating system. Linux is a Unix clone written originally from scratch by Linus Torvalds, and developed thereafter by thousands of people all over ther internet. Linux runs on off-the-shelf Intel x86 hardware, as well as a number of other platforms. A rough estimate for current number of Linux users is about ten million users.

A Unix system, as opposed to Windows or Macintosh line of operating systems, is an obvious choice for us. Unix has traditionally offered by far the best environment for a power user and a programmer. Other things of great importance are Linux's excellent stability, customizability, and possibility to use it remotely just as if it was on your desktop.

While Linux offers a modern, fashionable graphical user interface, similar to that of Windows, its real power lies in the command line mode. It takes some effort to learn to work with command lines tools, but once you master them, you won't settle fo anything else. With Linux you get the best of all these tools, for free.

It is a widely recognized fact that Unix systems, including Linux, are far more stable than Windows NT. Normally one only boots a Unix system when changing hardware. This is essential in server use, but important also in a workstation.

Unix is inherently extremely customizable, free Unixes in particular because you can sources for literally every bit of software that comes with the system. It is not as much the availability of sources itself that results in extreme customizability, but the software developer culture that has evolved in that environment. While many systems don't let the user under the hood of the programs, a Unix user complete control over the system, and he knows exactly what is going on. This is essential when one wants to build a system that works predictably and reliably.

Most operating systems can only be used locally, with the monitor and keyboard directly attached into the computer. Unix systems are designed in such a way that allows the users use a computer that is on the other side of the country, and not even know that. This allows several users to use one computer, unaware of each other, or locate the computer in a server use, and use it from home.

The reason why many people choose Windows or Macintosh over Unix is availability of software. Most new desktop applications are released for Windows. This is the most significant -- if not the only vital -- aspect in which Windows is superior to Linux. Luckily this situation seems to be improving, as more and more software vendors get interested in the growth and benefits of Linux, such as it's easier administration (which means large savings for corporations), greater stability and other technical benefits. The authors of this text use Linux for all their everyday work.

Linux is available as a distribution, which is the core system and a set of applications and tools, made to work well together and easy to install. Many companies sell distributions on a CD, together with support and manuals. You can also download all these distributions from the net, for free. Some of these companies are Red Hat, Caldera OpenLinux, Debian (the completely free alternative), SuSe and others.

The BSD Daemon Linux is not the only free operating system alternative. The three Free BSD Unix variants, FreeBSD, OpenBSD and NetBSD are some of other free Unixes. They offer quite similar set of features and benefits. Those not familiar with Unix system might want to visit the Windows NT - Unix comparison page.

At the moment, Linux is gaining wide acceptance in the commercial world mainly because of its stability, but also because of the fear of Microsoft's domination. Many essential companies such as Oracle, Netscape, Lotus, Corel, IBM have more or less reasently announced their support for Linux. This means more and more software for Linux. Even without that, we feel that Linux is the operating system for us. This is why this server runs Linux.

Programming Languages
  Written by the newly chosen Free Software Award winner Larry Wall, Perl is the scripting language for any purpose. (Some prefer Python, this is just our opinion.) Perl is, amongst other things, the most popular language for writing CGI scripts, the programs behind all those guest books and web stores.

The EGCS ox For larger software, one may want to use larger tools. In this case, you can choose GCC. It is the core compiler for Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD and NetBSD. Other than that is used in almost all the other free software projects that are written in C or C++. There is separate project aiming for better optimizations and better C++ comformance, egcs. Egcs is a derivative of the original gcc, and its development coordinated by Cygnus solutions, a software company dedicated to free software development. Cumbersome as it may sound, Cygnus does well, selling only paid support for the software.

Text editors
  Emacs is the free text editor. Emacs is perhaps the best example of a user interface that may appear cumbersome at the first glance, but is becomes very efficient once you get used to it. Commercial text processors tend to have it vice versa: appealing first glance, complete with all those talking paper clips and "handy" automagic wizards, but after you no longer need the basic help, these features start bothering you and preventing you from doing your actual work.

Emacs can be customized using a very powerful tool, elisp. It is a complete programming language which can be used for literally anything you can imagine. There exists several sophisticated elisp packages that implement things no other text editor can do. Emacs also bundles a bunch of other software with it: Gnus newsreader, mail client, and with Xemacs, you even get the W3 web browser.

Emacs is one of the oldest free software projects, it is currently at version 19.

XEmacs Xemacs is the X Window System orientated derivative of Emacs. It has more mature graphical user interface, but it supports all the common Emacs features.

Xemacs now has both a native and a Cygwin based port to Windows.

WWW Browsers
  One of the most recognized actions taken by a major software company towards the free software model was the Netscape's announcement to make Navigator www browser free and also to release its source code. Shortly after this, typical free software development started, leading to an announcement of Mozilla, the free derivative of Navigator (Mozilla was originally the internal code name for Navigator inside Netscape company). The Mozilla project aims to port the browser to different platforms, making the browser faster and fixing bugs. The work takes place in parallel to the work done inside the Netscape company, and (parts of) the source will be merged periodically.

Of course, we also have to mention Lynx the free text based browser that is very compact and efficient to use whenever the hardware is not too high tech. W3 is the browser integrated in Xemacs.

WWW Servers
  The Apache feather Apache is the most stable and versatile WWW server on the market at the moment. Not surprisingly, Linux-Apache combination is the most popular web server system at the moment.

Apache is also available also for Windows NT, although the support may be discontinued due to lack of capabilities in the operating system. There is also a Cygwin based port to Windows.

Mail Servers
  QMail Sendmail is the original email server, that still carries most of email in the internet. Netspan, however, prefers Qmail, due to its easier configurability, better performance and in particular, vastly better security.
File Servers
  Samba Samba is the free SMB server for Unix. SMB is a network file system mostly used by Microsoft. Samba makes it possible to access files residing on a Unix computer just like the files were on a Windows computer. Samba does its job very nicely, being both faster and more reliable than Windows NT itself. We also believe that properly configured Samba server is more secure than a any Windows machine is.
Security
  Ssh is the secure telnet replacement to remotely access and use a machine. Other things it does include secure file copying, secure tcp channels and remote command execution. Ssh uses strong crypthographic methods -- such as RSA, IDEA and Blowfish -- to secure the authentication process and the data connections. In plain English, ssh makes it secure to use a computer remotely over an insecure network.

Ssh was originally written by Tatu Ylönen and is now maintained by Ssh communications Security and various volunteers. The original ssh suite (client, server and the scp remote file copying utility) was available freely with source code for Unix platforms. Later, Ssh communications Security announced a commercial GUI based Windows client, but the Unix version still remains free (although Ssh communications Security has a commercial version of that, too). The upcoming protocol version 2 will have to have at least two different implementations to become an IETF standard. The Ssh communications Security implementation will have a more restrictive license, but a free implementation is on its way.

Other Applications
  Pov-Ray Pov-Ray is the free ray tracer with superb quality. It has gained wide acceptance among the computer graphics community. It is available for a variety of platform ranging from DOS to Linux.

The Gimp wolf Gimp is the free image manipulation program with functionality similar to that of Adobe Photoshop. GIMP is available for different variants of Unix.



Last modified: Sun Nov 22 17:58:58 EET 1998
This document was written with Xemacs, tested with W3 and served by Apache running on Linux.