(This is part of a series of posts on Why Linux?)

My first PC was an Amstrad PPC640D; an 8088 with twin 720k 3.5” disk drives. It never ran Windows (3.0 was current at that point in time and I don’t think it would manage to run off a single floppy), so ran DOS. I moved on to an 8086 desktop machine, complete with 10M full height 5.25” HDD and CGA graphics. It still runs DOS. From there I moved to an 80386DX-40 desktop, with 4M RAM and SVGA graphics. A massive leap forward, and something actually capable of running more than DOS.

Except I didn’t. I had a Windows for Workgroups 3.11 install, but mostly I still did what I needed to from DOS. The machine was never networked; it had a modem attached but that was used to connect to Fidonet which was well serviced by DOS tools. I put Linux on the box at one point but it was C and TCP/IP and I was Pascal and Fido in those days, so I didn’t really know what to make of it.

Fast forward a few years and I’m still mostly using DOS, but I’m on a 486 and am running a separate machine as a BBS. It’s using RemoteAccess under DOS and it feels like with 486 hardware I should be able to do some of this multitasking lark. I try OS/2 and Windows 95, but both end up dropping modem data when doing other things (I’ve moved on to ISDN at this point). Maybe I just needed to tweak things more, but I deem multitasking with BBS software a failure and go back to DOS and 2 machines.

When I went to university one of my new course mates had brought a machine running Linux, and various of the older students are already running it. There was a wealth of information and interest available to me. So I try again. I’ve learnt C and TCP/IP networking since last time, and suddenly it all makes more sense and I’m able to do more with it (I’m sure a summer using HP/UX on my desktop at Nortel helped).

And, as I finally get to the point, it’s efficient. It makes use of the extra memory in the machine that DOS can only touch with kludges. It allows me to multitask in a usable fashion. I don’t feel the need for a GUI so I don’t have to run one, which no doubt helps, but everything that’s running is easily visible and tunable. I start running it as my desktop at university and convert the BBS over to it at some point soon after. It doesn’t drop modem data. I rejoice, and don’t look back.

In those days I was running hardware that was probably at the low end of what the popular multitasking OSes wanted (I remember seeing Win95 on a 4M machine when it first came out, and it crawled). These days my main machines are (I would hope) more than capable of running Windows well. The efficiency angle is still an appeal of Linux though; for example in the server space I don’t understand why you’d want to run something with the overhead of an always on GUI (people who leave Linux servers running GDM confuse me). I want to be able to do everything I need on a server remotely, be that via SSH or, in a pinch, a serial console. I don’t want to sit at the box and use a GUI. Linux lets me run only what I actually need on the machine.