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Linux for CPAs: weighing the benefits and challenges.

There are good reasons for CPAs to use Linux in a Windows-dominated professional environment. An operating system is primarily the interface between the user, productivity pro and the computer's hardware. Although more programs are available under Windows, Linux offers great free alternatives that users can easily install, as long as they have an Internet connection. Linux can run all kinds of software, which are often easier to install and uninstall and do not require activation, and can improve productivity through multiple desktops, tabbed open files, and tabbed command shells. The sidebar, Advantages and Disadvantages of Linux, provides an overview of the benefits and challenges of using Linux, discussed in greater detail in the following sections.

Privacy and Security

Linux is easier to keep up to date than Windows, and it runs more efficiently on the same equipment. With Linux, performance doesn't degrade as the system ages. Though not virus--or hacker-proof, Linux is nearly immune to viruses and malware when it is properly administered, and security can be hardened against hacking. In any case, malicious code can inflict far less damage under Linux; thus, privacy and security are far superior.

Unlike Windows, Linux has no activation software, digital rights management (DRM), hidden user-tracking programs, or secret subdirectories. This is why the Washington Post reported that using Linux is the easiest way to avoid Windows malware security woes when performing online banking ("Linux Takes Another Step Toward the Mainstream [and the Price Is Still Right]," May 30, 2010, G4; "E-Banking on a Locked Down [Non-Microsoft] PC," http://voices.washingtonpost.com/securityfix/2009/10/e-bankingonalockeddownnon.html).

Particularly cautious individuals can boot Linux from a live CD. Without disturbing an existing Windows installation, most downloadable Linux CDs can--

* recover data files from a failed or corrupted Windows installation;

* recover data from a reformatted partition;

* partition or repartition a hard drive, while preserving data;

* test a computer's memory;

* wipe information off an old hard drive prior to disposal;

* run a self-monitoring, analysis, and reporting technology (SMART) test to determine whether the hard drive is about to fail; and

* bypass password protection in Windows XP, and sometimes in Windows 7.

Linux comes with built-in support for security encryption that might be required for client files. This allows designated files, directories, or entire partitions to be encrypted, rather than merely password protected. A lost Linux USB drive inserted into a Windows computer will only display a warning that it requires reformatting. Should the finder realize that he is dealing with a Linux-formatted encrypted device, he then faces a decryption hurdle. Thus, carrying client data on a Linux-formatted USB drive offers double the protection of a traditional FAT32- or NTFS-formatted USB drive. (For additional information, see "5 of the Best Free Linux Disk Encryption Tools," http://www.linuxlinks.com/article/2011040308270275/DiskEncryption.html.)

Linux Distributions and Desktop Environment

There are currently more than 300 actively maintained versions of Linux, including user-friendly Ubuntu, business-friendly Red Hat/Fedora or Novell SuSE, and geek-friendly Debian (http://www.dis-trowatch.com). CPAs interested in using Linux will first need to pick a Linux distribution (i.e., "distro"; see the sidebar, Common Linux Terms, for additional terminology). Distros differ in the programs they package together, their look and feel, and the support they offer. For example, Puppy Linux will run on a computer with just 128MB of memory; Mepis has the look and feel of Windows XP, easing the learning curve; and Pinguy OS is something between a Mac and Windows. Tails Linux hides a computer's real TY address, making it untraceable, and leaves no tracks on the computer's hard disk.

Computers labeled "Windows 8-Ready" contain a new motherboard component--Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) Secure Boot--that must be turned off or it will only boot the latest versions of certain Linux distros. Other distros are still working on a fix. Micro-Star International (MSI) has started including Winki Linux, an instant-on operating system, with its UEFI motherboards, including a built-in Firefox web browser and Skype.

The main element of a Linux distro is the desktop environment. Microsoft only comes with one desktop environment that has very limited customization. Each Linux disto comes prepackaged with an environment, which helps differentiate each offering. Environments function like Windows desktops, but with more choices, which can improve productivity.

The most popular Linux desktops are feature-rich Gnome and KDE, which require a modern computer to run efficiently. Alternatives include the less resource-intensive XFCE and some bare-bones resource-conserving desktops. (For a complete list of desktops, see http://www.xwinman.org.) Despite some differences, all distros can run the same Linux programs. Users more familiar with the look and feel of a Mac OSX should look into the Macbuntu desktop add-on.

Where to Find Linux Distros

Installing Linux is as simple as booting a live CD, selecting install from the desktop environment, and replying to a few easy choices. It installs much faster than Windows. Linux is free; no long product key or online activation is needed. Most of the popular distros offer a bootable live CD or DVD, which generally contains an ISO file that can be downloaded and easily burned to a CD. (A complete list of live DVDs and download links is available at http://www.livecdlist.com.) There are also portable Linux versions that boot from a USB drive; this enables users to boot and run their configured desktop environment and programs temporarily on most Windows computers.

When a Linux distro website presents a choice of downloads, users should select an EN(glish)-x86-32bit version; however, they could choose the 64-bit version if they have more than 4GB of installed memory. Next, the computer should be rebooted from the burned CD (with UEFI Secure Boot disabled, if necessary), and users should ensure that the Linux distro is up and running without disturbing the existing Windows installation in any way. An Internet connection should be automatically detected when using a live CD.

Accounting Software

Linux offers many free accounting applications; however, these are not as strong as commercial Windows offerings. (For the list "21 of the Best Free Linux Financial Software," see http://www.linuxlinks.com/article/20080927164237918/Financial.html.)

LedgerSMB, shown in Exhibit 1, is a powerful Linux ledger based on structured query language (SQL). This program claims to be similar to Sage, but it can be difficult to install in some distros, due to conflicts with required libraries. Personal finance software, such as GNUcash and KMyMoney2, is free and can import Quicken QIF files, but it is weaker than Windows programs, such as Peachtree Accounting, Intuit Quickbooks, Intuit Quicken, and Microsoft Money. Virtually all cloud-computing applications work under Linux, using the Firefox or Google Chrome browsers; only a few insist on Internet Explorer. Many native Windows programs will run in Linux, using an interface called Wine (or Crossover, its commercial version). Almost all Windows programs that won't work with Wine will work under VirtualBox (free or commercial, or the commercial alternative VM Ware), which allows the Microsoft Windows operating system to be installed and run under Linux.

Typical daily tasks using spreadsheets, word processing, databases, e-mail, web browsing, and instant messaging are all available for free. LibreOffice, Apache OpenOffice, and IBM Lotus Symphony are very robust free substitutes for Microsoft Office and are also available in Windows and Mac versions. This author uses LibreOffice, shown in Exhibit 2, almost exclusively, even when running Windows. It can print directly to a PDF, which can be encrypted (using PDF-XChange Viewer running under Wine or Linux PDF Studio Pro) and attached to client e-mails. Linux office programs directly open and can save in DOC format, except when password protected under Microsoft Word. Versions 2003, 2007, and 2010 (32-bit) of Microsoft Word and Excel run flawlessly with Wine.

There is no native Linux tax preparation program. Drake tax software, shown in Exhibit 3, appears to work with Wine, but has not been thoroughly tested. Most other tax software will nm using VirtualBox, as will all Windows accounting software and DVD-based tax research software.

Linux Apps

A Linux operating system comes with expected built-in features, such as a web browser and audio and video playback. Most Windows programs have Linux equivalents; some are superior to their Windows counterpart. (See Exhibit 4 for a comparison of applications under Windows and Linux.) Linux is kept always up to date with a "package manager" (Synaptic, YaST, YUM, or APT, depending upon the distro). These identify program updates that can be downloaded and installed from web repositories with complete anonymity, which makes maintaining Linux programs much simpler and quicker than Windows programs.

EXHIBIT 4

Comparing Applications under Windows and Linux

Function        Windows              Linux

Web browser     * Internet Explorer  * Same as Windows, except
                * Google Chrome      Internet Explorer versions
                * Firefox            higher than 6.0 do not
                * Seamonkey          work
                * Opera              * Linux offers several
                                     exclusive browsers;
                                     Konqueror is a combination
                                     file and web browser

Office suites   * Microsoft Office   * Same as Windows;
                * LibreOffice        Microsoft Office requires
                * Apache OpenOffice  Wine, and Office 2013 does
                                     not yet run properly

E-mail          * Microsoft Outlook  * Evolution (Microsoft
                * Many other e-mail  Outlook look-alike), among
                clients              many others
                                     * Claws-mail is unique and
                                     programmable

Backup          * Many choices       * Lucky backup (simple,
                                     powerful, and
                                     programmable)
                                     * Many other choices (see
                                     http://www.techrepublic.
                                     com/blog/10things/
                                     10-outstanding-linux-
                                     backup-utilities/895)

CD/DVD burning  * Nero               * K3b
                * Roxio              * Brasero

Imaging         * Photoshop          * GIMP

Typesetting     * Adobe InDesign     * LaTex
                * Quark XPress       * Scribus

Firewall        * Many choices       * Firestarter
                                     * Guarddog

Antivirus       * Many choices       * ClamAV
                                     * DansGuard
                                     * AVG antivirus


Users searching for new software to accomplish a task can find it, install it, and either keep it or uninstall it using the package manager. Almost all are free and most are of very high quality. Thousands of Linux applications are listed in the package manager and can be installed with just a few mouse clicks. Thousands more Linux applications not listed in a repository can be downloaded from websites (e.g., http://www.SourceForge.net). Once installed, new and updated Linux programs are immediately functional without rebooting.

Multiple desktops allow users to work on several projects at once with a fresh, uncluttered desktop environment screen for each project. This author uses four desktops: 1) e-mail and Internet, 2) tax returns, 3) general workspace, and 4) Microsoft Windows (used infrequently). Most distros allow up to 16 desktops, and some permit even more; it's a wonderful aid to productivity. Windows, on the other hand, has nothing like this; Windows 8 has instead concentrated on better multimonitor support. Like Windows, Linux supports multiple monitors as well as multiple users to keep each persona separate, with a completely different desktop environment.

In addition, Linux multitasks more efficiently than Windows. A disk--or processor-intensive operation running under Linux won't slow down a computer as badly as under Windows. This multitasking ability, combined with a lack of disk fragmentation and less need for antivirus software, makes a computer running Linux significantly quicker than one running Windows. Most Linux programs can be configured to run on a USB drive, so users can run them on different computers. Indeed, the entire operating system can boot and run from a USB drive.

The Gnome desktop uses the Nautilus file manager (functions similar to Windows Explorer) and features built-in drop-and-drag CD/DVD burning, just like Windows XP. The KDE desktop uses Konqueror, which doubles as both a file manager and Internet browser with time-saving programmable features. For example, this author programmed Konqueror so that the command irs:<form/publication number> can be typed into its browser search box to automatically bring up the IRS download page with all matching selections. Those who dislike Konqueror can use Dolphin, a pure file manager. Linux gives the user choices; unlike Windows Explorer, Linux file managers can be tabbed for added efficiency, just like a web browser.

The Linux terminal mode (called the "shell"), which is far more powerful than the Windows command box, can have multiple tabs and be resized and scrolled, similar to a web browser. When the computer is restarted the next day, the shell remembers the commands used the prior day, unless it has been configured otherwise. If the user doesn't recall a prior command, typing an exclamation mark with a few letters will bring up a list of previous entries (e.g., !cd will result in a fist of all the change directory commands in the queue to select from). Complex math can be performed on the command line. A wide selection of free Linux calculators is also available.

When a Linux program is uninstalled, it leaves no "droppings" in a registry because no registry exists. Linux is resistant to disk fragmentation, so no disk fragmentation is required. Windows, in general, deteriorates over time with the installation of more and more programs. Inevitably, disk fragmentation, registry, and dynamic link library (DLL) bloat cause Windows computers to slow down as they age, requiring system mechanic programs. The Windows "side-by-side" SxS subdirectory, added to resolve stubborn DLL problems, adds more gigabytes of bloat. Linux installations are smaller and more efficient, and performance does not deteriorate with age.

Instead of DLLs, Linux uses library modules, which is one of its weaknesses. Missing or incompatible libraries create dependency issues, which can prevent Linux programs from installing or functioning. Package manager programs automatically download and install (or uninstall) programs and libraries from Internet repositories, thus resolving most dependency issues. Moreover, certain Linux commands will automatically search out and remove unused orphan libraries.

All software has its bugs, and Linux open-source programs have more bugs than Windows. The cure under Linux is frequent software updates. One of the biggest frustrations for Linux users is a lack of drivers for hardware and interface issues. Hardware must be selected with care, because it might be incompatible with Linux, or only compatible with certain distros. Having more than one DVD drive might confuse some Linux applications. The presence of more than one hard disk might require manual editing of the file systems table (fstab) to define which is the boot drive and where certain directories are located.

Some of the most powerful Linux apps require use of the terminal mode shell, for which there are not always graphical user interface (GUI) substitutes; many have no Windows equivalent. For example, when the time comes to move a computer installation to a new machine, a simple dd copy command will move or clone an existing Linux system to the new hardware. This is a complex operation under Windows, which can even be impossible because of licensing and activation issues. The Linux shred command allows users to write zeros or random data to wipe any information from an old drive prior to disposal. Remember, these can also be accomplished for a pure Windows system by booting from a live Linux CD.

Challenges of Adopting and Implementing Linux

Although Linux installation is easy, users might feel overwhelmed at first by the many choices for customizing their desktop environment and the vast selection of new and different programs. In addition, users might be frustrated over things they know how to perform in Windows, but don't yet know how to perform under Linux.

Online help for Linux problems with workable solutions is plentiful; however, users must differentiate between new and obsolete or accurate and inaccurate advice, as well as advice specific to particular distros, not necessarily the one they are using. Dozens of free Linux books are available for download, such as the 133-page Linux Starter Pack and the 433-page Getting Started with Open0Ifice.org 3.x ("20 of the Best Free Linux Books," http://www.linuxlinks.com/article/20090405061458383/20oftheBestFreeLinuxBooks-Partl.html). Free textbooks are also available (Free Technology Academy, http://www.ftacademy.org/materials). Instruction manuals for most Linux commands are easily accessed by typing man <command> on a command line. (Type :q to exit manual pages.) There are many Linux magazines, directed toward beginner and advanced users, such as Linux Journal (http://www.linuxjournal.com) and PCLinux0S (http://www.pclinuxos.com).

Windows skills are transferable to Linux. There are many differences, which contribute to a difficult adjustment when individuals decide to use Linux. The strange Linux directory structure, with no drive letters and a forward-slash (/home) instead of a Windows letter-colon-backslash (c:\documents and settings), contributes to the steep learning curve. Upper case is treated differently from lower case. In Linux, MyFile.txt and myfile.txt represent two different files and can exist in the same directory.

Permissions are central to Linux security, but it can be one of the most frustrating features to learn. Three types of Linux password-protected users exist: root, user, and group. Root is similar to "administrator" in Windows and has access to everything. Users only log in as root to accomplish a particular task, such as installing new programs. Otherwise, users will log in under a user name. A user has full access only to those files in her "home" directory and other files to which she has been granted permission. A group can be granted access to certain files of a particular user. For example, a payroll supervisor can establish payroll files with a "payroll" group and grant access to the payroll staff and company executives so that only they may access the payroll files. Access may be denied or restricted to reading only or to reading and writing.

File and printer networking under Linux can be difficult and frustrating. Internet connections should work upon installation, but file and print sharing might require help from a Linux professional, due to a minefield of Linux security and permissions and a lack of "wizards." Most, but not all, network cards have Linux drivers.

Hardware should be checked for Linux compatibility before purchase (for example, at http://www.linuxquestions.org/hcl/index.php). Linux has made great progress with Apple's Common Unix Printer System (CUPS) in resolving printer issues, but it is not perfect. A partial list of Linux-compatible printers is available at http://www.openprinting.org/printers, and a list of scanners can be found at http://www.sane-project.org/sane-mfgs.html. Only some of a multifunction printer's capabilities might be compatible with Linux; thus, careful shopping is essential.

Linux uses, but does not require, a file extension--for example, a file named "Guess--could be a text file, a spreadsheet, an image, or an executable file. For further security, an additional Linux permission is required to make a file executable. This is why malicious e-mail attachments or other malware have difficulty overcoming the built-in security in Linux; even if it does enter the system., it must be written specifically to run in Linux, and then the damage it can inflict is limited because it cannot get root access.

With few exceptions, all tasks can be completed in Linux, usually with a native Linux application; if not, users can use a Windows program running with the Wine interface, or they can use VirtualBox. Time and patience will help users overcome the learning curve; thus, interested individuals should plan on integrating Linux incrementally over time.

A Better Alternative

Linux is similar to Windows because of its GUI desktop and the familiar drop-down menus inside programs. Users will hardly notice a difference in browsing the Internet, sending e-mails, or watching videos. But if users are uncomfortable working with a Windows command prompt, they should not consider Linux for more extensive use. In addition to a GUI. Linux offers vast control over programs and the operating system. Novices might be frustrated by the steep learning curve and discouraged when a familiar Windows task takes longer because it requires learning an unfamiliar Linux alternative. This author has been working with Linux for more than a dozen years. It has improved to the point where installation is easier and quicker than Windows. VirtualBox is a great alternative for running Windows natively in a separate Linux desktop when users require a program that won't work under Wine.

Although the Linux operating system and most programs are free, the main reason to adopt Linux is because it is more productive, stable, and secure. Switching to Linux solely because it is free is not worth the retraining costs. The availability of feature-rich applications that can be easily installed and completely uninstalled if unsuitable, without any thought to a purchasing decision, is a great benefit. Linux integrates well into a mixed Windows network environment, and it is also a great stand-alone alternative to Windows.

Users can dabble in Linux using a bootable live CD. Many great Linux programs--for example, LibreOffice, GIMP, GNUcash, and most non-Internet Explorer web browsers--are published in Windows and Mac versions so that different operating systems can be standardized using the same productivity programs. Linux can give an obsolete computer new life with a free, modem operating system. CPAs looking for an alternative to Windows should consider Linux.

RELATED ARTICLE: ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF LINUX

ADVANTAGES:

* Free operating system with available free software listed for simple and fast installation

* Preloaded with advanced software for immediate productivity and no adware

* No software registration or activation

* No need to reboot after installing a new program

* No need to clefragment hard disks

* No Windows registry and no performance degradation as system ages

* Updates entire system and most installed software with a single click

* More efficient use of a single monitor: multiple desktops is a great alternative or adjunct to multiple monttors; VirtualBox can be loaded in a separate desktop: terminal console is tabbed and programmable; Windows explorer is tabbed

* Greater computer security: restricted permissions and available encryption: few if any virus or malware attacks because of its strong features

* Multitasking is much faster and more efficient than under Windows

* Can be run from a CD/DVD or from a USB drive

DISADVANTAGES:

* Graphical user interface (GUI) is easy to use, but users might need one year to learn Linux advanced features

* A great deal of hardware is not Linux-compatible, due to lack of drivers

* More software is available in Windows

* Dearth of native Linux accounting/tax software

* Internet Explorer, a requirement for accessing some websites, does not work (except under VirtualBox)

* Networking may require professional help because of tight security

* Linux has "dependency" issues more severe than Windows's "dynamic link libraries" problems

* New Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) motherboards may cause installation problems

RELATED ARTICLE: COMMON LINUX TERMS

Desktop environment--a graphical user interface (GUI) that displays the desktop and icons, allows programs to be launched from the icons, and allows files to be visually dragged and dropped (copied, deleted. etc.)

Distro--a Linux kernel packaged together with various auxiliary programs to make a unique version of Linux

Kernel--a program that constitutes the central core of a computer operating system (e.g., Windows 8 or Linux 3.4)

Live CD--an entire operating system on a CD or DVD that boots and runs without disturbing an existing operating system installation

Shell--the Linux "terminal," similar to the Windows command prompt/console; the Linux implementation can be tabbed and programmed

Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFO--a modern replacement for BIOS. Microsoft requires motherboard manufacturers to add a "secure boot" feature where Microsoft controls the "keys," causing installation issues for Linux

VirtualBox--Oracle's virtual machine software that allows multiple operating systems like Windows to run on a computer at the same time, all alongside existing applications; multiple virtual boxes can run concurrently. limited only by disk space and memory (see http://www.virtualbox.org)

Wine a compatibility layer capable of running many Windows applications on Linux; it translates Windows function calls into Linux, eliminating the performance and memory penalties of emulators and virtual machines (see http://www.winehq.org)

Jay Starkman, CPA, is a sole practitioner in Atlanta, Ga., and can be reached at cpa@starkman.com. He is the recipient of the AICPA's 2011 Arthur J. Dixon Memorial Award.
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Title Annotation:the cpa and the computer; certified public accountants
Author:Starkman, Jay
Publication:The CPA Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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