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OS wars: Linux versus XP. (Advanced Data Management & Analysis).

After years of putting up with rickety Windows software, advances in Linux support and the October announcement of Windows XP are giving engineers and scientists some real operating-system choices for their computerized measurement and control systems.

"Nobody ever got fired for purchasing IBM," went the conventional wisdom when, in 1982, the corporate-purchasing world had to choose between IBM and Apple for their personal-computer-hungry engineers and scientists. This conventional wisdom assured that IBM compatibles running Microsoft operating systems would become the de facto standard for the personal computer world--including the emerging cadre of data acquisition users.

Data acquisition users were never really all that happy with early Windows versions because of latencies and instabilities they found in the operating system. While these problems were minor annoyances to the office users who were Microsoft's main target customers, they could wreak havoc in measurement and control applications.

With this background, it is not surprising that the Fifth Annual Measurement Trends Survey conducted by Keithley Instruments, Cleveland, in October 2000 showed a lack of interest in Windows 98 and 95 for measurement applications. Most of those users were moving to Windows NT and 2000, which were perceived as being more robust and reliable. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Linux was capturing the hearts and minds of a significant fraction of disgruntled Windows users.

"Nearly every other platform of the 10 surveyed will decline," the survey document reads, "... with the exception of Linux.... Today's 5% for Linux will nearly triple to 13%...."

This was all before this summer's flurry of announcements of Linux-based products and enhancements. IBM in Fremont, Calif., for example, announced products designed to improve data file management (Journaled File System for Linux, version 1.0) and scalability of multithreaded applications (Next Generation POSIX Threading, version 1.0). Others have announced products as well, such as Canadian Internet software company Databeacon in Ottawa, British Columbia, which ported their Internet-based data analysis and reporting tool (Databeacon 5.1) to Linux. More recently, the TOLIS Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., introduced what they billed as the first Linux backup solution for computers built around Intel's Itanium 64-bit processor.

Historically, Linux users have had to worry about portability. The up side of Windows dominance for users has been confidence that any document, database, or drawing that they create can be easily and transparently sent to another user because the other user almost certainly has a compatible system. Linux users must be more vigilant that they don't get isolated outside of the mainstream.

Jeff Laney, measurement studio product manager at National Instruments, Austin, Texas, who has had extensive experience with both Linux and with the new Windows XP, which Microsoft brought out in October 2001, is in a position to compare the two options.

Windows XP is the first "personal" operating system Microsoft has come out with in quite a while that completely sheds the notoriously cantankerous Windows 95 code base. Based entirely on the Windows NT code, which was aimed at downtime-sensitive network applications right from the start, XP should reverse Windows' reputation for unreliability

"They [Microsoft software engineers] have been working hard to improve reliability," Laney reports. "In the first three months I had the latest XP release, I had only on crash, and XP warned me about it ahead of time."

It seems that Microsoft has worked very hard with third-party software and hardware vendors to make sure that anything that worked with Windows 95/98, as well as with NT/2000, will also work with Windows XP.

The same, unfortunately, cannot yet be said about Linux applications. While the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL, has worked hard to reign in the versionitis endemic in the Linux community, there are still something like eight versions of Linux available, and not all applications will work on all versions.

Historically, another concern those considering Linux have had is application support via both hardware and software. "You have to make sure that the hardware in your system will work with your version of Linux," says Laney

He reports that both problems Linux has had--versionitis and sparse application support--are being cleared up. There is already at least some support for most types of applications. LabVIEW from National Instruments, for instance, is available in a Linux version for measurement and control applications. While you may find only one offering, rather than the multiple choices running on Windows, you are pretty likely to find some hardware and software for your measurement and control application.

Similarly, the OSDL is making headway on reigning in Linux versionitis. Through them, there is an independent entity capable of certifying enhancements or improvements to the code that independent developers conceive. OSDL provides a reasonably stable, well tested kernel that advanced users can download for free. Linux distributors, such as Red Hat, can provide their customers the same stable product along with the easier installation procedures and technical support those customers are willing to pay for.

Where does that leave scientists and engineers looking for a robust, reliable, and well-supported operating system for their measurement and control systems? I'd say, "sitting pretty."
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Comment:OS wars: Linux versus XP. (Advanced Data Management & Analysis).
Author:Masi, C.G.
Publication:R & D
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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