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Why I Use Generic Computers and Open Source Software
OSNews ^ | 24 November 2012 | Howard Fosdick

Posted on 11/26/2012 11:13:00 AM PST by ShadowAce

Do you depend on your computer for your living? If so, I'm sure you've thought long and hard about which hardware and software to use. I'd like to explain why I use generic "white boxes" running open source software. These give me a platform I rely on for 100% availability. They also provide a low-cost solution with excellent security and privacy.

People's requirements vary, so what I use may not be the best choice for you. I'm a support person for databases and operating systems. I also do consulting that involves research, presenting, and writing. I use my own computers and work from home. This article is about desktops and laptops, not handheld devices.

Replaceable Hardware

I need 100% system availability. If I don't have a functioning computer at all times, I can't do my job. I'm unhappily "on vacation" if I'm fixing my computers. My solution is to use only hardware I can fix or replace immediately.

One could adopt other strategies to meet these strigent hardware requirements. Some pay more for higher quality equipment, betting that this results in fewer failures. Some rely on vendors for support. They select a responsive company with a good reputation for service. Knowledgable help is vital. Many prefer local support staff who are easily accessible. Thom Holwerda wrote an excellent article explaining why he picks iMacs for high availability.

I take a different approach. I use generic white boxes with all stock parts. Since computers are inexpensive I keep several on hand, along with extra parts. It's easy to swap parts if necessary. PCs are highly standardized -- if you acquire them with an eye to non-proprietary components. I open up and inspect every machine before I use it. (Watch it with laptops. Some vendors will mold their DVD drives to non-standard shapes or add proprietary plastic you have to fit on your hard disk to properly connect it.)

For my self-service approach to work, you have to know how to perform basic hardware problem identification. You don't need to be hardware-trained. I'm not. The key is to be able to quickly identify common problems, because the hardware fixes are easy with a replacement strategy. A good problem ID procedure and a few rules of thumb are all you need. (I'll share mine in another article if people are interested.)

If a hardware problem requires more than a few minutes, use a backup computer. Once this was prohibitively expensive. Today cheap generic boxes make it feasible. Another change from years past is that you no longer need current hardware to run current software. I run resource-heavy apps like enterprise DBMS and website generators with a few gig of memory and a low-end dual core processor. That's a five year old machine. You can get a fleet of them for the cost of one hot new gaming box.

Critical to my approach is that you keep your work -- your data -- portable. Back it up and move it between machines with a USB memory stick. Don't ever get in a situation where your data resides only on a single machine. Same with software. If you depend on certain applications for your work, ensure they're available on more than one machine.

To do this just copy data directories or entire partitions between computers. If you need a certain application or configuration for your work, copy it. If a USB memory stick isn't big enough to hold your copies, use a USB hard disk. Or, perform network copies. I run them in the background while I do other work. Virtual machines are also useful. Just move guest OS files between VM hosts. Virtualization lets you easily, safely, and securely run multiple OS's on one computer.

Vendors are well aware that generic hardware and portable software threaten their profits. That's why most proprietarize any way they can. Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is the latest of many attempts to kill competition by an artificial barrier. The rationale for UEFI lockdown you often read about -- that it prevents boot viruses -- is intended to mislead. The last time secure booting was a major problem was back when people booted from floppies. It's not boot viruses you have to worry about, it's those within Windows that cause the problems.

Applying this Philosophy to Software

To apply this philosophy to software, I use stock parts that can easily be installed, copied, or replicated across machines and backup devices.

There's a name for such software: open source. While open source software (OSS) saves you money, flexibility and licensing are the big benefit. You control it, it doesn't control you.

Let me give you a single example: backup and recovery. In Windows World, there must be a dozen ways to recover a lost system (off-hand, I can think of the Recovery Console, System Backup and Restore, recovery partitions managed by OEM software from vendors like HP or Dell, the Last Known Good Configuration, Safe Boot mode, Registry Export/Import, and performing a Repair Install). Why so many different ways to solve a single problem?

The answer is that vendors want to control your backup and recovery. Otherwise they can't lock you in and make you a source of continuing revenue. Vendors claim "ease of use" -- but is it really when you face this tower of B/R babble? With OSS, I issue a single command to either backup or recover. I don't have to navigate a half-dozen different apps designed to "help" me.

Here's a real-world example. My motherboard died last summer. I removed the boot disk from the dead system and plopped it into another, then booted that Linux instance on the target computer. Problem solved! Windows won't let you do this. Its hardware-bound Registry, authentication procedures, and licensing all specifically prevent it. They're designed to. Why? So you don't steal Microsoft's software. Microsoft places its needs to protect its ownership of Windows software above your need to solve your crisis. (Remember, you do not own the copy of Windows you "bought," Microsoft owns it. You only licensed it.)

Microsoft has every right to protect its property. But that's not our problem. Our problem is fixing our motherboard failure. Because of their agenda, Microsoft makes our life more difficult. Their software limits your flexibility -- on purpose. Heck, you can't even move an installed app from one disk to another without special software. The Registry -- Microsoft's control choke point -- prevents it.

OSS lets you easily move software across machines or disks or operating systems with just a command or two. I replicate operating systems, applications, and data how and when I need to. No Registry, licensing, authentication, hardware binding, or other artificial barriers make my job more difficult.

Here's another tip: Don't use an operating system you don't install. There was a time when a vendor-installed OS meant peak performance and a malware-free system. Those days are gone. Major incidents have shown that preinstalled malware is now a reality, ranging from spyware to rootkits to adware to craplets. This problem will get worse before it gets better.

Security and privacy require that you control your computer. If you use an OS someone else installed, you don't control it.


Most of the business world uses Microsoft's desktop software. So a big issue for those using my strategy is compatibility. How will you fit into Windows World? The answer depends on the kind of work you do.

For some IT professionals, this means running Windows and the Microsoft stack. "Use what your clients use." I hear you and agree 100%. Do what you need to do.

For most people, however, compatibility merely requires file interchange. I'm in this group. All we need for compatibility is the ability to create, update, send, and receive Microsoft Office files.

Using LibreOffice, I've encountered very few problems in exchanging word processing and spreadsheet files. Just stick to the features common to both LibreOffice and MS Office and avoid complex formats and layouts. The web has many articles on how to use LO and MS Office compatibly. (Ironically, LO is often more compatible with older versions of MS Office than is the current version of MS Office!)

The compatibility picture isn't quite as rosy when it comes to presentation graphics. Move a 40-slide PowerPoint file between office suites and you'll see many minor changes (spacing and fonts, for example). I circumvent this by presenting to clients with my LibreOffice laptop and handing out hardcopies of the foils.

Years ago, I used to double-check how my OSS-produced files looked on Windows XP. For example, I'd check that a Word document I created with OpenOffice looked the same in MS Word, or I'd verify that web pages created with Kompozer and Firefox rendered properly on Internet Explorer. I don't know whether it's because OSS compatibility has improved, or that I've learned how to avoid incompatibilities, but I haven't bothered with double-checking for a long while.

Applications availability is another concern. Do all the products you need run under Linux? Everything I need runs natively. For some folks Microsoft products are an important exception, since all are Windows-only. You can usually solve this problem with Wine, a compatibility app that runs nearly 20,000 Windows programs on Linux.

Business Savings

I'm an independent consultant. What works for me may or may not work for you. Or for small or large businesses. Still, when I see how some companies operate, I wonder if they're wasting money. Many could remain on Windows while strategically replacing components to their great advantage. This avoids a disruptive platform change while capitalizing on open source tools and apps.

Office suites are the perfect example. Microsoft Office licenses are not cheap, especially for smaller companies that can't swing the big discounts. LibreOffice and OpenOffice are functionally very competitive. You really have wonder why more companies don't even evaluate them.

Some would answer: support. But what kind of support do you get from a vendor that you can't get from the Internet? I'm old enough to remember when vendors created bug fixes for customer problems. Today they just tell you to wait for the next release (which they always insist you install, whether or not it fixes your problem). Support consists merely of work-around's and how-to's. You can get that online for free.

Another possibility is to keep Windows but replace Microsoft's proprietary development environment. Leave the ever-shifting sands of Microsoft's frameworks in favor of open source IDEs, programming languages, tools, and databases. Some companies score good savings while producing excellent apps with WAMP (Windows + Apache + MySQL + PHP/Perl/Python ).

These ideas aren't for everyone, but it always amazes me that some IT pros are so tightly wrapped in the vendor security blanket that they don't even evaluate alternatives. Some security blankets are well worth the money. Others only represent inexperience or inertia. Only you know which statement applies to your organization.

The Bottom Line

Inexpensive stock parts work well for my hardware and software needs. They're easily replaceable so I enjoy 100% availability. Low cost, high security, and good privacy are extra benefits. What are your requirements and what desktop strategy do you use?

TOPICS: Computers/Internet
KEYWORDS: floss; generic; hitech
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To: Responsibility2nd
Or you could just source and store on the cloud. There. A 2 thousand word solution verses a 10 word solution.

I was thinking the same thing. I'm setting up a small business tech system right now, and I'm not going to have anything locally, no files, no applications, nothing except the operating system (right now, Google Chrome). All of the problems cited by the OP are thereby eliminated. Everything's backed up always, hardware failures will always result in zero downtime because there will always be other devices around to log-in from, no software to purchase, no compatibility issues, no malware, viruses, or manual updates. All files are available anywhere out in the field, from all kinds of device, including smartphones and tablets. Yes, it's not "confidential", but the only way to entirely eliminate the possibility of someone seeing your files is to stay off the internet completely (at least on the computer in question) and a computer not connected to the internet in 2012 makes about as much sense to me as a cell phone without a voice and data plan.

21 posted on 11/26/2012 12:21:39 PM PST by Behind the Blue Wall
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To: Behind the Blue Wall

That makes sense.

22 posted on 11/26/2012 12:28:02 PM PST by rurgan (give laws an expiration date:so the congress has to review every 4 years to see if needed)
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To: ShadowAce

This is great if your software requirements are vanilla, I suppose. If all we are talking about is Office type documents than fine. But good luck if you have any special needs as a business. Most of this article is generalized, self important claptrap.

23 posted on 11/26/2012 12:30:38 PM PST by Catholic Canadian
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To: oh8eleven

Ha ha! My first thought exactly. Fearless Fosdick. No school like the Old School.

24 posted on 11/26/2012 12:30:57 PM PST by Bloody Sam Roberts ('Need' now means wanting someone else's money. 'Greed' means wanting to keep your own...)
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To: DarthFuzball; 5thGenTexan

Well, you can see the source. If there is something malicious or bad, everyone familiar with that source in the world would be commenting/complaining about it.

A ticket gets opened, it gets fixed.

Yes, the projects (source) are locked down. It’s not like joe blow edits the master copies of the source files. They have a project team, source control, etc.

They just have the source publicly available for the world to see if they care to.

I like Linus’s comments. Lotsa dopes out there in high places, and he doesn’t mince words. Funny.

With windows, M$ keeps a monstrous stack of poo called their architecture with the source only known to M$.

So you’re relying on M$ to keep it secure and of good quality.

IMHO, they’ve got to be coding what amounts to empty loops to soak up CPU with the speed of today’s CPUs.

If they did a great job at keeping their architecture straightforward, extensible and secure, and they did not overcharge, open source would not really be necessary.

If Windows could be had for $29, and M$ was not trying to throw curve balls to developers and “lock them in” to M$, etc., by always implementing things their own weird way, and they kept configurations secure by default instead of insecure by default, and M$ never entered the applications market in a big way, using their brand name to blow away every application software company they could once their products got popular, they would have an OS platform that made sense to build software on.

But since they don’t do these things, a software company knows that M$ will only let them get so big before they crush them with an M$-branded competitive product (that stinks but will sell anyway) or buy them out for not too great of a price.

They got too big, however, with BG wanting to take over the whole software industry, instead of just run a business and leave it go at that, which leads to the trap of revenue increase addiction despite the fact that they’ve long since grew beyond the natural market size for an OS company. Such an addiction naturally motivates towards monopoly as opposed to efficiency and innovation to bring in more revenue. This is why MSFT share price in the last 10 years has gone - nowhere. It’s got nowhere to go.

And M$ has single-handedly held back innovation for all these years since most people are stuck with whatever Redmond comes up with.

Someday maybe we can get beyond the goofiness that OSs and the internet are today. Thanks to the idiocy of government, I’m in no hurry.

25 posted on 11/26/2012 1:00:20 PM PST by PieterCasparzen (We have to fix things ourselves.)
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To: ShadowAce
Wow. If you want to do all that to avoid profiting big corps, fine. I have been using computers professionally for many, many years. The only hardware failures, I have had were from brown outs/ or power surges. Unplugging during lightning storms, and uninterruptable power supplies take care of that. Almost everything “problem” you mention, it seems like your solution is way overkill. If your happy with what your doing good for you. Thank God, I don’t have to go to that much trouble to be successful in computers.
26 posted on 11/26/2012 1:17:49 PM PST by EyeSalveRich (its not so hard)
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To: Psycho_Bunny

Thought you were using some Linux.

27 posted on 11/26/2012 1:18:35 PM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach ((The Global Warming Hoax was a Criminal Act....where is Al Gore?))
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To: Hardraade
And look at what Intel may do....FR Thread:

Intel kills off the desktop, PCs go with it

28 posted on 11/26/2012 1:20:57 PM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach ((The Global Warming Hoax was a Criminal Act....where is Al Gore?))
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To: ShadowAce

I just want it to work... I don’t want to have a new hobby

Every few years we have to upgrade and it is 3 months of HELL... I would hate to deal with that on a daily basis... fix this, that doesn’t work, my printer doesn’t work etc etc etc

I could write DB Programs myself that did everything except have pretty pictures back during the dos days ... today ... not so much


29 posted on 11/26/2012 1:25:04 PM PST by TexasTransplant (Radical islam is islam. Moderate islam is the Trojan Horse.)
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To: roamer_1
Closed Source versus Open Source does not in and of itself make for better security. If that were the case, the discussions about the need for antivirus solutions on mobile devices would be around iOS, but they are not. They are about Android.

It has more to do with the target's market share than the sourcing model. Hacking Mac OS when it was 9% of the market share wouldn't make news. Hackers went after Windows because that made news. Interestingly, now that Mac OSX is getting to he 30% share, it is coming under attack. In the mobile space, Android is the market leader. So it gets teh attention target on its back.

The difference is that Android's internals are open for analysis. Yes, there is a large, faster moving community that is evolving the code base quicker than a big company minded Microsoft. But there is also opportunity for someone to find adn exploit the hole rather than fix it. This was exactly what happened with the Android game malware that sent your contacts adn personal information to a server in China a year or so ago. And that fast moving dynamic is changing as well under Google, who is becoming the big company minded beast. They will become "the man" to the economic politics driven hacker. And to the attention seeking hacker.

My comment on merging sources was that unless you personally review source changes to both the OS and the apps you use (compiling them all locally), you are placing some implicit trust in the open source community. Nothing more.

It is a matter of where you personally want to place trust and accept risk. Just don't be lulled into believing the open source community is fully trustworthy - remember, many of the Windows hackers are part of the open source community.

30 posted on 11/26/2012 1:37:50 PM PST by 5thGenTexan
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To: PieterCasparzen
Well, you can see the source. If there is something malicious or bad, everyone familiar with that source in the world would be commenting/complaining about it.

A ticket gets opened, it gets fixed.

If a ticket gets opened, it gets fixed. Or if a hacker finds it first, by reading the code, and exploits it without reporting it, as happened on Android recently.

And the apps go thru no review process at all. There are pluses and minuses to both models. And there is more than on closed source operating system out there. You just have to weight the risks and rewards and make the decision appropriate for you.

31 posted on 11/26/2012 1:51:19 PM PST by 5thGenTexan
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To: ShadowAce

Had a hardware crash on a Xp box. Yup, restoring the system is not just making a hard disk swap.

32 posted on 11/26/2012 1:59:28 PM PST by FastCoyote (I am intolerant of the intolerable.)
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To: 5thGenTexan

A couple thoughts:

No smartphones for me. I want control, or forget having the device. I don’t want auto updates on anything.

The only way something can get in is if something is listening or malicious code installs itself.

I keep only software that I want installed; my ports are essentially all not listening. And I know for a fact that nothing has changed, so there’s no new software that I don’t know about, no update, etc., that planted itself in my machine and by default is a hacker magnet. I do everything in paranoid mode.

I don’t want to deal with software on a simple device like a phone, then actually conduct personal transactions on it, save personal data on it, etc.

Unix in general is just a pc-like O/S, i.e., the default file systems are primitive. Root can write to executable files. It’s idiotic. It was never intended to be what it is today, that is, having to exist in the free-for-all unsecure world.

I would much prefer that several proprietary OSs were competing and available to give me a choice, but M$ killed all of them off.

Open Source works and it’s cheap. It’s also rinky-tink in terms of arbitrary, cryptic, cutesy naming conventions, commands that have bazillion options for a truckload of functionality in one command etc. TC/IP is nuts, IMHO.

But... at least I’m not paying thousands per year to M$ for the same amount of goofy complexity and having the whole thing change every 5 years or so. M$ is constant BS that one has to pay exhorbitant amounts for. An old executable on linux has a good shot a running.

IMHO, after 50 years, there should be OSs that had the core functions, be rock solid and cheap.

Yeh, I agree 100%, ya pay yer money, ya take yer choice.

33 posted on 11/26/2012 3:43:22 PM PST by PieterCasparzen (We have to fix things ourselves.)
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To: Responsibility2nd
There. A 2 thousand word solution verses a 10 word solution.

What about if you left your Ouija Board in your other suit and can't access the cloud?

34 posted on 11/26/2012 11:19:09 PM PST by publius911 (Formerly Publius 6961, formerly jennsdad)
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35 posted on 11/26/2012 11:30:23 PM PST by freds6girlies (many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. Mt. 19:30. R.I.P. G & J)
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To: 5thGenTexan

That is a common critique but a baseless one in the case of the major open-source enterprise programs like Linux, Apache, etc. Those programs are rock-solid in security.

36 posted on 11/27/2012 5:45:18 AM PST by LifeComesFirst (
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To: LifeComesFirst
How can my critique baseless when it included specific real world examples in it? Android, an open source Linux based OS has been hit by malware attacks already. The need for anitivirus programs is being suggested by industry pundits.

Narrowing the discussion to only enterprise versions does not include the whole open source world. Having worked in the enterprise server industry for 25 years, I am well aware of where enterprise Linux is and how long it took to get there.

The premise I was addressing was the assertion that open source in and of itself creates more secure solutions. And his reference point was the personal desktop, not the enterprise server. If he must buy one of the enterprise Linux solutions to get the level of security you speak of, the price part of his argument goes out the window.

37 posted on 11/27/2012 6:32:05 AM PST by 5thGenTexan
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To: Ernest_at_the_Beach

Yes, where I can. Firewalls/DMZs - that kind of thing.

But - functionally - my employer is a mall, as opposed to a single-purpose business like a law firm. So, while I have just under 300 users, I have 8 primary database systems from different industries. As opposed to Seafirst Bank where we had 1 primary industry database system surrounded by a bunch of secondary systems.

So, I have no flexibility when it comes to software infrastructure.

Which sucks.

38 posted on 11/27/2012 8:27:48 AM PST by Psycho_Bunny (Thought Puzzle: Describe Islam without using the phrase "mental disorder" more than four times.)
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To: 5thGenTexan
Closed Source versus Open Source does not in and of itself make for better security. If that were the case, the discussions about the need for antivirus solutions on mobile devices would be around iOS, but they are not. They are about Android

Actually, the issues with mobile devices has more to do with the security model they implement. From what I've seen, with most of these devices, users are pretty much running as ROOT, which is a big no-no.

Your ideas about market share being such a large factor has been debunked so many times, I think a few FR posters have macros for it.

39 posted on 11/27/2012 8:38:11 AM PST by zeugma (Those of us who work for a living are outnumbered by those who vote for a living.)
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To: zeugma
True. Running as root is a big no-no. So system configuration is a big player in its security. A poorly configured open source system is less secure than a properly configured closed source system. So if security is the issue, the source model is orthogonal.

Your ideas about market share being such a large factor has been debunked so many times, I think a few FR posters have macros for it.

What is an alternative explanation for Android being a bigger target than iOS? If its not market share related, then what? Is Android inferior to iOS?

And if the market share aspect is not a part of why hackers target a given platform, why do so many former hackers who have gone public say it was? Many relish the notoriety they recieved by making the news. None of them got famous hacking Symbian or OS/2.

40 posted on 11/27/2012 10:15:23 AM PST by 5thGenTexan
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