The greatest open source software of all time
InfoWorld's Open Source Hall of Fame recognizes the 36 most important free open source software projects in history (and today)Follow @infoworld
A few special Linux distributions have earned a place in our hall. Topping the list is CentOS, a free enterprise-class operating system derived from Red Hat and that maintains full binary compatibility with Red Hat. In a nutshell, you get a free, unadulterated edition of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, without the cost of a Red Hat support contract.
Another favorite distribution is Debian GNU/Linux. Debian is one of the few Linux distributions that is community controlled and not steered by a commercial venture. Debian may be the only Linux distribution that still gives a tip of the hat to the hard work of the GNU maintainers by calling itself GNU/Linux. Most of the user-friendly Linux distributions that have popped up in recent years are based on Debian, whose apt-get software installation and update system remains a blessing to system administrators the world over.
The most celebrated of the newfangled user-friendly distros is Ubuntu, and for good reason. When you want to introduce a friend or family member to Linux, you can't do better than to give them Ubuntu. You can even install and run Ubuntu from inside Windows!
To make any Linux distribution easy to use, you have to bring a good graphical user interface to the party. Gnome and KDE are the Linux stalwarts in the GUI department. These projects incorporate not just the basic GUI, but also a full suite of user applications and APIs that other programmers can use to make their applications work with the Gnome or KDE wares. How good are these GUI environments? Just look at what happened when some Aussies presented KDE as Windows 7 to unsuspecting computer users.
Open source operating systems are not all about Linux. There are several open source variations of BSD Unix available as well. We must make room in our hall for the super-reliable and high-performance FreeBSD and siblings NetBSD and OpenBSD. NetBSD brings BSD Unix to a wide variety of computing platforms, including embedded systems and PDAs. OpenBSD's focus is security. The OpenBSD developers and maintainers spend a lot of their time looking over other people's programming code to make sure that applications ported to OpenBSD are free of bugs and vulnerabilities that could be used to compromise the host.
Working with Windows
As much as we love Linux and *BSD, some folks just can't get around having to run Windows applications. So what's a Linux user to do? Well, there's a good chance that Wine can run that crucial Windows application. Wine is a software application that will execute many Windows applications "natively" on Linux and other Unix-like operating systems. Ironically, it has been observed that Wine can launch many Microsoft programs (such as Outlook and Word) faster than those programs launch on Windows!
Whereas Wine provides Linux and Unix-like systems the ability to run Windows applications, Samba provides the ability for Linux and company to talk to Windows computers for file and print sharing. With Samba and its derived utilities, a Linux computer can connect to a Windows file server and share documents just like a Windows workstation can do. Even better, Samba allows a Linux server to act as a file and print server for Windows computers. Samba even lets a Linux computer serve as a Windows domain controller, offering Windows domain logons and roaming profiles for Windows PCs.
One last note on the subject of Windows: Linux and *BSD users enjoy a great set of powerful utilities and commands for free -- but what happens when Linux and *BSD users get stuck working on a Windows computer? Why, look no further than Cygwin. A port of the Unix POSIX system calls to the Win32 environment, Cygwin allows you to run the GNU Compiler Collection and many GNU utilities on a Windows machine.