The title of this blog entry may seam counter intuitive, but I really believe that to be the case.
A few days ago I was called by a distressed client. The network in his office had been getting poorer and poorer for a while and the cause finally become clear when his firewall gave up the ghost. It was a proprietary system, and therefore we were not able to ascertain what subcomponent had failed, we just shipped the whole box back for replacement.
I’m not going to name the company. For a start they make a good product, and any product will suffer failures from time to time. Also it doesn’t matter which vendor built it, what matters that it was proprietary, and therefore unserviceable. It’s like buying a car and having to return the whole vehicle because it gets a flat tyre. If we don’t don’t accept that kind of built in obsolescence from cars why do we accept it for computers?
When IBM designed the PC they designed an open system. Since then just about anybody can (and many have) built add-ons for it. Network card, video capture cards, graphics cards, sound cards, hard disks, DVD drives, the list of add-ons is almost endless. If any one of these components fails we can just pop out to our local Frys or PC World and buy a replacement. And it isn’t just the add-ons, the internals of the system are just as replaceable: power supplies, motherboards, CPUs, memory cards, cases, they are all just as replaceable. If you want to replace a component (because of failure of just to upgrade) there are few limits, you don’t even have to go to the same manufacturer.
Now I got my client out of his particular hold by just grabbing same spare PC components and building him a firewall. I happened to use a Soekris net4801 and lan1641 to provide the hardware, and Linux and Shorewall for the software, but that doesn’t matter. Any one of these components is replaceable.
Soekris are not the only manufactures of small, lower power x86 computers. I could just have easily used any x86 based system, a spare Dell with one on-board network port and four PCI slots each with their own network card would have done just as well. What I needed was a computer with five network ports to provide a functional replacement for his failed firewall.
While I was building it it occurred to me that the software I was using was just as replaceable. There must be half a dozen systems that run on Linux to configure it as a firewall.
If Linux fails it can be replaced. If Daryl McBride sells his soul to Beelzebub to get a win in SCO v. IBM and that results in Linux becoming illegal to use then so what? It will not take Debian, Gentoo, RedHat, SuSE, or any of the other Linux distros that long (months at most) to replace the Linux kernel with one of the BSDs.
If Linus Torvalds was to sell his soul, and tomorrow every copy of the Windows kernel was to vanish from every computer in the world, and the source code vanish too, what would you replace it with? I can’t think of anything that runs the same range of software that Windows does. Sure I can think of replacements for each of the software components, but not something that allows you to keep most of your Windows software intact.
So the real value of Linux and all the free, libre and open source software that you use is that, while it may be vital to you, you do not depend upon it.