Missiles to Legos: 10 reasons to run Linux instead of Windows

From the Large Hadron Collider to the Tesla Model S, this 25-year-old operating system can be found in some amazing places. But there's one place Windows still has the edge.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
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Powered by Linux

Image: Public Domain

Over the years, I've had my fair share of disagreements with both Linux and Linux users. But as Linux has entered its second quarter-century, I've found myself thinking about all the fabulous things that run Linux.

Two years ago, I wrote an article about the five reasons I'd rather run Windows 8 than Linux. While Windows 8 didn't work out all that well, Windows 10 is clearly a barn-burner. Today, in fact, you can find Windows 10 running inside a Raspberry Pi (and it's free for individuals) as well as inside of very inexpensive PCs.

But ever since I threw OctoPrint on a $35 Raspberry Pi and created a 3D printing server, I've felt I've come to terms with Linux. I think we can be friends again.

So, I thought, if I can use Linux to build 3D objects, what else could I use Linux for? Here are 10 places where the phrase "I'd rather run Linux than Windows" applies quite nicely.

I also have one undeniable reason many of us still need to run Windows.

The Borg (well, uh, Google Borg)

The Borg (well, uh, Google Borg)

Image: Paramount/CNET

There is something disturbing about a Google technology named "Borg", but it's also kind of funny in a haha-not-funny, haha-scary kind of way. Google has developed a technology called Borg that does large-scale (and we're talking Google-scale large) cluster management that runs hundreds of thousands of jobs across tens of thousands of machines.

And what runs the Borg? Linux, naturally.

Still not creeped out. Just sayin'.


Large Hadron Collider

Image: LHC/ZDNet

Speaking of "No, that's not creepy at all," let's talk about the largest machine in the world, the Large Hadron Collider. This thing runs underground for 27 miles to speed up atoms so they can blast into each other and not create a black hole that will suck all of us into it with a ferocity only imagined in our dreams.

Yep, it's definitely a good idea to let tens of thousands of scientists loose with more toys than even Elon Musk can dream of and tell them, "Sure, go ahead and blast some atoms into each other."

Look, I know the LHC is supposed to be safe, and I've even seen the science that proves it should be safe. But the Borg are going to get here through transwarp conduits, and they're going to be created by something.

Anyway, whether these scientific whiz kids make brilliant scientific discoveries or cause the end of the universe as we know it, all we know is the LHC runs Linux. Of course it does.


Tesla Model S

Image: Tesla

If I wanted to build the fastest accelerating production car on the market today, I'd want to use Linux to power it.

According to Tesla's CTO, the Model S is running a version of Linux. Vrooom!

The world's fastest computer

The world's fastest computer

Image: China National University of Defense Technology

If I wanted to build a supercomputer, I'd choose Linux. In fact, all six of the fastest-thinking machines in the world run Linux, not Windows.

This one is the Tiahhe-2, which has held the top slot four years running.

Lego Mindstorms EV3

Lego Mindstorms EV3

Image: Lego

I still have some Lego boxes in my back room closet, and I keep promising myself I'll find time to build them. I actually have one of the Lego Mindstorms kits (natch'), but mine has the old NXT brains.

If I want to do more, I'm thinking it's time to go out and get the Mindstorms EV3 intelligent brick for Lego, because it runs Linux.

A 3D printing robot

A 3D printing robot

Image: David Gewirtz

Since we're talking about robots, how about one that makes things? The little device in the picture is a Raspberry Pi running the OctoPi Linux distribution and OctoPrint software. I use it to control the powerful little LulzBot Mini 3D printer.

In fact, if you ever read science fiction, you'll probably read at least one story where robots became self-replicating and eventually take over the world. This one's not self-replicating (at least I don't think so), but it did build its own case.

Kingfisher unmanned surface vessel

Kingfisher unmanned surface vessel

Image: ROS.org

If I wanted to build a robotic boat, I'd definitely look at Linux. ROS (the Robotic Operating System) is based on Linux.

That little bad boy in the picture above "serves as a marine research platform as well as a remote survey system for bathymetric and hyrometric data collection. This USV includes advanced payload capabilities, easy stow and portability, and can be easily customized to meet research requirements."


USS Zumwalt

Image: Public Domain

On the other hand, if I wanted to build a really big bad boy, complete with guided missiles, stealth capabilities, and the double-armed fist of the US Navy, I'd build the USS Zumwalt.

As my Internet Press Guild colleague Sean Gallagher described it, the DDG-1000 is running Red Hat Linux on an off-the-shelf server rack. Rather than hardening the rack, the entire server room was hardened, making the Zumwalt as much a floating datacenter as friendly persuader.

The most popular OS in human history

The most popular OS in human history

Image: Statista

Let's say I wanted to build the most popular operating system in human history, but customize it for tiny devices. I sure wouldn't start with Windows. I'd need the ability to grow it and mold it any way I want.

Say what you will about Android, but as the Statista chart above shows, it's the clear winner in terms of overall reach. And it's all Linux under the hood.


SpaceX Dragon

Image: SpaceX

This one is really special to me. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I dreamed of rockets. It was the time of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and Cape Canaveral was the stuff of legend. Since that time, I always wanted to see a rocket launch.

Fast forward to July 18 of this year. I live just south of Cape Canaveral, and when SpaceX's CRS-9 mission launched from Cape Canaveral, I could see the flame from my driveway. It was glorious.

That rocket was carrying the SpaceX Dragon, which carried almost 5,000 pounds of cargo. And, according to Elon Musk, founder of both SpaceX and Tesla, the Dragon runs Linux, as do many of the ground control and flight stations.


One undeniable reason for Windows

Image: Microsoft

We've known for 25 years that Linux is amazing, but sometimes you need an article like this for the true breadth of use to become apparent (and I left out a lot).

But I did promise you one undeniable reason for Windows, and it's not about the OS at all. It's about the applications. While you can get a free Office clone in LibreOffice and you can sort of limp your way by graphically with Gimp and Inkscape, sometimes there really is no substitute for the full Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud experience.

In my work, I use a webcasting service that imports PowerPoint slides. It expects the exact format that Microsoft uses and can't use a substitute solution. Many designers swear by Adobe's compelling tool suite, and while there are also some amazing creative tools (particularly in the 3D space) for Linux, sometimes there really is nothing like Photoshop or Illustrator.

So, yes, Linux has many uses. But don't count out Windows or MacOS. When it comes to commercial desktop applications, some run on Linux but far from all. For those tools, you need Windows or OS X/macOS.

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