In 1995, during a summer job at Ieunet, I first encountered free Unix. We were testing Linux and FreeBSD to see if they would make good Unix servers. By the end of the summer we'd moved the main web server to a free Unix machine. The reason? We'd run into an obscure problem which we diagnosed and fixed once we had the operating system source code available. (It wasn't even an operating system problem!)

After this positive experience we decided to try it out in the School of Maths in Trinity. We bought a Pentium 120 as a server and several diskless 486 machines to act as terminals for undergrads. The server out performed our 1 year old Sun SPARC stations by a factor of 2 or 3 and cost less. The money we saved by buying 486s instead of branded terminals allowed us to get 17 inch monitors for undergrads (rather up market for the time).

In the School of Maths we provide a Unix system for about 1000 undergraduates, postgraduates and staff. The system has always been run by students. Free Unix is ideal for us: it lets us use high quality, easy to maintain software on generic PC hardware - which has a good price/performance ratio.

You'd be amazed at how many people a single Pentium can support. One day I found that one of our FreeBSD servers wouldn't let anyone else log in. I'd accidently left it configured for a maximum of 32 logins. I increased the number and ever since it has happily supported everyone who has tried to log in.

Now we use free Unix for everything from e-mail and web browsing to high performance simulation of Quantum Mechanics and telephone networks. Our system will be all free Unix by next summer - with one possible exception. Our secretarial staff complain that they don't have Windows. I'm offering them KDE, a free Windows like GUI for Unix, and hopefully that will provide what they need.

All over academia free Unix has been making huge inroads. New research software now usually appears for Linux before any other platform. TCD Computer Science are looking at replacing NT file servers with Linux machines - to simplify administration. The successful student Internet societies (UCD, TCD, UL...) all use free Unix to provide services to their members.

It isn't just academics either. For example Oracle and Yahoo use free Unix in their business. Closer to home, most (maybe all) of the Irish ISPs use free Unix machines as servers. Irish companies like Baltimore, Iona and Nua all use free Unix in their operations. Even the name server for Ireland is a Linux machine! (If this machine failed no one could contact a computer with a name ending in .ie)

Unix isn't quite for everyone - yet. Traditionally Unix has been used for "serious" computing, so there hasn't been the same push to develop user friendly tools, which are the basis of MacOS and Windows. Some people say that learning computers though Windows is like learning phrases of a language but learning through Unix is more like learning the grammar and the individual words. Both approaches have their merits. However, tools to make Unix easy to use are finally available - thanks to the growth of Linux.

Free Unix also has a lot to offer those who are just interested in computers. First, you have a vast selection of free software to play with. This means you can e-mail, web browse, write reports and program like everyone else. Naturally, I'm typing on a free Unix machine now.

You can also "tinker under the hood" as you have the source code at hand. This allows you to become part of a world wide development team - quite exciting for the average hobbyist! (There are a few lines of C code written by me in FreeBSD - something I'm a little proud of.)

You might notice I've used the phrase "free Unix". This is because along with Linux there are some versions derived from the original "BSD" Unix. Some people like to argue about which is better - Linux or BSD. Both are admirable pieces of work but they differ slightly.

Linux is the most widely used free Unix by a long way. Consequently Linux has the widest hardware support and a good selection of commercial software is available. The BSD people are a smaller operation and provide a single place where you can get everything: software, documentation and source code. BSD is also licensed in such a way that their code can be reused commercially - Apple have used the BSD networking code in their new OS.

I'd recommend test driving free Unix to anyone in the computer business. Which free Unix should you choose? I'd consider three factors:

The free Unix world is a very interesting place to be. It's a world of rapid and exciting new developments. Some people think that Unix may beat Windows NT at its own game. It hasn't got to the stage where we all buy PCs with Linux on them - but we have a choice.