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When Linux, a free operating system similar to Unix, careened onto the stock market last year in the form of VA Linux, it was the most successful public offering ever. Linux became a household word — or close to one, anyway — even though few people even knew what it was. Even today, Linux mostly remains an oddity, an operating system built by propeller heads for propeller heads. But Linux has gone mainstream at a midsize firm in the Detroit area, which has found it to be a viable alternative to Microsoft Windows. It was actually desperation that drove Joseph Seward, the partner in charge of technology at Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho, to install Linux as its operating system. Previously, the firm had been using a hodgepodge of operating systems: Windows 3.1 and 95 and Hewlett-Packard Unix, a commercial forebear of Linux. But Y2K concerns led Seward to consider an upgrade: “We push paper,” says Seward, “and we have got to be able to put out paper anytime.” Cummings McClorey is a firm with a total staff of about 100, including 45 lawyers. They have six offices in Michigan and one in Arizona. Cost was a big factor. If the firm went totally to Windows, it would have to buy separate software for each personal computer and replace many of the older PCs. Because the firm had found Unix to be a stable environment, the lawyers decided they wanted, as Seward puts it, “some flavor of Unix.” They received bids from four different vendors, each presenting different options, ranging from combining Windows and Unix to using pure Unix. Eventually, Unique Systems Inc., a software development company based in Holland, Ohio, came up with the most appealing plan. They suggested moving entirely to thin-client ware — i.e., PCs without hard drives. These are known as dumb terminals because they possess no processing power. All of the firm’s information resides on the server, which, in this case, would be running Linux. Apart from Y2K concerns, Linux is rock-solid. Few viruses affect Linux, and those that do don’t have the devastating effect a virus can have on Windows NT. There are several layers of protection on Linux that a virus has to go through, while on Windows, once a virus is in, it can go anywhere and wreak havoc. This switch made sense for Cummings McClorey, in part because it would not have to replace any of its PCs. Unique Systems plugged network cards into the old computers and transformed them into machines that were compatible with Linux. “You can stick the card into any PC and instantly turn it into a Linux box,” says Glenn Jacobson, the president of Unique Systems. Lawyers write on WordPerfect under Linux. So far, the firm hasn’t had trouble finding back-office applications to run under or with Linux. Unique Systems installed Red Hat’s Linux, which costs only $29 to license. But geeks can download other versions of Linux for free. Other freeware is available this way, including programs that help make Linux and Unix work together with Windows. The firm needed to be able to use Windows on at least one computer in order to communicate with its bank. Unique Systems downloaded a program from the AT&T Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., that allows Windows applications to run on a Linux desktop. Among the digerati, Linux is often viewed as a political choice as much as a practical one. Not for Jacobson. “I’ve been in computer services for 35 years,” he explains. “The operating systems then provided a lot more services and were more stable than what Microsoft’s operating systems are. Along comes Linux, which makes it possible at no cost to have an operating system that provides stability. I know I won’t have to visit every day with problem calls.”

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