Getting Started with Open Source

There is a wealth of free and open source software (FOSS) out there. Chances are, whatever you want to do with software, there is FOSS out there to help you do it. You might want to look at how others are using open source, in the CaseStudies. And the NZOSS itself has a project to help educational institutions move to open source, the EducationGroup.

Simple things first

You don't need to change everything about the way you work in order to start using Open Source software. A number of key applications already available on multiple operating system platforms. The quickest way to be convinced of the value and merits of Open Source software is to try out some of the applications available for the platform you already use. Here are some recommendations to get you started:

Web Browsing
Firefox has an intuitive interface and blocks viruses, spyware, and popup ads. It delivers Web pages faster than ever. And it's easy to install and import your favorites. Packed with useful features like tabbed browsing, Live Bookmarks, and an integrated Search bar, Firefox will change the way you experience the Web, for the better.
Thunderbird is a simple to use, powerful, and customizable e-mail application. Thunderbird supports IMAP and POP mail protocols, as well as HTML mail formatting. Easily import your existing email accounts and messages. Built-in RSS capabilities, powerful quick search, spell check as you type, global inbox, deleting attachments and advanced message filtering round out Thunderbird's modern feature set.
Word Processing
LibreOffice is a complete productivity software suite, providing world-class word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, diagramming, and database functionality. By default, LibreOffice uses the productivity data open standard for saving files called Open Document Format, but for the convenience of many potential users in this Microsoft-dominated computing world, it also offers excellent compatibility with Microsoft Office's proprietary file formats.
GIS (Geographic Information Systems)
QGIS is the world's leading Open Source desktop GIS tool. It is leading the democratisation of GIS, allowing anyone interested to carry out spatial data visualisation and analysis, so GIS capability is no longer limited to large organisations able to afford expensive commercial GIS software suites. In the GIS & environmental data domain, industry standard web services are widely used to enable direct access to public data via the internet. In New Zealand, many central and regional government agencies, as well as CRI's, etc, are providing free access to their data via such services. QGIS provides users with simple access to these data, as well as allowing users to create and manage their own spatial data. QGIS is well supported and widely used i New Zealand, through CRIs like NIWA, government agencies such as LINZ, NGO's such as ECO and commercial companies such as DMS. Online tutorials and training are widely available. A good place to start in NZ is the recently established, but growing NIWA QGIS Users Group which has some tutorials, a local mailing list and links to other resources.

Compilation CD's

Compilation CD's are a good way to access a collection of FOSS that may be carried around with you and installed wherever necessary. This serves two purposes. The first is that you don't need to be without your favourite programs no matter where you are. The second is that, because the programs are all Open Source, you can copy the CD as many times as you like and give copies away to whoever you want.

Some examples of compilation CD's are:

The OpenDisc Project
The OpenDisc Project collects a variety of high quality Free and Open Source packages into a single CDROM Image. The programs run in Windows and cover the most common tasks such as word processing, presentations, e-mail, web browsing, web design, and image manipulation. (OpenDisc is the successor to the highly regarded project known as TheOpenCD.)
Open Source Software CD
The OSSCD is a burnable ISO image for a CD that contains high-quality, Free, open source software for Microsoft Windows 95 and higher. The latest versions of all software are included.
Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society OSSWIN CD
The Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society OSSWIN CD is a collection of nearly 100 Free/Open Source software applications for home and business users using the Microsoft Windows 98SE/Me/2000 and XP operating systems.

Live CDs

One useful method for evaluating Linux on any given type of hardware is the 'Live CD'. These are bootable CDs or USB sticks that will set up and run Linux and other Free and Open Source software without altering your computer in any way. As soon as you reboot your computer after removing the CD or USB stick, your computer will behave as it did before. This capability has a number of uses beyond pure evaluation purposes e.g.

  • Computer Recovery - While the Live CD doesn't update or modify anything by default in some cases it can be used to repair damaged files.
  • Security - Internet Cafe's can be very convenient however how much personal information do you leave behind when you finish your session. With a Live CD, because nothing is stored on the host system, you can be sure that once the session is closed down, nothing remains behind.
Knoppix is a bootable Live system on CD or DVD, consisting of a representative collection of GNU/Linux software, automatic hardware detection, and support for many graphics cards, sound cards, SCSI and USB devices and other peripherals. KNOPPIX can be used as a productive Linux system for the desktop, educational CD, rescue system, or adapted and used as a platform for commercial software product demos. It is not necessary to install anything on a hard disk. Due to on-the-fly decompression, the CD can have up to 2 GB of executable software installed on it (over 8GB on the DVD "Maxi" edition).
Ubuntu is probably the best known Linux distribution - its website provides straightforward instructions for downloading a CD image, burning it to a CD or USB stick, and trying Ubuntu. It's well worth the small effort involved.

Running a Website

Open Source software and the internet grew up together. Because of this, not surprisingly, there are a number of very popular Open Source packages and applications in use on the Internet. You may sometimes hear the term “LAMP” to describe the popular combination of Open Source software and applications used to build internet websites. “LAMP” is an acronym of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (or Perl or Python).

Two of the many content management systems available to run websites are:

Plone is a user-friendly and powerful open source Content Management System. It is ideal as an intranet and extranet server, as a document publishing system, a portal server and as a groupware tool for collaboration between separately located entities.
Drupal is another Open Source Content Management System. Equipped with a powerful blend of features, Drupal can support a variety of websites ranging from personal weblogs to large community-driven websites. We use Drupal to run this NZOSS website.

Switching to FOSS

Although you can run many FOSS applications on top of proprietary (non-FLOSS) operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X, once you've convinced yourself that FOSS is the "real deal" you can happily join many of us in running a fully FLOSS computing environment, all the way down to your operating system. Open source operating systems like Linux (there are others) let you use an environment where essentially ALL your applications are open source. By far the majority of FOSS is written for these platforms.

While it is possible to download and compile your own copy of the Linux operating system and other FOSS applications it is easier for most people to use one of the pre-packaged open source "distributions". These distributions, or distros, typically come with all the software you will ever need either on CD's or DVD's. They can typically be installed in parallel with Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OS X to provide what is called a dual-boot environment. This allows you the option of choosing at boot time what operating system environment you wish to run.

While there might seem to be a daunting array of distributions, most are focused on speciality niches. There are only a few "general purpose" distributions, listed below. Most differ based on subtle differences in community philosophy Each distribution has a set of vocal community members, who are working to make their distribution the best for its designated niche. Ultimately, these communities cooperate and compete in a friendly way, and this dynamic means that distributions are improving at an impressive rate, for the benefit of anyone who wants to use them. There's nothing to be afraid of - download one or more, try them, and decide which one you like best.

Some of the more popular choices of Linux Distribution available today are:

Ubuntu (also mentioned above) is a complete Linux-based operating system, freely available with both community and professional support. In the desktop area, this is probably the distribution with the most visibility and mind-share in 2010, although that could change.
The openSUSE project is a worldwide community program sponsored by Novell that promotes the use of Linux everywhere. The program provides anyone with free and easy access to the world's most usable Linux distribution, SUSE Linux.
Fedora Core
Fedora Core is a free operating system that offers the best combination of stable and cutting-edge software that exists in the free software world.
Debian is a free operating system for your computer. An operating system is the set of basic programs and utilities that make your computer run. Debian uses the Linux kernel (the core of an operating system), but most of the basic OS tools come from the GNU project; hence the name GNU/Linux. Debian GNU/Linux provides more than a pure OS: it comes with over 15490 packages, precompiled software bundled up in a nice format for easy installation on your machine.

More Specialised Functionality

Up to this point we have covered some of the basic capabilities that may be provided through FOSS. There are many other areas including commercial support, specialised distributions and specific or niche market areas. Some of the areas are:

Graphics Design
Graphics Design packages include raster image manipulation tools such as The GIMP as well as Drawing and Desktop publishing tools. You can even create your own fonts if you wish. More information on Graphics Design packages may be found here.
Thin Clients
Thin Clients are a type of networked computing environment that uses one or two reasonably powerful servers to drive a number of lower powered computers as clients. This potentially extends the life of your computing investment thus reducing overall costs. More information in thin client computing may be found here.
Commercial Distributions
Sometimes for application support reasons you may require the support and services that come prepackaged with a Commercial Linux Distribution. More information on some of the leading distributions and what they offer may be found here.
Specific Packages
Occasionally you may find that your distribution of choice doesn't supply a particular application at the level you need. While you can always download and compile the application yourself sometimes that just isn't possible or desirable. It may be that all you need is a precompiled package designed for your particular systems. More information on where to find specific packages is here.
The Berkley System Distributions
The Berkley System Distributions or BSD's may be regarded as the forerunners of Linux and many other Open Source projects. They were the original 'free' UNIX systems and more information on them may be found here.
Can't quite find a FOSS application that does exactly what your current 'must have' application does? or maybe you have but it doesn't run natively on your chosen platform? Perhaps an emulation environment is all you need to solve the problem. FOSS is available that can provide a UNIX-like runtime environment on Windows platforms as well as a Windows-like runtime environment on Linux. More information on emulation tools here.
Development Tools
An integrated development environment can save valuable time when building new applications. More information on FOSS developers tools can be found here.