Information Warfare: Running For Linux

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January 9, 2011: At the end of 2010, the Russian government ordered that all government computers using Microsoft Windows must move to Linux (a free operating system that is far less vulnerable to attack via the Internet) within four years. There are several reasons for this switch. First, there is security. Windows based PCs are most frequently attacked by hackers, and protecting government networks from these attacks is very expensive. There are fewer attacks on Linux PCs because there are more than 50 times as many Windows PCs out there. Second, most of the Microsoft software used by Russian government PCs is stolen. Microsoft, and the United States government, is putting increasing pressure on the Russians to pay up. The Russians hope to avoid that by simply dropping the use of Windows and other Microsoft software. Software for Linux PCs is much cheaper, and often free. But based on past experience, the Russian effort to convert to Linux will probably fail. The main reason for that can be seen in what happened when China tried to convert.

For a decade now, China has been trying to get business and government users to adopt Unix (and later Linux) as their operating system. Yet most Chinese businesses, and many government departments, continue to use Microsoft operating systems. They do this because Microsoft Windows is widely pirated in China, and there's a large amount of pirated software you can use only on Windows systems. Another critical reason is that more games run on Windows machines, and that is important, even in China. Finally, the Chinese government is more resistant to complaints from Microsoft than Russia.

While the Chinese government continues to push the adoption of Linux, they are finding more success  mandating that government servers use a Unix variant operating system, developed in China, called Kylin. Meanwhile, the government is increasingly eager to force all Chinese businesses to adopt a Chinese version of Linux or Unix for their desktop and laptop PCs. All this is nothing new, but there is a growing sense of urgency to it.

The Chinese know that, while their own Cyber War forces were capable of launching attacks over the Internet, their own computers are already overrun with viruses and worms. While the United States is regarded as the one nation most dependant on the Internet, it is also the country with the largest amount of effort dedicated to protecting it’s PCs from infection by “malware” (viruses, worms, Trojans and the like.) China, on the other hand, had developed an outlaw mentality when it came to software. So most users have pirated operating systems and applications on their machines. While there are pirated versions of anti-virus software available, using this kind of protection is not popular. China is hoping to get around this by using Linux,. But Linux does not have as much software available for it, and users are reluctant to abandon Windows, and all the neat games and other software that only runs on Windows powered computers. The Windows based games, it turns out, are a major obstacle in getting many users, even business users, to switch. It seems that playing games on company computers after hours is a valuable fringe benefit for workers, and costs the company little. No one likes to talk about this form of compensation, but there it is.

The Chinese government has found that switching to Linux is difficult for other reasons. For example, there are not enough computer experts to carry this out. Microsoft Windows is much easier to install, and maintain, than Linux. Many more Chinese computer manufacturers are shipping PCs with Linux installed, but the demand is just not there. Microsoft has a huge head start, and less than five percent of Chinese PCs use Unix or Linux, and the government represents a third of those non-Windows users.

China has tried to get around this by subsidizing Linux training for Chinese engineers and computer technicians. The government also subsidized the development of the Kylin Unix based server software. Kylin is shareware, and anyone can download it. Kylin is also designed to be very secure, much more secure than Microsoft server software, and most other similar products. China has had more success in getting users to adopt non-Microsoft server software, but the real battleground is PCs.

Russia believes they can force the adoption of Linux. But Russia has a long history of government that orders grand things be done, and eventually settling for a compromise. Like declaring that the problem has gone away and everything is fine.

 

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