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Is it useful for a Unix admin to use Linux on his work computer?

The situation is that, a new young Unix admin with little to no experience is accepted to work. Is it useful for his supervisor to force him to use Linux on his work computer instead of Windows? The young admin himself prefers Windows. Will Linux usage give him more experience or cause more trouble which will not be useful for his day to day server administration?


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In the hypothetical situation above, do you play the part of the young admin @softly? – Dave Cheney May 14 '09 at 11:34
No I play supervisor`s role :) – Kazimieras Aliulis May 14 '09 at 11:35
Have the young admin read this first to understand the dangers involved, then read this second to understand "why did they do it that way?!?!" – Avery Payne Jun 10 '09 at 0:00
Avery am a stickler to respect the rights of those who assert copywrite, as Neal Stephenson did.. the source site for "In the beginning was the command line" articles is: – jbdavid Jun 18 '09 at 8:38

11 Answers 11

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I wouldn't advise forcing someone, unless there's no other way for them to do their job.

However, I assume there's something else here. Anyone employed as a Unix admin should certainly feel comfortable in the command line... if the new admin didn't like that (or even the occasional need to open a terminal in Linux despite the GUI config tools), I'd worry about his (or her) suitability for the position. If, however, he just wanted to be able to play Windows games during downtime, I wouldn't worry about it.


Part of me is amazed that there's a Unix sysadmin choosing to use Windows. Not in an anti-Windows sense, but more in a 'eat your own dog food' sense.

I would have thought that using an *ix variant on his/her work computer would be a learning experience, and part of moving from being a new admin to an experienced admin.

Let me ask the question the other way: What would you say to a new Windows Server admin who wanted to use Linux on their work computer, rather than Windows?

The "eat your own dog food" might be that most of the users that access the services on the host use windows. E.g. if they provide SMTP and IMAP if most users use Outlook to access IMAP and SMTP then using windows will let him taste the dog food with the same taste buds. :-) – Jason Tan May 30 '09 at 15:46
@Jason Tan - good point about dog food. – ConcernedOfTunbridgeWells May 30 '09 at 19:24
Good point, though that's not quite quite what I was getting at (as I'm pretty sure sure you know :). It's all dependent on context and usage, really, rather than yes/no answers. Personally, I'd say the Outlook example is support rather than sysadmin :p – CK. Jun 1 '09 at 12:29

I think that a preference for a windows desktop is not necessarily an indicator of unsuitability for the position. If he's really displaying a lack of engagement with the unix-isms underlying Linux and this is affecting his job then you might have a problem. Otherwise let him use Windows on his desktop if he wants to.

There are plenty of reasons why one might use a Windows desktop in this role; most of them boil down to a requirement to use some piece of windows based software (e.g. Office or TOAD if you're working with Oracle).

See how well he does on the job.

Most windows applications can be run quite happily in a virtual machine on a linux box. I think the only common exception these days are heavy 3D applications. Does he want to play games on his lunch hour or after work? – pgs Jun 1 '09 at 3:47
"Most" doesn't equal "all" though; there are some applications you cannot run in a VM due to performance and licensing - Core Impact, and other vulnerability scanners, come to mind. – romandas Sep 8 '09 at 13:25

It depends, but I think the value of forcing a junior to sue an OS they don't want to use is minimal. This is especially so when you are trying to force them to use what is probably a minority OS that is not used by anyone else in the organisation apart from the unix admins.

I personally think it is more convenient for doing actual unix work to have a unix workstation. It means you can easily develop scripts on your desktop host. It also lets you try stuff. That's my personal preference.

But I don't think it is essential. Running a linux desktop is not the same as running a linux server and while a lot of what the young admin may learn maybe useful in his server work, a lot of it, will not. E.g. setting up X11 servers is not very useful on most unix servers. He'll get the server relevant experience on the servers. The workstation specific stuff he learns by running a unix workstation for the most part won't really help him be a better server admin.

On the other side if you work in an environment where most of the business tools (e.g. office, visio, OCS) are only available on windows or the unix versions of them are sub standard (which I think is probably true for most environments these days), and you only get one workstation, then using windows as your primary workstation may not be such a bad thing, especially if you need to use those business tools a lot (e.g.e if policy douments and work requests come as word and excel docs). It is after all still perfectly possible to do all of your work on unix with putty, winscp and if required a windows X11 server. I've worked in environments where you simply weren't allowed to use a non windows OS for your workstation. I managed perfectly well with putty and winscp. I was occasionally frustrated with a windows workstation, and I moaned and complained bitterly when I first learnt that I was forced to use windows, but as it turned out the frustration occurred far less than I thought it would when I started. We did however have a unix host that we could use for things like copying large logs to for processing, script dev, running LDAP commands etc.

In addition sometimes I think it can be less productive using a unix desktop. E.g. it can be a real pain to get things like flash and java plugins working on a linux workstation and these things are at times required for tools like Storage GUIs whcih run in web browsers. In some cases they pretty much will not run on browseers other than IE (e.g. it took me ages to get DRAC to work with firefox, and when I did I needed to run firefox as root - whereas it just worked with IE).

Also a windows desktop is useful in that it lets you experience and identify windows related problems with the unix services you provide much earlier. Again ideally you'll have a test suite to identify these problems, but you'll identify them earlier probably before they even get close to the formal testing stage if you are using a windows workstation.

I think the only thing that would make me want to seriously consider making the junior use a unix workstation against his will is if the standard desktop OS in the organisation was unix. Then I think it would be reasonable for him to be required to use the standard desktop OS. The reasoning behind this is again so that they experience the services they provide the way other users in the organisation experience them.

I think that if the junior is going to grow up unixy, then he may well gravitate to a unix desktop over time. And if not I don't think it really matters as long as he can do his job efficiently.

My personal preference for a unix admin workstation is a Mac. You get OFfice, exchange compatability if required, and you can use OCS. You can't use an Access DB or visio, but you can RDP to a terminal server if these apps are required. And you have all the normal unix tools available - most of the common ones ship as standard and the others can be compiled or in most cases downloaded as mac installers.

In not voting this one up, I consider length. If you are going to go long you should do it like Otherwise Succinct gets my vote. – jbdavid Jun 18 '09 at 8:42
+1 -- Complicated questions get complicated answers. Simple answers are for simple questioners. – David Mackintosh Jan 8 '10 at 19:23

Speaking from personal experience, I think that any new *nix admin would be well served by installing Linux on their desktop (and router, ipod, xbox, toaster, whatever). I started my Linux administrator career as a Windows-running, Putty-bound admin and I learned much during those times. However, after repeated cajoling by some senior *nix admins, I switched over to a Linux desktop and my knowledge and understanding of that OS bloomed much more quickly than before. This knowledge was often gained through struggle, as in running bleeding-edge kernels to get barely-supported laptop hardware to function correctly, but the insights that such experiences provided into the particulars of the Linux kernel and the various core subsystems were invaluable to my growth as a *nix systems administrator (eg - the transition from adequate to competent).

The daily act of interfacing with any OS brings with it an increased comfort with and knowledge of the particulars of its underlying components. Splitting time between a personal and a professional OS also split's one's attention, and integration issues between the two can also lead to the same loss of productivity that moving to Linux can bring.

I do dislike the idea of coercing a junior staff member into running an OS against their will but perhaps some gentle suggestions from senior staff could be enough to inspire a migration, as it was in my case.

And in voting this one up I only suggest (as Avery did above) the reading of – jbdavid Jun 18 '09 at 8:40

It really doesn't matter if your administering Linux/Unix servers. You can always use the command line remotely opening a terminal in your desktop or using PuTTY in Windows.

Here at work I use Windows because I need Microsoft Office, access Sharepoint sites and Microsoft Office Communicator.


I think to be really useful he should be running both systems side by side. That way he can attempt to deal with all new problems firstly on his linux system then resorting to the windows machine if he is unable to do so.

That way he can come back with his supervisor later on and learn what is needed to fulfil the task he couldn't do without it affecting his ability to actually do the work if he gets stuck.

I similarly used to dual boot both Vista and Linux, the thought of having to reboot to change back to vista was normally enough to encourage me to find the proper way to do things on my linux machine however I don't see why he couldn't alternatively run a windows Machine VM inside of his linux system.


If his professional responsibilities include administering Linux desktops, then yes, he needs the experience and it will be useful to him. If his job is administering GUIless servers, then I'd say no, let him use Windows; not enough of the experience he'd get would translate usefully to make it worth the aggravation.


I, personally, find it a bit surprising that a unix admin would prefer using Windows as the primary desktop environment, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it. With an X server and putty installed, it shouldn't be any functional problems taking care of unix machines. If at all possible, a serial-port terminal application better than "Terminal" should be found and installed, for the cases you need to console onto something.


The situation is that, a new young Unix admin with little to no experience is accepted to work. Is it useful for his supervisor to force him to use Linux on his work computer instead of Windows? The young admin himself prefers Windows. Will Linux usage give him more experience or cause more trouble which will not be useful for his day to day server administration?

Why was he hired as a Unix admin if he has no experience and prefers Windows? Hint: he might be better off as a Windows admin. I mean it doesn't matter much what the underlying OS is with the availability of VMware and virtualbox, but you think he'd at least show some interest in running Linux or a UNIX variant if he has to administer it.


Running his own linux box is essential to his learning. Forcing him to do it may discourage him. I think running his windows box as a VM inside his linux box is a great option, as It will bring him up to speed on virtualization as well.

Guide him/her to some of the great literature out there,

and of course the Stackoverflow podcast, and


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