What Linux offers Hams

Where do I begin?

The very first thing I'd recommend is getting some reading material. Plan to spend some time getting familiar with the installation procedure and Linux/UNIX terminology and syntax. Adding a second operating is a bit more involved than installing the latest office suite (although not much harder these days!) and requires some study as there will be new ways of doing things to learn.

TCP/IP Networking over AX.25

Linux is quite capable of being a powerful TCP/IP switch offering all of the popular Internet services over the ham radio packet network. If you're a bit rusty on TCP/IP based networks, or need to learn more about TCP/IP, networks in general, or network administration, I recommend the following documents available in a variety of formats at The Linux Documentation Project.

Network Administrator's Guide -- General networking info (HTML)
Linux Networking HOWTO -- A guide to configuring Linux networking (HTML)
AX25-HOWTO -- A guide specific to configuring TCP/IP on Linux (HTML)

Networking is nice, what else is there?

A number of packages are available for the ham running Linux and more are evolving. A Web page with descriptions of the very latest ham software is available at the Linux Hamradio Applications and Utilities Homepage. Some things not listed at the Linux Hamradio Applications and Utilities Homepage are available at Ibiblio formerly known as Metalab and before that Sunsite, sigh. Many non-ham specific packages are available and a good place to look is Freshmeat.Net a site dedicated to the latest software announcements for Linux. Also, don't forget the archives for your particular distribution. The binaries provided are compiled and tested for your system and will require much less effort to get working. If you must have the latest and greatest, then get the source and compile your own.

Programming Opportunities

This section was originally written in early 1998 when Linux was just starting to hit the mainstream. While the main programs in use have certainly changed, the underlying concepts remain.

While there is a fair amount of software already available for ham use under Linux, namely satellite tracking, TCP/IP support, and AX.25 BBS software, I think the development has lagged in one key area--end user software. By this I mean contest logging software on a par with CT, TR, and others, host mode packet software on a level with Ka/PkGold, radio control/daily logging software, SSTV software, and programs that support APRS (although the SSTV and APRS areas now each have a good package available). I think these applications are absolutely critical for Linux to become commonplace in the ham-shack. Other nice things will be schematic drawing programs (CAD, already becoming available) and license training software (although web based practice exams may reduce the need for this).

How long it takes for the ham radio market for Linux software to reach "critical mass" depends on how much longer hams are willing to put up with Microsoft's upgrade cycles. I think it will happen when a majority of hams decide Windows is too limiting for the special things we do with computers in the shack and when moving to Linux doesn't mean abandoning familiar software. F6FBB has been maintaining versions of his BBS software for DOS, Win, and Linux from a common source tree for a few years now. So, the sooner we can convince K1EA to port CT and N6TR TR, the sooner the contest community will adopt Linux, same goes for Interflex and KaGold, or any other popular DOS/Win program you care to mention. Another area I see that Linux support will be needed is the new crop of computer controlled radio hardware. These products, such as those from Kachina, ICOM, and Ten-Tec are now only operable from within Win9x and not Linux. These manufacturers should be gently encouraged to port their control programs to Linux or provide interface specifications so that a Free Software version can be written to support their hardware. As I understand it, Ten-Tec and Kachina have made their specifications publicly available and should be congratulated for doing so. In fact, Ten-Tec has released its Windows code under the GPL and released an extensive Programmers Guide. Unfortunately, software for Linux has yet to appear.

Guessing at a time line of when Linux will be the standard in the ham-shack is a bit difficult, but, if I may, I'll go out on a limb. Looking back, ham radio "power users" were early adopters of computer hardware. Many hams bought computers (often built by Radio Shack or Commodore) and put them to work in various tasks around the ham-shack. The cheap IBM PC clones began to appear in the mid '80s after Jeff WA7MBL wrote his MBL BBS software and YAPP a terminal packet program for MS-DOS systems. About the same time K1EA released CT, a DOS based contest logging program, and the ham radio contest world jumped into the computer world for good. Next W0RLI ported his popular RLI BBS software, originally written for the Xerox 820, to DOS and by the late '80s virtually every packet BBS was running on an MS-DOS based PC clone. So by my calculations it took the ham power users about 6 to 8 years to adopt the DOS platform en masse after its introduction in 1981. However, even in 1991, ten years after the PC debuted and the year Linux was born, a good number of end user hams were using Radio Shack CoCos and Commodore 64 for packet terminals and other minor tasks. This changed in the early '90s as PCs became almost a commodity product and powerful software offerings from MFJ, AEA, Interflex, and others began to attract the interests of hams. Windows 3.1 was introduced in 1992 and now a reasonably stable GUI was available for PCs which enticed even more hams and software authors out of the older hardware and in the DOS/Win world.

Now, I see Linux being adopted by more of the ham power users, those wanting the most stable TCP/IP switch or BBS platform available. Hopefully, the next year will produce contest logging software comparable to CT and the next two to three years will produce the "killer" end user ham application that will cause the migration of a majority of hams to Linux. Here is why I see this happening (these are my opinions only (like the rest of these pages!)):

These ramblings are barely a drop in the ocean of knowledge concerning Linux and could probably be much better. Yet, I hope I've piqued your curiosity and that you'll at least give Linux a try. You really have nothing to lose and a whole lot of fun, adventure, and learning to gain.

Next: Linux Installation Preparation

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