What is Linux?

Linux is an Open-Source Operating System (OS). It was first created by Finnish grad student Linus Torvalds in 1991. He started it as a project for school, modeled after Minix, which was a UNIX-based OS. Linus called it Linux, because his work was modeled after UNIX, and using his name. Linux has no direct relation to UNIX like other OSs such as Solaris (Sun Microsystems), SunOS (old Sun Microsystems), Irix (SGI), AIX (IBM), UNIXware (SCO), Tru64(Compaq), HP-UX(Hewlett Packard), BSD, and many others. Linux is written from the ground up and is very well written. It’s had a lot of help with it’s development, and has millions of programmers each day building it. Why so many, you ask?It’s Open-Source. By 1993, the Linux kernel had reached 1.0

Even Before Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel, Richard Stallman had began the GNU project. GNU is a recursive acronym meaning GNU’s not UNIX. What the GNU project did was write open-source versions of the tools found in the orignal versions of UNIX. Tools like ls, cd, tar, to applications like the Vi and Emacs text editors. The GNU project would have had their own OS out but, they hadn’t achieved a working kernel before Linus and Linux. In some circles, people refer to Linux as GNU/Linux. Technically this is true, but most just say Linux for short. I have much respect to everyone who has/does contributes to the GNU project, but I’m just saying “Linux” is easier to say.

Linux is very famous for it’s scalability. What am I talking about? Linux can run on practically anything. It’s one of the leading choices for Embedded projects, and it shines on servers. Motorola and many others are beginning to release more and more cell phones with a Linux based OS. For certain MP3 players, a Linux based firmware called Rockbox has been made which includes many more features than a standard MP3 player. What else would you use to play Doom on your Ipod? A Linux based firmware has also been written for certain consumer routers, called DD-WRT. As of current, it only runs on the Linksys WRT54G series and certain models of Buffalo WHR series. Linux also runs on UMPCs and smartphones. The ASUS Eee PC, Everex Cloudbook, VIA Nano book, and new Motorola RAZR, KRZR, and SLVRs all run a Linux-based OS.

Linux is highly praise for it’s security. In actuality, a fresh install of a desktop distribution is somewhat insecure, but not enough to worry most people. I have a lot of music and movies on my computer, but nothing I wouldn’t share with the rest of the world. Linux doesn’t run Windows programs (easily) and most of the malware lurking around the world wide web is designed to exploit a Windows OS. The firewall feature on most consumer routers is enough for most people. For a production server however, a Linux box would have to undergo some degree of customization to be totally secure. Once everything has been tightened and locked down, look out, many systems like this are virtually untouchable.

Another great part of Linux is that it’s Open-Source. The source code to an Operating System is like the full schematics for a car. It’s the Hanes or Chilton manual for your OS. However, if you have the programming ability, you can change that source code to fit your specific needs, or just to create a new product. Take Debian Linux for example. Debian is a very well known distribution of Linux, and used by many. It has no corporate backing, like other distros (I’ll get to these later). It’s made by the people, for the people. Many, including myself, believe it to be a shining example of what Open-Source software is capable of. Despite Debian’s popularity, it’s been said that its difficult to use. No Linux is super easy to use for a new comer, but some had an idea. They made some changes to Debian, making it easier to use. They called it Ubuntu. Ubuntu Linux is widely touted as a newbie’s distro, but the creators of Ubuntu were looking to make everything work, without having to screw with every part of the system. Debian is a great distro for those who want to get their hands a lil dirty, but for those who dont know anything about Linux, or just want everything to work from the get-go, Ubuntu is a great choice. I will talk more about distros later, but I wanted to use the how Debian and Ubuntu relate as an example.

You might be asking yourself “Why would I want to use Linux?” Good question. There are a lot of answers. Some for security, some cause of Linux’s customization factor, some just because Windows Vista runs waaaay too slow for their hardware. Some just cause it’s different.

I choose to use Linux cause of the Open-Source factor. I like the idea of “by the people, for the people”. I first started cause it’s free. Many others love this part too. Linux is great for computer geeks, or those who want or need/want total control over your system. As great as Linux is in my opinion, I don’t suggest it to everyone. If someone doesn’t know the difference between “memory” and “hard drive”, then I usually won’t mention what OS I use. But if someone is technically inclined, knows computers, and can figure out problems on their own, than Linux is often great, once past the initial learning curve.

Linux isn’t easy at first. There are many distributions designed to make things easier for those new to Linux/UNIX, but even the easiest distros aren’t completely ready for everyone. One of Linux’s and UNIX’s most popular attributes is it’s command line. Instead of pointing and clicking, checking/unchecking boxes, the command line is where you’d enter commands, complete with arguments and flags, to get what you need done. The command line does take a bit to get used to, but there are many great tutorials and how-tos on the subject, including one I’m working on 🙂 Once you learn the Linux/UNIX way of doing things, it just becomes natural to you. I encourage everyone trying Linux to stick with it. Most who stick it out past the learning curve, end up using it for quite a while. For me, Linux made using the computer fun again.

Linux comes in many different flavors called distributions, or distros for short. It’s referred to as a Linux distribution, because Linux is just the kernel. A kernel is to an OS what the brain is to the human body. Linux is the brain, while it’s everything else that makes up the distribution. At a very basic level, the Linux OS is what we got when we joined the Linux kernel and the GNU utilities. On a more advanced level, a Linux distro is comprised of the Linux kernel, GNU utilities, and it’s packages. By packages, I mean things like the distro’s window manager, it’s included applications, such as Firefox, OpenOffice, Acidrip, Mplayer, Rythmbox, etc. Different distros are made with certain purposes and goals in mind. While there are many different distributions active in the Linux world, most are based on a few main distros. The “base-distros”, if you will, are Debian, Red Hat, Mandriva (formerally Mandake), SuSE, Slackware, and Gentoo. I won’t explain every active distro here in detail, but Ill talk about the main ones and mention a few forks from each.

Debian is designed to be 100% Open-Source softwares. Debian is the one distro that is most often referred to as Debian GNU/Linux, while others are called Gentoo Linux or Slackware Linux, or etc. Debian is very big on and strict about only utilizing Open-Source software, and is regarded as one of the best examples of Open-Source operating systems. I’m trying to look at this unbiased, as I myself am a Debian user. Many will say Debian is hard to use, or it’s an experts distro, but I will vouch for neither. Debian is easy to use and I recommend it to those new to Linux all the time. Debian prides itself on it’s package mananger, APT. It stands for Advanced Packaging Tool. APT is one of the most praised package managers of all distros. It’s very good at working out dependencies, and Debian has access to large repositories of over 19,000 programs just waiting for you to install them. Most of Debian’s files are in a special “.deb” format, and comes with tools that, should you download your own .deb files from the web, it’s not a pain to install like source code or a tarball. Debian comes in Stable, Testing, and Unstable. Debian offers kernels, packages, and full ISOs of all stable, testing and unstable works, but each differs in how long it’s been worked on. With the stable release, currently codenamed “Etch”, the kernel and all the applications are a bit older but have the advantage of being gone over with a fine-toothed comb, so to speak. Debian testing and unstable are often combined in a stack of cutting edge open-source goodness. The kernel and applications are literally just weeks behind the newest out on the internet, but this can come with some errors. A few errors aside, Debian testing/unstable is still very usable. I personally run it on my main computer, while Etch handles the HTTP/FTP server you got this web-page from. Debian is so popular, Knoppix, Damn Small Linux (DSL), Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Pardus Linux, Smoothwall, and many more, are based on Debian. More info on Debian can be found at http://www.debian.org

Next up would have to be Red Hat Linux. Some of you may have heard of Red Hat, as it’s been a around a while. Red Hat used to be very popular for Desktops, but that popularity has been a bit dwindling while other distros, usually Debian-based, have taken over the Desktop realm of Linux. For the last few years, Red Hat decided to drop it’s desktop version to concentrate on it’s Enterprise Linux optioins. Red Hat is very well known for it’s Red Hat Enterprise Linux disto. Red Hat charges for this product, but the charge is only for security patches, and award-winning 24/7/365 technical support. Even though Red Hat does charge for their RHEL products, they are obligated to release the source code due to the GPL. Each Linux distro is slightly different. Some distros have different locations for various configuration files, but Red Hat has given Linux a total overhaul. The file structure is different, and they have many others parts of their systems that are absent on other systems, Like Kickstart. Red Hat, like Debian also has its own package manager called Yum and their own signature filetype called RPM. RPM, stands for Red Hat Package Management. Red Hat isn’t totally out of the desktop arena. They are a major contributor to the Fedora Project. Fedora Linux is based on Red Hat, but is still a community-driven distro. Red Hat does a lot of testing for their RHEL products in the Fedora disto. Fedora is very popular, and is a very beautiful distro. Fedora has many faithful followers, but I’ve never had any luck getting it to work. It looks nice and I like it, but the installer just doesn’t like my hardware I guess 🙂 Because Red Hat has to release source code, there are distros that are the same distro sans Red Hat’s tech support and logos. Those distros are CentOS and Scientific Linux. More info can be found at http://www.redhat.com, and http://www.fedoraproject.org

Red Hat isn’t the only major company pushing a Linux distro. SuSE started out as a private project, but became popular after Novell bought the rights to SuSE. SuSE, like Red Hat, has an Enterprise version of their distro called SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (commonly referred to SLED), and also features a community-driven distro called OpenSuSE. SuSE is a much more standard distribution. It’s filesystem is roughly similar to Debian-based and other distros, but SuSE prides itself on it’s YaST management console. YaST stands for Yet another Setup Tool. Its a GUI front end to most of the configuration files in your Linux system. SuSE uses the RPM files for it’s system like Red Hat-based distros, but that’s about the only similarity. SLED is often used for Business desktops and servers. For more info, check out http://www.opensuse.org

Slackware was designed to be the most UNIX-like of Linux distros. It’s arguably the oldest Linux distro, and rumored to be one of the more difficult to use. While I haven’t used it myself, I’ve talked with some friends who have. They all say it’s somewhat difficult to set up, but once you get it all configured the way you want, it’s as easy as any others. Slackware doesn’t use a package manager Like Debian. It’s what you’d call a source-based distrobution. More information can be found at http://www.slackware.org

Another big distribution name in the Linux world is Gentoo. Gentoo is a source-based distro like Slackare, but the main difference is that Slackware is put together when you download the ISO image. Gentoo is a Buid-it-yourself distro. You compile the source code for the OS itself, then the necessary programs, then any other apps you might want. If you haven’t compiled an application before, it can get very complex, and can take a lot of time. Gentoo gets a lot of praise because it’s a quality distro, well written, community driven, and is often great for programming environments and servers alike. More information can be found at http://www.gentoo.org

For Mor information on different distributions I highly recommend spending some time on http://www.distrowatch.com. It’s a great site.


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