Linux is an open-source operating system modeled on UNIX originally designed and thus named by a Finnish software engineer, Linux Torvalds.
That’s a great definition, isn’t it? But what does all that mean? To understand exactly what Linux is we need to take a look at a few of the terms that are used to describe Linux.
What is an Operating System
If we look up the official definition of the operating system you will see this:
“the software that supports a computer’s basic functions, such as scheduling tasks, executing applications, and controlling peripherals”
But what exactly does that mean? Quite simply, an operating system is the software that controls what your computer does. Basic tasks such as moving your mouse or typing in your keyboard are controlled by the operating system. When you launch an application, the operating system is the software that handles that.
These days operating systems are pretty advanced with a full graphic interface that allow you to work much more easily. But, back in the early days, all we had was a basic text interface in which we had to type commands in order to use execute tasks.
What is UNIX
Linux is a UNIX-like operating system. But what is UNIX? UNIX is a true multi-tasking, multi-user operating system that is secure and has been in development for decades. It is truly one of the most advanced and solid operating systems ever designed. But why don’t more people use it? One word…Microsoft. In the early ‘80’s Microsoft developed DOS which was similar although far simpler than UNIX. This operating system was adopted by IBM for the personal computer and the rest is history.
The Release of Linux
In the early ‘90’s, many students around the globe that studied programming did much of their work on UNIX. In 1991, a Finnish computer programming student by the name of Linux Torvalds grew bored with his DOS based 386 PC and decided to create a kernel of his own based on UNIX. He decided to distribute the software freely since it was simply a hobby of his.
Linus had this to say about his project on the Internet in 1991:
“Hello everybody out there using minix -
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready.”
Thus, Linux was born. Linus had a working kernel that would boot an IBM PC, but he had no software for it. Richard Stallman had founded the Free Software Foundation at about the same time and released many different applications as well as the source code for the applications. These included various text editors such as emacs and a command line interface known as bash. These applications were all designed to work on UNIX but were missing an operating system of their own. Linux altered the code for this suite of applications to work on his new platform and thus Linux as we know it was born.
The popularity of Linux began in the world of programmers and computer hobbyists and has endured to this day. In fact, popularity has grown even more simply due to the fact the operating system and software can be obtained for free at anytime making it the perfect operating system for those out there that don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a computer. In addition, it is the perfect operating system for people who don’t want to be locked into a closed system such as Windows or Mac.
Because of the easy access to the operating system and software and it’s robust security and stability because of its UNIX roots, Linux has also grown in the commercial market. Most servers in the world these days run Linux. Televisions, media centers and even your phones running Android all use different customized Linux kernels to operate as well. You would be hard pressed not to find something in your house that runs Linux these days.
What Is Linux Exactly?
I’m sure many of you have wandered around the web and seen the terms Linux, UNIX, etc. Some of you may have even stumbled upon a site talking about Linux on a PC and not known what they were talking about.
To put it simply, Linux is an operating system, not unlike Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X. Linux, was developed by Linus Torvalds and first released in October 1991 as a free, open source operating system. Torvalds developed a UNIX-like operating system that shared many of the same commands as UNIX but was free. He encouraged people to add to the base kernel he created as long as it was kept free for all to use.
Because of this Linux began to attract a lot of attention from developers and gained a large following. Over time, different groups of developers have gotten together to form the many different free versions of Linux that you see today. Graphic interfaces have been added with Gnome and KDE being the big two players in the GUI market as well as a full range of software products for anything from disc burning to Office suites – all free to use of course. Specialized versions of Linux can even be found running things like our wireless routers and our HD TV’s.
The general belief these days is Linux is more difficult to setup and maintain and in many cases only appeals to “techies” and computer developers. But, as the different versions of Linux have matured, usability and ease of setup has grown and now Linux is even more available to the normal “end-user”.
For those of you who are tired of Apple and Microsoft dictating how you will use your computer Linux offers a great alternative. Linux gives you complete freedom to configure and setup your system how YOU want it. Coming up we will talk about Linux distributions and what they mean to you.
What Is a Linux Distribution?
The term Linux distribution is often thrown around the internet when people talk about different versions of Linux but to the novice that term is meaningless. For someone just beginning their journey into the Linux world the terminology is totally foreign and can make them feel even more overwhelmed as they get started and sometimes can even discourage them for trying Linux out at all.
To put simply, a Linux Distribution (of Linux Distro for short) is an operating system just like Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X. It is an OS based on the base Linux kernel with layers of different software added to it to make it a fully usable piece of software. The software collections added in most distros range from Office like productivity to video editing and graphics depending on the distro chosen. Ease of use is also something that many distros have strived for over the years as well but that does vary among them.
Currently there are over 600 Linux distributions available and of those over 300 are in active development. A quick search on the net will instantly show you the bigger, more popular players such as Ubuntu, Red Hat, openSUSE and Debian to name a few. Most all of the distros are free and built and software from the GNU Project.
So, now that you know what a Linux distro is, how do you choose? In our next article we will look at a few of the larger distros and what they offer to help you choose.