What is Linux? An in-depth introduction
Linux is one of the most commonly used operating systems, underpinning everything from PCs through to servers and mobile phones. In fact, Linux has been around since the 90s and is in use around the world, and in every application and field imaginable.
Some people know Linux really well, and they also know that Linux runs everything from fridges through to your TV stick. In fact Linux is what supports much of the internet and many scientific breakthroughs have Linux to thank as the computer operating system that made it all happen.
But the general public is not all that familiar with the word Linux, even though Linux has been supplying reliable, secure OS duties for decades. Are you wondering what is Linux operating systems all about? Read on to find out.
Linux Operating System: a brief introduction
First you need to understand what a computer operating system or OS is. An OS is the computer code which manages the hardware in a physical computer. It exists as a layer between your software and your hardware. Most people writing software do not want to know how to address a CPU in assembler, or how to communicate with a graphics card. An OS such as Linux or Windows acts as a middleman.
Every OS has component parts, and the Linux OS also has the following components parts:
- Bootloader. Your computer needs to go through a startup sequence called booting. This boot process needs guidance, and your OS is the software in control throughout the boot process. When you start your computer the bootloader for your operating system kickstarts the process.
- OS Kernel. You can call the kernel the part of the operating system which is the “closest” to your computing hardware as it is the part which controls the CPU, access to memory and any peripheral devices. It is the “lowest” level at which your operating system works.
- Background services. Called “daemons” in Linux, these small applications act as servants in the background, ensuring that key functions such as scheduling, printing and multimedia function correctly. They load after you have booted up, or when you have logged into your computer.
- OS Shell. You need to be able to tell our operating system what to do, and this is the goal of the shell. Also known as the command line, it is a facility which lets you instruct your OS using text. However few people nowadays are familiar with command line code, and it once used to put people off using Linux. This changed because a modern distribution of Linux will use a desktop shell just like Windows.
- Graphics server. This provides a graphical sub-system that renders images and shapes on your computer monitor. Linux uses a graphical server called “X” or “X-server”.
- Desktop environment. You can’t interact with the graphical server directly. Instead you need software that can drive the server. This is called a desktop environment in Linux and there are plenty of options including KDE, Unity and Cinnamon. A desktop environment is usually bundled with a number of applications including file and web browsers plus a couple of games.
- Applications. Obviously, the desktop environment which is bundled with your Linux OS or which you choose to install cannot cater for every application need, there are too many. Individual applications, however, can and there are thousands for Linux just like Windows and Apple’s OS X has thousands of applications. Most Linux distros have app stores which help you find and install apps, for example Ubuntu Software which comes with Ubuntu.
It’s worth noting that Ubuntu’s application repository, the Ubuntu software centre, is a great place to look around for Linux applications, both free to use and paid to use.
Why use Linux software
The desktop operating systems most of us use are typically bundled with our computers and we rarely question why we need to change operating systems. Few people are interest in learning a new operating system, and rarely ask what is Linux simply because they feel their existing operating system does the job just fine.
However it is not always obvious how much time is lost in the process of battling common OS problems including malicious software such as viruses plus frequent OS crashes and the resulting costly repairs. Don’t forget that most operating systems charge a license fee too.
Perhaps your existing choice of OS is not actually doing the job just fine. If you are tired of paying for an operating system and hate the frequent costly maintenance you have to do on your existing OS you might just want to think about Linux and whether it offers a better, free alternative. There is no charge for trying Linux and many people will consider Linux to be the most reliable operating system for a desktop computer.
Costs: you can save by using Linux software
Because of the open-source, collaborative nature of Linux there really is no charge whatsoever to trying Linux. You can install the OS free of charge on an unlimited number of computers, without paying anything towards licensing. This is the case for both the server editions and the desktop editions of many Linux distributions.
As an example, Microsoft’s Windows Server cost $1,200, for the 2012 edition, just for the rights to install the software on one server. Want to facilitate access for several clients? Microsoft will charge you for additional client access licenses. Not to mention all the other licenses you need to run Windows-based databases, web services etc.
In contrast, many Linux distributions are completely free and include open-source server software, so you can get going serving web pages without paying any fees for licensing. Getting a fully-functional Linux web server up and running is, in fact, just a few clicks away.
Linux operating system: great where reliability counts
It’s also easy to argue that Linux software makes life easy for systems administrators because Linux is more reliable. It means you don’t need to closely watch your server every day, you can rely on it running without a problem. Also, because of the way Linux is built you can often restart individual services without impacting the entire Linux OS.
By definition, an operating system is a tool that you need to be able to rely on. If cost is not the biggest factor for you, the reliability that Linux brings can be game-changing. Wondering what is Linux operating system’s biggest advantage? Well, its inherent reliability and its general immunity to viruses, malicious software and other random operating system issues is perhaps the biggest reason to adopt Linux.
Server reboots are a particular problem for sysadmins and Linux, due to its stability, allows sysadmins to largely avoid reboots, unless the kernel is updated. In fact, many Linux servers can run for years, never seeing a reboot and sysadmins would often consider this a sign of the reliability of Linux.
Linux equals freedom
We mentioned open source earlier in this article. But what is open source? Simply put, any software that is open source follows a set of principles, which include:
- Full freedom to run the software, not matter your reason for running it or your goals
- The permission to examine and disassemble the software, to study it, and to make any changes you want to make to it
- No restrictions on distributing the software
- No restrictions on distributing any copies of the software modified by you
It is also important to understand that open source software is in fact a community. It is a community that built Linux, and a community that maintains Linux. Wondering what is Linux exactly? Simply put: it is software by the people, made for the people. It can be argued that it is this open source philosophy that has made Linux so popular.
The Linux OS list: understanding distributions
The different editions, or distributions, of Linux can be vary varied. They can be aimed at desktop use, or designed to be used as server software. Some distributions of Linux focus on expert users, other Linux distributions are easy enough to use for beginners. Also known as distros, most Linux editions can be downloaded free of charge and burned to an optical disk or USB drive for installation.
There are an almost endless number of Linux distributions. For desktop Linux users the default choice is often Ubuntu, but Fedora, Arch, Linux Mint, Debian and openSUSE are also popular choices. Ubuntu is one of the most modern thanks to Ubuntu Unity while KDE, included with openSUSE, has a more traditional Linux look.
Looking for the server Linux OS list? It’s a long list, but some of the most well know distros include Red Hat, Ubuntu Server, SUSE Enterprise and CentOS. However some Linux server distros are not free, Red Hat requires licensing but bear in mind that you do get support in return for your license fee, which can be important for businesses.
Which Linux OS is right for you?
Your Linux distro of choice are going to depend on your personal needs. Foremost you should consider your own computer skills: if you have never used the command line and never used Linux you will be more restricted in choice. Another obvious point to consider: are you going to use your Linux OS on a desktop, or to serve applications? And, if desktop, do you prefer one of the modern looking distros, or a more classic Linux look?
With basic computer skills you should look at a distribution which caters for inexperienced Linux users. Linux Mint and Deepin are good choices. Are you a pro Linux user? You might prefer to use Fedora or Debian, while the most experienced users could choose Gentoo.
As for servers, consider the need for a GUI. Some servers are best managed via the command line as it means your server won’t be slowed down by the graphics server. Some server distros won’t come with a GUI, some will and some like Ubuntu will allow you to add a GUI any time after you’ve installed the server.
Some server distros are good for specific applications, including a lot of pre-bundled services. CentOS is a good example, as it offers a lot of what you need to run a comprehensive server out of the box. You can even start with a desktop distribution and add Linux operating system components as and when you need them. Consider Debian or Ubuntu if that’s the case.
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