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Halldor Stefansson
Halldor Stefansson

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What is Linux?

In this article, I'm going to try to describe on a high level what Linux is, to the best of my knowledge. I'm learning how to use Linux. So I decided to write this small article to help me understand more about it. If you find anything that is wrong or needs updating, please let me know.

What is an Operating System?

First things first.

An operation system (OS) is a software that runs on a computer. It allows the user to communicate with the computer's hardware to get things done.

For example, if you are working on a Word document, the OS receives information from your keyboard what buttons you pressed and interacts with Word application, so the proper character is displayed.

The OS splits into two areas, the user mode and the kernel mode. The user mode is, for example, the applications you use, web browser, games, Word, etc. The kernel mode is where the kernel is. The kernel purpose is to interpret messages between the application you are using and the hardware on the computer. When an operating system is said to be a Linux, what that means is that the kernel on that OS is a Linux kernel. Moreover, if you are using some of the latest Windows versions, the kernel there is Windows NT.

The most common operating systems are :

  • Microsoft Windows (Example: XP, 10)
  • Apple Operating Systems (Example: iOS, OS X)
  • Linux (Example: Android, Debian, CentOS)

Where did Linux come from?

Linux started as a hobby from a man named Linus Torvalds while studying at the University of Helsinki. He developed a desire to create is own UNIX-like system, after he had been using MINIX, which was created by Andrew Tanenbaum, a teacher at the university. MINIX was intended as a teaching tool, to help students understand and work with UNIX.

On October 5th 1991, Torvalds decided to share this small hobby if his with the world. That allowed other people to help him add to his project. This message has caused a snowball effect, having thousands of people contributed to the project and has made the Linux kernel what it is today.

Why is it free?

Torvalds knew about a movement going on called the GNU (GNU's not UNIX) Project, started by Richard Stallman in 1983. Part of GNU's philosophy is that all source code for software should be free for everyone to review and change. Torvalds liked this idea and therefore shared his project as mentioned above.

Why so many distros?

A distro is an abbreviation for distribution. So a Linux distro is an operating system that comprises of the Linux kernel (this is what Torvalds created), GNU tools and libraries, package management system and additional software based on that. So the distro is what makes the complete operating system.

The reason is because of the GNU movement. Since the Linux kernel is available to everyone to download, modify and redistribute. And because people have had different needs, they have created distros that have met their goals and redistributed it. Each distro is different with its mixture of utilities, software and a different build of the Linux kernel. And each distro is trying to achieve a specific demand.

The most common Linux distros are:

  • Debian
  • Ubuntu (Debian based)
  • Linux Mint (Ubuntu based)
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux
  • CentOS (Free version of Red Hat)
  • Fedora (More like a desktop version of Red Hat - less stable)
  • SUSE
  • OpenSUSE (Less stable version of SUSE)

Where is it used?

Like we mentioned above, there are many distros to fit various needs, and anyone can create their distro. And because of this, there are a lot of uses available using Linux. Everything from smart TVs, networking equipment to spacecraft software and medical devices. Also, a fun fact that all of the top 500 supercomputers run on Linux.

Which should I use?

Well, that depends on your needs and what you're going to use it for.

I'm assuming you're reading this because you're new to Linux and what to try it out. If that is the case, I believe the safest bet it Ubuntu. If you're accustomed to working on a Mac, you could start with something like Elementary.

If you merely want to test it out, you can either run it on something like VMBox or use Distrotest.net

Further reading

Filesystem Hierarchy Standard

Linux 101 - the king of operating systems

Understanding Linux Permissions

Linux will seem to be everywhere in 2019

Getting Started with Linux: The Complete Guide


Thank you for reading :)

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