Linux WHATIS

Five years ago, I was an experienced Windows user, in all of Windows for home use and in Windows NT/2000/2003 networking, and pretty good with Windows domain networking.Today, I am a raving , as Jeffrey can attest. What happened?

I learned about Linux.

Someone I know theorized the other day that the mere fact that Windows 7 is being talked about as the Linux killer, when, five years ago, only the geekier among us had ever heard of Linux, means that Linux Has Arrived. I don’t know if Linux Has Arrived, but I thought it would be interesting to discuss some commonly held about Linux and consider how much truth each one contains.

This is based on my own experience, not on someone’s tech article, though it certainly draws on all the stuff I’ve read and learned in becoming a fair-to-middling Linux . It is the first of an off-and-on series about Linux.

Linux users tend to be rather geeky, so, when they write HOWTO articles on the web, they tend to jump right into the details of /etc/fstab; /usr/local/bin; and dot-slash-configure, make, and make install and other terms that are sufficient to send most persons running down the hall and far, far, away.

That’s why I thought I’d start with a WHATIS.

Q. What is Linux?

A. Linux is any computer operating system built around the Linux Kernel.

Q. What’s a kernel.

A. The kernel is the ringmaster of the computer. It manages the flow among all the hardware elements–the harddrive, the , the , the CPU–and the programs, whether they are programs that run in the background (processes) or the programs a user starts from the menu or the command line. (The kernel of Windows NT, 2000, or XP computers is called “ntkernel.exe.” With Vista, the name was changed to “ntoskrnl.exe.” In DOS, the kernel was called “command.com.”)

Linus Torvalds, who wrote and maintains the , released it under the GNU General Public License (GPL). There is a lot to the license, but central to it is that source code must be released with software and that anyone is free to modify software released under the GPL, so long as any modifications to the source code are released back to the public.

Q. Huh?

A. It means that anyone can build a Linux OS and distribute it. Consequently, there are many different variations of Linux; each variation is called a “distribution” or “distro,” for short. As long as it is built on the Linux kernel, it is Linux. Distributions come and go, but the strong ones have been around for some time and give no signs of going away.

Some of them are easier to use than others. Some are more stable than others.

The point here is that there is no one thing that can be referred to as Linux. There is, rather, a happy and intimidating anarchy of choices.

Q. So what are the major distributions.

A. I’m not going there today.

Q. Don’t you have to be a real geek to use Linux?

A. No. Sometimes. Maybe.

It depends on the distribution you select. Some expect you to use the command line and text editors for certain things. Some are full of graphical tools. For the user who wants to get on the internet, take care of email, or use a word processor, most major Linux distributions are ready from the git-go.

For a user who wants to network computers in a home network, get all the computers to print to a single printer, or make Windows machines and Linux machines to talk to each other, a little more research is required.

Q. I thought you had to use the command line.

A. As I said above, not necessarily. Most contemporary distributions default to booting directly into a graphical user interface (GUI). Unless you are doing some super-geeky stuff or have some flaky hardware, you may never have to use the command line.

Here’s how it works: The computer boots. Linux loads.

What usually happens is that, after Linux boots, it calls the X server (that’s its name, “X”). X is not a GUI. It is a separate package that allows a GUI to run on top of the OS. Most Linux users use a GUI.

For us old-timers, it’s sort of like the Windows 3.x days: Turn on the computer and allow DOS to boot, then type “win” to start Windows. To start Windows automatically, add the “win” command to the end of your AUTOEXEC.BAT file. The mechanics are different, but the principle is the same.

Aside: The GUI itself is separate from X. X allows it to happen. There are a number of different GUIs that can run on top of X. Most distros select one as a default. The distro I use allows me to choose from six at time of installation and to alter that selection later if I want to.

Q. But don’t you have to be a real geek to install Linux?

A. Not any more.

That’s like the idea that American car companies don’t make reliable cars. It was true once, when Linux was new, but no longer.

A reputation, once gained, is hard to lose.

What you have to be is unafraid to install an OS, something most persons have never done. Most perons buy the box in the store or order it online, get it home, plug it in, and use it. Because Windows and MAC OS are what they see in the store, they think that’s all there is. And because Windows or MAC OS is all they know, they think that anything different is strange and mystifying. It’s not. It’s just different.

Q. You said something about flaky hardware. What do you mean?

A. A lot of hardware manufacturers do not write Linux/Unix drivers for hardware or are tardy getting them released.

In practical terms, this means that, when bleeding edge hardware comes out, it sometimes takes the Linux community a few months to catch up with it.

Final Thoughts: No computer OS is perfect. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have “update Tuesdays.”

Linux is sometimes a little more work to set up. It is no harder to use. But is sure looks different, especially under the hood.

Next Up in the Series: Some tips for researching Linux.

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