What is Linux?
Linux is a free operating system designed to be source code compatible with the AT&T Unix operating system. The creator of Linux, Linus
Torvalds, created Linux as a project to help him understand the intracacies of the Intel 80386 micro-processor while he was a student of
electrical engineering at the Univeristy of Helsinki in Finland. Linus' original idea was to create an operating system kernel using the
published specifications of AT&T's Unix system.
Linus took his project to the internet community and asked for help in implementing his brainchild. Eventually he released the entire project
under the terms of the Free Software Foundation's General Public License (which is known as the GPL). Being released under the GPL made Linux
free (that is, free as in free speech, not necessarily free as in free lunch).
What the GPL states (in a nutshell) is that anyone who distributes Linux (either by giving it away or by selling it) must also include the source
code along with any modifications that have been made by the distributor. The distributor is also not allowed to place any further restrictions
on re-distribution of the product in question. For further information on free software and the GPL, visit the Free Software Foundation's
discussion of the topic at: http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.
The bottom line of Linus Torvalds choosing to distribute Linux under the GPL is that anyone who likes can build and distribute his or her own
variant of Linux. This is precisely what is happening, today some seven years after Linus unveiled his first version of Linux. Corporations as
diverse as SGI, the Santa Cruz Organization (SCO), Corel (makers of Corel Draw and WordPerfect Office) and the not-for-profit corporation Software
in the Public Interest (SPI) have all either announced their intention to distribute their own flavor of Linux or have already done so. Other
companies such as Red Hat, Mandrake and TurboLinux have been built on the practice of putting together and selling distributions of Linux.
Many hardware vendors (SGI, IBM, Gateway and Dell to name a few) now offer Linux as an alternative to or addition to non-free operating systems
such as Windows, IRIX and AIX. Other hardware vendors such as VALinux and Penguin Computing have rocketed into the lime light offering hardware
with Linux pre-installed.
One of the more astonishing aspects of Linux is that it has been ported to almost every conceivable hardware platform capable of bearing it.
Linux can run on devices as small as Palm Computing's Palm platform to devices as industrial strengthed as IBM's System/390. In between those
extremes, Linux can run on the Macintosh platform, the IBM compatible PC platform, the Compaq Alpha platform, SGI's MIPS based workstations,
Intel's StrongARM chip, Sun Sparc and UltraSparc platforms and more.
Another astonishing aspect of Linux is that in a world of desktop operating systems dominated by Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh, Linux
has had such large companies as IBM, Corel and Adobe start porting their desktop applications to Linux. This phenomenon extends also to the
server side with vendors such as HP, Oracle, IBM and Informix porting their software to Linux.
For those who want to explore Linux, the first step is to choose a distribution. Linux, techinically speaking, is just the kernel of an
operating system. Just as people expect more to be delivered with Microsoft Windows and Apple's MacOS than simply the OS kernel, people expect
more to be delivered with Linux than simply the kernel. Most Linux distributions ship with not only the kernel, but clones of the entire Unix
tool kit from ANSI C compilers right up to an implementation of the X Windowing System. Also included is a plethora of user land software
including web browsers, mail clients, chat clients, text editors, games, system administration tools, and more.
Distributions are put together by an assortment of commercial entities and not-for-profit groups. Each of which tries to differentiate their
distribution through some sort of added value. Some distributors, such as Debian, pride themselves on their strict quality control process that
delivers a rock solid end product. Other distributors, such as Mandrake, attempt to the bleeding edge distribution that has the latest version of
everything. Some distributors differentiate themselves by bundling off-shelf-commerical applications such as Partition Magic, Word Perfect, or
Via Voice. Other distributors differentiate by making their distribtion easier to install, or easier to maintain. Still others, such as the
Linux Router Project, differentiate by focusing on a particular niche application.
I've personally installed Mandrake, Redhat, Debian, Caldera, and Storm Linux. Caldera's OpenLinux was the absolute easiest to install
operating system I've ever had the priviledge of installing. I've installed multiple versions of DOS, Windows (9x and NT), OS/2 and Linux.
Caldera OpenLinux has the slickest set of installation routines I've ever seen. Other Linux distributions, such as Red Hat, Mandrake, Corel, and
SuSE come pretty close to Caldera's ease of installation.
Installation, however is only the first step in using an operating system. I've long since switched to Debian and Debian's commercial
derivative, Storm from OpenLinux for this reason. The Debian package management utility makes installing and updating one's system incredibly
easy. If a particular piece of software has been packaged to Debian's specifications, downloading, installing and configuring is usually as
simple as a one line command. Storm adds value to Debian by adding an installer that does a good deal of hardware autodection that Debian does not
When choosing distributions, one should also keep in mind, Linux's cousins, the BSD family. OpenBSD, FreeBSD, and NetBSD are three variants of
the original AT&T Unix source code that are very similiar to Linux. While Linux was designed to be API compatible with Unix, the BSDs are
actually Unix. All three of the BSDs are binary compatible with Linux, meaning that they can run software that has been compiled for Linux. As
with Linux, each of the BSD's has a niche that differentiates itself from the others.
OpenBSD's niche is a secure platform. Every line of code in the kernel and most of the tool chain in OpenBSD has been audited to eliminate
buffer overflows and other security holes. It has been over a year since OpenBSD has had a security flaw in its default installation.
FreeBSD has found its niche in performance. While, now ported to other architectures, FreeBSD got its start in being an Intel x86 optimized
NetBSD aims to be the most widely ported of the three.
One situation where Linux came in handy for me is that I bought an old laptop on Ebay for $200. This computer
came so cheap because it came with no software (not even an operating system). This was not a problem for me, I simply downloaded the Debian base
system onto floppies (7 of them), loaded Debian, configured the PCMCIA modem, downloaded X Windows, Netscape, Emacs, gcc and g++ (c and c++
compilers), perl, and perl-tk. Now I can code and keep my mind busy during what had grown to be a somewhat tedious daily bus ride to and from
Other people like Linux because of the large number of free productivity programs available. Packages such as spreadsheets (Gnumeric, Xcalc
and Siag to name a few), graphics programs (The Gimp, Killustrator and Gyve to name a few), word processors (Abi Word, Pathetic Writer and Lyx to
name a few) are abundant in the free software world. Most of these programs have not been ported to Windows.
Other people find Linux useful because of the tremendous number of development tools that are available as free software. The standard Linux
distribution comes with Python, Perl, C, C++, Objective C, Pascal, Tcl/Tk, and shell programming languages. There are also Smalltalk, Basic and
Java tool kits available for Linux. The only programming language I have not been able to find a quality free implementation of on Linux is
COBOL. Other tools, such as CORBA orbs, RAD environments, diagramming programs, etc. are also freely available for Linux.
Others find Linux useful as a server. For less than the cost of single Windows NT license, one finds available in Linux, relational databases
(such as PostgreSQL, mSQL, and MySQL), file and print services (through NFS, SMB, and/or Appletalk), web and ftp servers, and more. Linux, being
free, does not have a per-user license fee, which makes it an extremely cost effective solution.
Linux has long outgrown its roots as a project for learning about the Intel x86 family of processors. Linux has grown to be one of the most
widely ported pieces of software available. Linux is comfortable in the enterprise as a server and as a workstation and in the home as
educational tool or as an internet appliance.
Some of the more popular distributions of Linux
Storm Linux http://www.stormlinux.com
Intel x86 only
Intel x86 only
Intel x86 only
Intel x86 only
Intel x86, Compaq Alpha
Intel x86 only
Intel x86, Compaq Alpha, Motorala PowerPC, ARM StrongARM
Intel x86 only
Motorola PowerPC only
The BSD family
Other useful Linux related links
Linux Planet http://www.linuxplanet.com
News, Hardware Compatibility, Newbie Help
Linux Weekly News http://www.lwn.net
Catalogue of software for Linux
Source Forge http://www.sourceforge.net
host site for free software projects