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Introduction to Linux

Author:  Justin Washick
Date:  2008.03.28
Topic:  Software
Provider:  TechwareLabs
Manufacturer:  Linux

Introduction to Linux

What is Linux


Some of my readers today will be aware of a beautiful operating system called GNU/Linux, more commonly known as just Linux. For those who are not already familiar, here is a brief introduction: Linux is a free open-source alternative to Windows and Macintosh. Based off of (but not derived from) Unix, a man named Linus Torvalds laid the framework for the kernel many years ago and then made the source code open to all. He still works on the kernel today, but he's not alone; millions of programmers around the world work to improve Linux with their free time. They've worked hard to bring Linux to maturity, and as of the past couple years, it has reached a mature stage where the average computer user is more than capable of using it. In other words, you no longer need to know how a computer works or how to program in order for Linux to be useful to you.

So why am I bringing up this topic? Quite frankly, there aren't enough Linux users accessing TechwareLabs, and I believe this needs to change.

Whether it's because you've never heard of Linux, have an interest, or tried it years ago when it was still young and was disappointed, one thing is certain: you're missing out. I'll be elaborating further into Linux in future articles, but for now, here is a nice introduction.

What do you mean by open-source?

The source code is freely available on the internet per the GPL license. You are more than welcome to view the code, edit it, and republish a new product (assuming you know a thing or two about programming). The only catch is that you have to release your product under the very same GPL license.

This approach to software truly throws the concept of "proprietary" out the window, and is no doubt confusing to anybody who is business-minded. It's a foreign concept for many as to why one would develop a product and not claim intellectual property rights. The Linux community, in general (though there are exceptions), does not seek to gain profit. Rather, they put their time into Linux for pride and the occasional "thank you."

There are companies that sell Linux, though.

This is partially true. They're still licensed under the GPL, which means they are required to release the source code to any customers (and commonly just release to the general public). Companies such as Red Hat and Novell are selling the operating system along with support, primarily for servers, even though you can (basically) use their products for free. Red Hat Enterprise Linux has fees attached to it, but Red Hat sponsors an open-source community around Fedora, which is the free alternative, developed by programmers in their spare time. Similarly for Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise, there is a free alternative in openSUSE.

Windows works fine. Why should I use something else?

Here, we get to the heart of the matter. Why switch, you ask? What's the point? Simply put, Linux is faster, more stable and above all, easier to use. The speed is due to higher efficiency in storing/retrieving information. The issue of stability isn't even questioned by [knowledgeable] die-hard Windows fans. Ultimately, the most controversial claim I've made is that it's easier to use.

This is where the argument rages on within the desktop market. There are many long-time Windows users who try Linux, and are scared off, upon which they claim that Linux is hard to use. The fact is, Linux is different, but I would argue that this is a good thing. There is definitely a learning curve, as there always is when you try something new, but the more you just play around with Linux, the more you'll find it is simply better.

How is it better? What makes it easier?

Everything is better organized. For starters, you know that little program on Windows, Add/Remove Programs? Raise your hand if you've ever actually "added" a program using it.

I see a few hands from people who have via a NT system or something similar, but other than that, it is unlikely you've used Add/Remove for anything other than "remove" (though Vista does allow for the user to download programs directly from Microsoft, a feature suspiciously appearing long after Linux started doing the exact same thing). In Linux, this little program is called the "package manager", and this is where you both add AND remove your programs. Everything that's currently installed, as well as everything you're able to install from the supplied servers appears in an easy-to-use catalog. For the most part, everything you need is right there in one place. Want to install an office suite? How about an IM program? Or how about a game? Just go to the respective section and choose the program you want. Check the boxes for everything you want to change (install/uninstall) and push the appropriate button to update your system (specifics will differ depending on the package manager used by the distribution).

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