What is Linux?

Mon Oct 24 2016

What is Linux?

You may have heard Linux somewhere or came across it in an article or blog post. Whatever your case may be, do you know what Linux really is?

To discuss what Linux is, I will use two imaginary guys, Peter and Laberba.

Laberba: Hey Peter, what is Linux? Peter: Oh! Linux is an Operating System (OS). Laberba: That is what some people know, but it is not entirely true.

Peter: What? Laberba: Yes, Linux has something to do with an Operating System but it is not an operating system. Some of the common operating systems you may have used such as Windows (XP, 7, 8, 10), macOS, iOS, Android, etc. can be called operating systems because that is what they are: a complete system of softwares that make-up an operating system. Linux on the other hand is an operating system kernel.

Peter: What? A kernel? What is this guy talking about? I have heard my friends, teacher and everybody say Linux is an operating system and you are telling me it is not? I don't believe this. What is even an operating system kernel? Laberba: Well, as weird as it may sound, Linux is really a kernel. A kernel in my basic explanation, is a piece of software that forms part of an operating system. In fact, it is the most essential part of any operating system. You can think of a kernel as the brain of an operating system. Those operating systems you may have used; Windows, Mac, Android, or any other special purpose operating systems all have a kernel.

Peter: OK, if Linux is not an operating system, then what is the name of the operating system that uses the Linux kernel? Laberba: Well, that is not easy to answer with just a name. There are so many operating systems built with the Linux kernel. These class of operating systems are commonly referred to as Linux distributions or Linux distros for short. Examples of the common ones are Ubuntu, Open Suse, Fedora, Red Hat, elementary, and Arch Linux.

Example of Linux distributions Some common Linux distribution logos

Peter: So if Linux is just a kernel as you said, why is it a big deal. Why all the noise as if Linux is a revolutionary system. Laberba: Waw! this is the question I have been waiting to answer. Thank you very very much for asking. I really appreciate that. OK, Linux is a big deal because it actually a big deal.

Peter: What? mm.. Wait! What? Laberba: Yes, the Linux kernel is so configurable and portable such that it has been modified and used in many areas of computation. It is in our Android phones, TVs, vehicles, industrial machines, communication systems, satellites, smart watches, virtual reality devices, game consoles, medical treatment devices, search engines, servers, operating systems, and many more. Linux is every where. As much as others hate to admit, the group of servers that run the internet are mostly using Linux.

Peter: OK, I get it that the Linux kernel is very useful. But they say Linux based operating systems are for computer gurus. Laberba: Ha ha ha! Computer gurus? Really?

Peter: Well, that is what they say. I hear Linux is for programmers, hackers, IT experts and stuff. One will use Linux if he want to go into computer programming, hacking, networking or some advanced stuff. Laberba: Oh my dear, other operating systems can equally do all that you have just mentioned. Yes, including windows, Mac, Haiku, etc. User application are built for those tasks and can be done for those operating systems too. All the Linux distros I have ever used are equally easy to use just as Windows (which you may be familiar with).

Peter; No! Come on. If you don't know how to enter commands you cannot use any Linux distro. Laberba: That is untrue. Most Linux distros have a Graphical User Interface (GUI) which you can use if you don't want to enter commands. You can use the GUI just like you will use Windows. Even windows can be used to some extend with it's Command Line Interface (CLI) or command line for short, just as those Linux distros. However the CLI of window is limited to certain functionalities. Linux on the other hand gives you the freedom to use the command line to perform any task you can with the GUI and even more advanced stuff that the GUI can not on it's own. In fact when you learn how to use the command-line, you will likely prefer it to the GUI. The command line is the fastest way to get things done.

Peter: Cool, I guess that is why Linux distros are very secure. No one can hack your computer or infect it with virus if it runs a Linux distro, right? Laberba: Well, that is partially true, but not entirely. Lets start with security.

  • Rule number 1: No system is 100% secure.
  • Rule number 2: What appears to be fairly secure today might not be secure tomorrow. People are intelligent and they usually find means and ways to bypass security.
  • Rule number 3: Security does not depend on the system alone, but the User and or Administrator too.

Talking about malware, yes a malware can not infect Linux (distros and the kernel itself) or corrupt files like the way it can in Windows, but it is possible. I mean theoretically possible, but I have not come across any situation as such (not that I know of). Let me just quote what I read at Wikipedia:

"Linux malware includes viruses, trojans, worms and other types of malware that affect the Linux operating system. Linux, Unix and other Unix-like computer operating systems are generally regarded as very well-protected against, but not immune to, computer viruses."

I don't have an anti-virus software installed on my computer running Linux and I have never had the need to do so. Anti-virus software makers don't find much market in Linux because there is usually an absence of the need. You will only need anti-virus when you are using... You know the name right? It starts with a "W".

Peter: You mean win.... Oh! I am definitely not mentioning the word. Laberba: Ha ha Ha!

Peter: Come on. Face it, even if one will use any one of the Linux distros, there are no good softwares. Linux does not have games, video downloaders, multimedia softwares, graphics manipulation softwares and even office suites. I cannot even use a software like SPSS for my research. Laberba: The SPSS software has an official guide to installing it on Linux, so that point is not solid. You can also use a free alternative to SPSS, called PSPP without having to purchase SPSS (SPSS is a commercial software). Beside that, statisticians are now switching to R gradually for statistical computing.

Anyway, before we go into softwares, there is something you should understand first. There are different legal backing regarding the use of softwares (I am not a lawyer, so you may need a lawyer or an expert to explain into detail). Basically, there are proprietary softwares which the makers reserve the right to see the source code, modify, distribute or whatever, depending on what the proprietary rights says. The creators usually make these softwares for profit, therefore they are commercial products (unless they choose to make it free after investing so much into it).

And then there is the open source softwares which programmers or software engineers are usually given the privileged to view the source, modify, distribute or even use it for their own proprietary products, depending on the legal backing.

Open source softwares, depending on the legal backing can be modified by another programmer, who is not the original creator, to runs in other operating systems that were not previously supported. In fact, most Linux distros, as well as, the Linux kernel are open source softwares. Windows and Mac among others are not open source products (at least at the moment).

Peter: OK! boss. Why all this lecture? Laberba: Software legality is key. Much more than many people care to know. If you are using a commercial software which you did not pay for, then you are breaking the law (depending on what the legal notice says).

Programmers make the decision as to what kind of software they want to build (open source or proprietary) and what platform they are willing to support (Linux distros, Windows, Mac, Haiku, etc). Keep in mind open source Linux distros can also have commercial user application built for them and they may not be open sourced even thought the operating system itself may be open source. That decision is entirely up to the software developers.

Peter: My question was, "Does Linux have good quality softwares?" Laberba: Linux distros have both commercial softwares and free softwares which are very good. Oh yes, games (MMO, RPG, AAA, you name it), abundant multimedia softwares, graphic manipulation softwares, office suites, and many more. What else do you want? You even get a PDF reader.

When you don't have your favorite software running in any Linux distro, it means the makers decided not to do it. However, there are always alternative softwares you can use.

Peter: OK what about this? I heard Linux distro do not have an appealing look and feel. They do not look nice. Laberba: What? Where are you getting these false information? Do you use android? elementary? Ubuntu? KDE? Try any of those and see how nice a Linux distro can look. Moreover, most distro can be configured to look the way you want it to be. With most other operating systems, you are stuck with just one look and feel forever, whether you like it or not.

elementary OS 0.4 elementary OS

Peter: Even with all that you have said, why should I switch to using a Linux distro whey my current OS is good for me? Why change when I can browse, download, watch videos, play games, do my assignment, etc. with my current OS. Laberba: You don't have to switch to Linux if you don't want to. Besides you usually just don't use your computer for anything beside those you just mentioned and you don't need a Linux distro to do that.

However, you may choose to use a Linux distro if you can no longer tolerate blue screens, installing and updating anti-virus softwares, scanning your computer for malware, making a fresh install of your operating system now and then, backing up your files to an external media to prevent loosing all your precious data when your computer gets infected with malware. Maybe you are tired of seeing your computer get bloated with unwanted files from previously installed programs, buying new hard drives thanks to malware, and restarting your computer whenever you make a software installation. Ultimately you may choose to use a Linux distro if you want an operating system that does not slow you down or limit want you can do.

Peter: Waw! that is a lot to take in. I guest I will try a Linux distro and see for myself. Laberba: Cool! I can't wait to hear your feedback.

Dear readers, I hope I have something about Linux today. Don't forget to share your opinion in the comments section below.