Saturday, July 2, 2011

What is Linux?

KDE Desktop
Linux is an Open Source computer operating system that was developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds as a graduate school project. Due to it's 'open' nature, developers and enthusiasts have been building on this kernel ever since and have created a vast ecosystem of software, tools and desktop environments to suit any need. It is loosely based on Unix and has a reputation for being stable and secure. Many popular products are based on Linux, such as the Android phone and tablet and the Tivo DVR.

What is Open Source?
Open Source Software builds on the scientific model of development. Developers are allowed to take the existing software source code and expand it, share it and invite further collaboration with other interested developers. The source code for the software is 'open', that is, available to anyone to examine, use, alter and distribute. This leads to rapid progress in popular software applications and a constantly expanding library of software.

Generally, Open Source licenses have one main restriction: You cannot distribute the software without also providing the source code. This ensures that the software will remain free for all to use, and allow others to build upon your improvements.

Is Linux hard to use?
In the early days of Linux development, it could be very hard to use. The tools and user interface were immature. Hardware drivers were scarce and getting a useful working system could be a challenge. Thankfully, decades of development has brought most Linux distributions to par with both Windows and Mac in terms of user-friendliness and hardware support.

Gnome Desktop
In fact, today most popular hardware will work 'Out of the Box' with Linux. Driver support is built into the operating system. No need to keep track of all those hardware CDs. Drivers are rolled into the Linux kernel so you will rarely to have to go driver hunting again.

Linux offers a variety of Desktop Environments to suit your taste and needs. The most common are Gnome, KDE and XFCE. All offer a complete library of software for basic computing needs. All can be customized to your taste and requirements.

How do you get software for Linux?
Linux operating systems usually are pre-packaged collections of software, tools and artwork which together create a 'distribution', aka a 'distro'. Popular distros include Ubuntu, Red Hat (Fedora), Debian, Mint, Slackware and many others. Each major distro provides its own 'package manager' for accessing and installing the huge selection of Linux software. There are literally tens of thousands of programs you can download and install for free with just a click of the mouse. Most distros will automatically keep your installed software updated with version upgrades and bug fixes.

Is Linux more secure than Windows?
Linux was built from the ground up for security in a networked environment. It separates regular users from Administrators (called 'root' or 'super user' in Linux) and protects the system from unauthorized tampering. The wide variety of distros with slightly different file structures and processes prevent a software mono-culture which allows malware to spread wildly. The open nature of the source code ensures no hidden commands or back doors will be present. Bugs are found and fixed promptly. There is a saying in the Open Source world that 'Many eyes make all bugs shallow.' In other words, with so many people looking at the code, flaws are discovered quickly. Most Linux users do not use anti-virus/malware software as there are almost no viruses for Linux.

XFCE Desktop
How can I try Linux?
Most modern distos offer 'Live CDs'. These are complete Linux distributions which boot and run from a cd or flash drive. They include most popular software applications including an Office Suite, browsers, image editing, blogging, networking, games and much more.

The magic of Live CDs is that the operating system and software exists and runs completely from the CD or flash drive. No changes are made to your hard drive or operating system. You simply download the .iso and burn to CD. Simply reboot your computer with the CD in the drive and start exploring Linux. This is a good way to test all your hardware and play with the included software. Check out the distros package manager to see what other programs are available. When finished, simply exit Linux, the CD will eject and your computer will boot back to Windows with no changes to the system.

If you decide to try Linux long term, the live CD will walk you through installing Linux alone or alongside Windows. The two operating systems can exist happily together on your hard drive, and you can select which you wish to use when booting your computer.

Another method of trying out Linux is called Wubi. This is available on Ubuntu and allows you to install Linux into Windows just as you would install any other program. Removing it works the same way. Simply uninstall it like any other software using Windows Add and Remove Software Feature.

Where can I get Linux?
Linux distributions are widely available for free download on the Internet or by ordering a CD from Linux vendors.

Which One?
The variety of distributions available can be daunting. Which one to try? Your needs will guide your choice but most desktop distros offer a similar set of software and basic tools. The major differences are in the Desktop Environments, package managers, inclusion of non-free software and customizations such as themes and artwork. There can be big differences in hardware support among different flavors so if your wireless card is not supported out of the box by say, Fedora, it may be supported by Ubuntu or Mint.

Business customers may wish to explore Red Hat or Fedora, the free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. (RHEL) This distro is widely used in business and the corporation is growing at an astounding rate. They offer desktop and server solutions, including support, primarily to business customers.

Home Desktop users might consider Linux Mint when exploring Linux for the first time. It is designed to be simple, user-friendly and includes all the multimedia codecs out of the box. The update manager is simplified and customizable. Other newbie friendly distros include Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, OpenSuse and Mandriva.

If your tired of fighting viruses and malware, paying good money for commodity software or just ready for a change from your old drab Windows box, give Linux a try. Live CDs make it easy and risk free. Linux is secure and stable. It is used to run the biggest server arrays on the Internet or it is as personal as your home PC. It is developed by users for users and continues to grow and evolve as a real alternative to the Windows world.

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