According to Wired magazine, 67% of the computers running the Internet are powered by Linux. So what is Linux, and is it only for servers or can it be useful for personal computers? I will try to answer these questions in this month's column.
What is Linux
Linux is an operating system created in the early 90's by a Finnish computer science Student name Linus Torvalds. We will get back to Linux’s origins in a moment; first, let's explain "operating system." The operating system is the software that supports a computer's basic functions. Windows, Android, MacOS, and iOS are all examples of operating systems that you may have encountered. Android, in fact, is a derivative of Linux designed for phones and other devices.
When Linus Torvalds started to create Linux in 1991, he didn't need to start from scratch but rather was able to stand on the shoulders of others. The idea for Linux came from Minix, a small, UNIX-like operating system designed to teach students about operating system design that was published in a book in 1987 and released on a floppy disk. Linus was also able to leverage programs that had been created for the GNU project.
The GNU Project
GNU stands for Gnu's Not Unix. In 1985, Richard Stallman published an article in the Dr. Dobbs Journal calling for people to join and create an open-source, Unix-like operating system, replicating all of the tools that currently existed in the Unix operating system of the time. A number of these tools had already been developed by Mr. Stallman, but this call to arms got a number of people interested in helping. His reason for doing this was UNIX had up to this time been available to universities for a very low cost making it a good learning tool. But AT&T had announced that the cost for a UNIX source-code license was going to increase significantly, putting it out of reach of most universities. He felt that software should be free so people could read the code and make changes if desired, so he created the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Gnu Public License (GPL) to support the creation of software that would forever remain free. As Stallman says: “Free as in Freedom not as in beer.”
By 1991, most of the support needed to build an operating system was there including programming languages and other required tools thanks to the GNU project and the FSF. Linus built his new Linux operating system using these tools and provided the missing component from GNU: the operating system kernel. Linus is still supporting and guiding the development of the Linux kernel to this very day.
Linux is both free and open-source software (FOSS) allowing different people and organizations to create their own versions of Linux. Normally, a specific type of Linux is called a Linux Distribution. Debian, Fedora, Raspian, Arch, and Ubuntu are all examples of popular Linux distributions. Linux distributions are created to serve different needs to use Linux in different ways and by different people. Linux runs on standard desktop PC's (replacing Windows for example) and on small computers like the Raspberry Pi. It also is popular for using in the Internet of Things running in home routers and TV set-top boxes for example, and you are running a derivative of Linux if you are using an Android phone or other device. Linux is also the operating system used for most cloud computing environments. Some examples of how distributions are used include:
A good place to learn about more Linux distributions is https://distrowatch.com. The site tracks more than 100 different Linux distributions, tracking those that are most popular and notifying when distributions are updated.
Try Linux Out
It is easy to try out Linux on your Windows PC. All you need to do is download a copy (I suggest the Ubuntu distributions) and create an Ubuntu Live DVD or Bootable USB drive. Ubuntu 18.04 was recently released and can be found here: https://www.ubuntu.com/ along with the instructions for how to create the DVD or USB drive. When you are ready to try Linux, just boot the computer from the DVD or USB, and it will run Linux without changing your Windows hard drive at all. I often use this to securely access my financial account since I know the DVD can't be compromised.
Another fun and easy way to play with Linux is to get and set up the $35 Raspberry Pi computer or the even less expensive $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W.
Next month maybe I will cover how to use Linux to salvage old computers and some of the software that runs on Linux. Until then, have a great month.