Linux: A Brief Overview
by Brandon Hutchinson
The following is an article I wrote for a work newsletter.
What is Linux?
Linux is an open-source
"UNIX-like" operating system, with many
similarities to proprietary UNIX operating systems like Sun
Microsystem's Solaris and Hewlett Packard's HP-UX. The Linux kernel and
many applications included in Linux distributions are developed by
countless programmers worldwide. This "many eyes" approach to software
development arguably results in more secure and robust code, especially
with high-profile projects such as the Linux
kernel, KDE, Mozilla Firefox,
and OpenOffice.org. Most of
the software included in a Linux distribution, including the Linux
kernel, is licensed under
the GNU General Public
License, permitting others to examine, modify, and create
derivative works from the code for both commercial and noncommercial
To be technically correct, Linux is an operating system kernel, and is
not itself a complete operating system. Linux distributions such as Red Hat,
Fedora, SuSE, Debian, Mandrakelinux, Slackware, and Gentoo package the Linux kernel
along with application software to provide a complete operating system.
The kernel, or
"heart" of an operating system, is low-level software that
interface to system hardware. Process management, memory
management, networking, multi-tasking, and disk input/output are all
functions of an operating system kernel.
What began as a hobbyist project in 1991 by Finnish programmer Linus
Torvalds, Linux is now a serious contender in the enterprise server
market, and because of full-featured desktop environments like KDE and GNOME,
Linux is slowly gaining market share in the corporate and public sector
What are some benefits of using Linux?
One of the key benefits of using Linux is cost: most Linux
distributions are available at no charge. UNIX administrators can
transition to Linux with ease; Windows adminstrators may require
re-training to the UNIX "way of doing things." Therefore, the Total
Cost of Ownership (TCO) of a Linux-based solution is not always lower
than a Windows or proprietary UNIX-based solution. However, many
companies have saved
millions of dollars deploying Linux.
If vendor support is required, companies such as Red Hat offer
enterprise Linux distributions. For example, Red Hat's
Hat Enterprise Linux
(RHEL)--has an 18-month "enterprise-friendly" release cycle, provides
five years of security and "bug fix" updates, and offers telephone and
Web-based technical support.
Linux excels as a server platform, particularly because of Linux's
rock-solid stability. Linux is well-suited for firewalls, file and
print servers, DNS servers, mail servers, cache servers, application
servers, and database servers.
In recent years, Linux has made significant strides in desktop
usability. Linux distributions typically
include the KDE and GNOME desktop environments, providing
similar look-and-feel and functionality to Microsoft Windows and
Mac OS X.
Can I run Windows applications/games in Linux?
Currently, very few commercial applications and games are available for
Linux. If an open-source alternative for a Windows application will not
suffice, such as using OpenOffice.org
instead of Microsoft Office, Linux users may run Windows application
using WINE, VMware, or Win4Lin.
WINE is an open-source implementation of the Windows API. WINE does not
require a Windows license or installation to run Windows executables
under Linux, although compatibility with
the thousands of Windows
applications can be "hit and miss."
Office is a commercial product based on WINE that runs applications
such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Visio, Lotus
Notes, Quicken, and other popular Windows applications with
VMware and Win4Lin
allow users to run the Windows operating system concurrently with
Linux. Windows software often runs perfectly within these
"virtual" operating systems. However, VMware and Win4Lin are commercial
products, and both require a valid Windows license, making them a
potentially cost-prohibitive solution to run a few Windows applications.
Although very few commercial games are available for Linux, newer
"first-person shooters" such as Doom 3
Tournament 2004 include a native Linux port. TransGaming's Cedega
(formerly called "WineX") allows Linux users to run popular
Windows games in Linux. However, serious gamers will likely be
dissastisfied using Linux as a gaming platform.
How do I get started using Linux?
Live CD is a Linux demonstration distribution that runs entirely off
the CD. If you are ready to install Linux as part
of a dual-boot
system, or if you have a spare system on which to install Linux, I
recommend the Fedora or Mandrakelinux
distributions. Distributions such as Gentoo,
Slackware, and Debian are geared toward
the more experienced Linux user.
Most of the Linux distributions listed above are available from their
respective Web sites at no cost. You may download the distributions in
ISO format, "burn" them to a CD, boot your system from the CD, and
install the distributions.
If you have questions or comments about this article or Linux in
general, please contact
Back to brandonhutchinson.com.
Last modified: 09/02/2004