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 purposes.

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 provides an 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 desktop market.


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 enterprise offering--Red 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."

CrossOver 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 near-perfect compatibility.

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 and Unreal 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?

The KNOPPIX 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 the author.

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Last modified: 09/02/2004