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What is Linux?

From smartphones to cars, supercomputers and home appliances, the Linux operating system is everywhere.

Linux. It’s been around since the mid ‘90s, and has since reached a user-base that spans industries and continents. For those in the know, you understand that Linux is actually everywhere. It’s in your phones, in your cars, in your refrigerators, your Roku devices. It runs most of the Internet, the supercomputers making scientific breakthroughs, and the world\’s stock exchanges. But before Linux became the platform to run desktops, servers, and embedded systems across the globe, it was (and still is) one of the most reliable and secure operating systems available.

For those not in the know, worry not – here is all the information you need to get up to speed on the Linux platform.

Just like Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Mac OS X, Linux is an operating system. An operating system is software that manages all of the hardware resources associated with your desktop or laptop. To put it simply – the operating system manages the communication between your software and your hardware. Without the operating system (often referred to as the “OS”), the software wouldn’t function.

The OS is comprised of a number of pieces:

  • The Bootloader: The software that manages the boot process of your computer. For most users, this will simply be a splash screen that pops up and eventually goes away to boot into the operating system.
  • The kernel: This is the one piece of the whole that is actually called “Linux”. The kernel is the core of the system and manages the CPU, memory, and peripheral devices. The kernel is the “lowest” level of the OS.
  • Daemons: These are background services (printing, sound, scheduling, etc) that either start up during boot, or after you log into the desktop.
  • The Shell: You’ve probably heard mention of the Linux command line. This is the shell – a command process that allows you to control the computer via commands typed into a text interface. This is what, at one time, scared people away from Linux the most (assuming they had to learn a seemingly archaic command line structure to make Linux work). This is no longer the case. With modern desktop Linux, there is no need to ever touch the command line.
  • Graphical Server: This is the sub-system that displays the graphics on your monitor. It is commonly referred to as the X server or just “X”.
  • Desktop Environment: This is the piece of the puzzle that the users actually interact with. There are many desktop environments to choose from (Unity, GNOME, Cinnamon, Enlightenment, KDE, XFCE, etc). Each desktop environment includes built-in applications (such as file managers, configuration tools, web browsers, games, etc).
  • Applications: Desktop environments do not offer the full array of apps. Just like Windows and Mac, Linux offers thousands upon thousands of high-quality software titles that can be easily found and installed. Most modern Linux distributions (more on this in a moment) include App Store-like tools that centralize and simplify application installation. For example: Ubuntu Linux has the Ubuntu Software Center (Figure 1) which allows you to quickly search among the thousands of apps and install them from one centralized location.
  • The Ubuntu software center is a Linux app store that carries thousands of commercial applications for Linux.Why use Linux?
    This is the one question that most people ask. Why bother learning a completely different computing environment, when the operating system that ships with most desktops, laptops, and servers works just fine? To answer that question, I would pose another question. Does that operating system you’re currently using really work “just fine”? Or are you constantly battling viruses, malware, slow downs, crashes, costly repairs, and licensing fees?If you struggle with the above, no constant fear of losing data or having to take your computer in for the “yearly clean up,” Linux might be the perfect platform for you. Linux has evolved into one of the most reliable computer ecosystems on the planet. You can install Linux on as many computers as you like without paying a cent for software or server licensing (including costly Microsoft Client Access License – CALs).Let’s take a look at the cost of a Linux server, in comparison to Windows Server 2012. The price of the Windows Server 2012 software alone can run up to $1,200.00 USD. That doesn’t include CALs, and licenses for other software you may need to run (such as a database, a web server, mail server, etc). With the Linux server…it’s easy to install. In fact, installing a full blown web server (that includes a database server), is just a few clicks or commands away (take a look at “Easy LAMP Server Installation” to get an idea how simple it can be).If you’re a system administrator, working with Linux is a dream come true. No more daily babysitting servers. In fact, Linux is as close to “set it and forget it” as you will ever find. And, on the off chance, one service on the server requires restarting, re-configuring, upgrading, etc…most likely the rest of the server won’t be affected.Be it the desktop or a server, if zero cost isn’t enough to win you over – what about having an operating system that will work, with no trouble, for as long as you use it? I’ve personally used Linux for nearly twenty years (as a desktop and server platform) and have not once had an issue with malware, viruses, or random computer slow-downs. It’s that stable. And server reboots? Only if the kernel is updated. It is not out of the ordinary for a Linux server to go years without being rebooted. That’s stability and dependability.Linux is also distributed under an open source license. Open source follows the following key philosophies:Run the program, for any purpose.Study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.Redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.Distribute copies of your modified versions to others.The above are crucial to understanding the community that comes together to create the Linux platform. It is, without a doubt, an operating system that is “by the people, for the people”. These philosophies are also one of the main reasons a large percentage of people use Linux.What is a “distribution?”
    Linux has a number of different versions to suit nearly any type of user. From new users to hard-core users, you’ll find a “flavor” of Linux to match your needs. These versions are called distributions (or, in the short form, “distros.”) Nearly every distribution of Linux can be downloaded and burned onto disk (or USB thumb drive), and installed (on as many machines as you like).