What is Linux? And is it for Me?

by James R. Williams Zavada

1. Introduction

Early in 1994, I had my first contact with Linux. I was taking some programming courses at SUNY Oswego, and terminal/modem access was at a premium back then, so I began looking for a way to do my assignments "offline" on my own machine. Of the low-cost/free Unix for PC projects then available, Linux appeared to be the most promising. Via my school shell account, I used a 1200bps modem to download Slackware's base diskettes to run on a borrowed 386 motherboard. After the initial installation, I was hooked. Late in 1995, I set up a Linux-based server/workstation with which to connect to the Internet. Within months, I was allowing others to login via modem to my system to access Internet e-mail (with my ISP's permission). Soon thereafter, I created a growing network, so I could hack on my own work station without affecting my users. This was the beginning of my experience with Linux. As a result this personal experiment with the then new OS, I've had the fortune of learning a great deal about Unix in general, and Linux in particular. I hope each of you finds Linux as useful and fun as I have.

2. What is Linux? And What is a Distribution?

Linux is a clone of the Unix operating system. Unix was created in the early 1970s at AT&T Bell Labs as a programmer-friendly, multi-user operating system. The creators of Unix had in mind a few ideas about what was needed in an ideal operating system, and these ideas grew to become what is nowadays commonly called "The Unix Philosophy": Programs should do one thing, and do it well. Programs should work together. All input and output should be accessible as a stream of bytes from a file.

Because many Unix utility programs followed these tenets, the OS's users were able to be amazingly productive, by fitting several simple tools together to create larger and more powerful tools. Thus Unix grew in popularity among programmers. And because programmers liked it, they began to create applications thereon, which began moving the OS into end-user arena.

The Unix philosphy made it easy to extend and configure the capabilities of the operating system, and it rapidly grew to fit the changing computer needs of society. In fact, a great deal of the Internet was founded, and still runs on Unix. Additionally, it was extended to include Graphical User Interfaces. Because it is easy to build on, and because of it's simple but effective design, Unix is able to provide much more power while using significantly less resources than other OSes. For example, today you can run many types of Unix (Linux, FreeBSD, etc.) alongside Windows on the same class of hardware (same processor speed, same memory, same model of hard drive, etc.), and you will find Unix to be notably faster

Unix's clear advantages led to a desire to use it on microcomputers, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many were making efforts to recreate it on the most common microcomputer platform of the day, Intel's x86. One of these was a Finnish university student name Linus Torvalds. In 1991, he wanted to use the Unix operating system on his own PC. Dissatisfied with what was currently available, Linus started working on the core of the Linux operating system, its kernel. (For you DOS hackers out there, the Linux kernel equates to MS-DOS's IO.SYS and MSDOS.SYS) He combined this with GNU software's clone of the Unix system utilities developed by the Free Software Foundation. As he did this, he invited open participation by others on the Internet. It is this collaboration that made Linux the fastest-growing, most adaptable and freely available operating system available today.

Originally Linux, that is, the kernel, plus the system utilities, were only available as separate pieces. To use Linux, you had to visit a number of different FTP sites to download the pieces, then put them together yourself. This was often a process that only dedicated computer geeks (called hackers) could accomplish, and only with difficulty. Soon thereafter, someone came up with the idea of putting together all the pieces into a single, pre-assembled, ready-to-install, and easy-to-distribute package. The first such package, or distribution was called SLS, or Soft-landing Linux System.

As Linux caught on, others created their own ideal distributions, and CDROM vendors started to make the distributions available on CDs. Because Linux had a growing reputation for solidity and stability, and because it was growing so rapidly in popularity, it had tremendous commercial potential. Certain visionaries, the founders of RedHat, for example, started companies to create and support commercial distributions of Linux. Other distributions which started as non-commercial enterprises, now have commercial versions (i.e. Slackware). Many of the modern distributions, recognising that a growing number of Linux users were not computer geeks but ordinary business and home users, began to include corresponding applications as part of their distributions (word processors, spreadsheets, games, multimedia utilities, etc.). Currently, many distributions are aiming toward non-technical users, and are evolving to compete with the growing number of dissatisfied Microsoft Windows users that are looking for easy-to-use alternatives.

3. Why Should I Use Linux?

There are a great number of reasons why someone would want to use Linux, but before I detail them, I want to stress the most important reason why you should NOT use Linux: Do not use Linux because someone says you should (unless that someone happens to be your boss 8^). If someone insists that you use Linux, ask them if they are willing to give you free and unlimited technical support. If they're not willing, tell them to get lost! Honestly, I'm aiming this more at you Linux enthusiasts who insist on spreading the "Linux gospel". Don't try to make converts unless you are willing to support them.

Now, here is my "Top-ten" list of the reasons to consider using Linux:

  1. You need a stable computing platform from which to run
  2. You need a highly adaptible and networkable computer system that plays well with other systems.
  3. You need a system that allows you to tweak it to suite your needs.
  4. You need a quality, low-cost Unix environment.
  5. You need a system that packs a big bang for the buck.
  6. You have a bunch of obsolete, but still serviceable x386 and above computers you'd rather use than throw away.
  7. You want a useful, well-rounded computer system, but you only have a shoe-string budget to work with.
  8. You are a computer-savvy user who is tired of dealing with Microsoft's mediocre operating systems.
  9. You are a home- or business-computer user who wants an alternative to Microsoft, and you have access to Linux technical support.
  10. You are a techno-geek computer hacker who can't resist.

Naturally there are many more reasons than I've outlined, but that should give you some food for thought.

4. Which Distribution Should I Use?

If you decide to use Linux, your next question is likely to be, "Which distribution should I use?" This is an honest question that deserves an honest answer, so unlike most people, I'm not going to tell you! Instead I'm going to recommend that you do take the following steps, which will give you the tools you need to decide for yourself which distribution you need, and what you can do if none of the distributions has everything you need.

  1. What do you want to use your computer for? Make the answer to this question into a list.
  2. Determine which distribution best fulfills all the requirements on your list. (Visit distribution vendor websites or make phone calls, your choice.)
  3. If none of the distributions meet all of your needs, see if you can buy separate software packages to fill the gaps. (Visit Linux software vendor websites or make phone calls, again your choice.)
  4. If there are no commercial software packages that fill the gaps, ask your nearest Linux guru or your local Linux user group, if they can help you find a free software alternative. (Or, if you are web-savvy, do your own web search.)
  5. If there are no free software alternatives that meet your needs, consider creating your own, or paying someone to create one for you. Again, turn to your nearest guru or user group to point you in the right direction.
  6. If, after taking all the steps above, or if the penultimate step is not within your reach, Linux is not what you need right now, please continue using your current computing environment.

5. Conclusion

I hope that this has given you a better understanding of what Linux is and why you might or might not want to use it. If you decide to use it, I welcome you to a brave and wonderful new world!

See my Brief Overview of Linux Distributions for a list of various distributions from which to choose.

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2003 by James R. Williams Zavada. All rights reserved

Site Contents