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 About Linux

Here is a quick run-down of some of the higher points of the Linux operating system, it is beyond the scope of this site to be comprehensive in this topic, so links to more in-depth sites are included for deeper research.

Linux was started as a hobby by a Finnish Computer Science student named Linus Torvalds in 1991. He wanted to make a clone of the Unix operating system. A Unix license cost several hundred dollars which made it cost-prohibitive to many people. Linus set out to create a free, open source clone.

This site shows some early posts by Linus to the Minix (another Unix clone) mailing list along with some commentary written in 1992 about the posts by Linus. Here is a fairly detailed "blow-by-blow" of how Linux got off the ground.

Around 1992 the Linux community seemed to explode and programmers were contributing all kinds of new code to make Linux better. Ports to other architectures and new uses were starting to develop. In 1999 Red Hat completes their IPO giving them the distinction of the first "Linux-oriented" company to do so.

The operating system we currently call "Linux" is actually a kernel with a lot of other software piled on top of it. Additionally, different versions of the kernel are bundled with different versions of different software packages and are released in what are called "distributions" or simply "distros" (this site is dedicated to the SUSE variety).

Because the kernel is only one part of the operating system some people (led by the Free Software Foundation, the foundation responsible for the GNU/GPL license under which most free and opensource software is released) have stated that calling it "GNU/Linux" is a more appropriate name for the operating system because it uses so many of the GNU components. I have read more than one Linus interview where he expresses mild disagreement with this title. I don't know which "public" the FSF is worried about confusing; developers know what is what in a Linux distro, average users like me know what the kernel is and what it isn't, my grandmother is confused by anything with a power button on it so changing the name of Linux isn't going to help her, either. I guess it's the rest of the world (excluding under-developed countries that don't have computers, people who don't give a toss about Linux, and the Amish) that they are trying to save from confusion. For what it's worth I just refer to it as "Linux" and don't know anyone who calls it "GNU/Linux", but I encourage readers to make up their own minds.

The nitty-gritty of what makes Linux different than other operating systems is beyond the scope of this article and most likely beyond the scope of my understanding, so I'll just hit up a few of the features that most Unix-like operating systems share.

  • There is free software available for nearly anything you could want to do on your computer.
  • Most are opensource which means that they are infinitely flexible; anyone can modify their software at the most basic level. This means more people are able to test various applications, submit bug reports, and see fixes within days.
  • Unix-like OS's don't often require reboots. When installing new software you often only need to restart the effected processes, this is often done by the click of a button or a few lines typed into the terminal. Unix-like systems are also known for their stability, meaning that you won't find yourself needing to reboot as often because your OS is getting "squirrelly". Stories of Linux boxes running for years without needing a reboot despite heavy use abound. Application crashes don't take down the OS with it, so if an app does crash you aren't left with a frozen machine.
  • Permission levels, firewalls, encryption, and more all work together to make an OS that is widely considered to me more secure than others.
  • Most system administrators with experience in both Windows and Unix-like OS's will say that the *nix's are able to handle higher volumes of use. Meaning more users or processes can be using the machine before it becomes unstable or slow.
There is plenty more, when reading up on them be sure to consider the source. Often Windows fans and Linux fans alike have been known to "talk up" their OS of choice making unsupported or extremely biased claims. Imagine walking into a bar in Detroit and asking, "What are some of the features of Ford, Chevy, and Dodge?" Each will claim their automobile of choice is faster, cheaper to maintain, and more reliable.

Because of the way Linux is distributed, measuring Linux market share is nearly impossible, such reports are often (very rough) estimates, that said: By 2002 nearly a third of all servers were running a Unix clone, the most popular of which is, of course, Linux. Linux accounts for a little over 3% of the desktop market, making it the second most popular desktop operating system (a distinction that was, until recently, held by Mac), Linux is expected to account for 6% of all desktops by 2007. Estimates of Linux users are often in the neighborhood of 20 million.

There you go; a fast and dirty "About Linux". To answer the question, "What is Linux", a good answer might be: A stable, opensource, and free operating system invented by Linus Torvalds suitable for a variety of machines employed for a variety of uses. Or you could say it is a laundry detergent.

Additional Resources:

  Linux Wikipedia

  Linux Online

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