A beginner’s guide to Linux

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By Jesse Goodwin, Staff Writer

You may not have heard of Linux. Like Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac OS X, it is an operating system, or a piece of software that manages the hardware components of a computer.

Without an operating system, software installed on a computer is unable to communicate with the computer’s hardware and therefore unable to function.

Windows and Mac OS X are the two most popular operating systems on desktop computers, while Linux is comparatively unknown. It currently accounts for just two percent of the desktop computer market, which is dominated by Windows at almost 90 percent. But since its introduction in the early 90s, it has had a global influence that spans multiple industries.

Indeed, Linux has become almost omnipresent. Google’s mobile Android operating system and Chrome OS, which powers its Chromebook laptops, are based on the Linux kernel, or the core of the Linux operating system.

Twenty-three of the world’s top twenty-five websites run on Linux-based computer systems, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter; the only outliers, Bing and Live.com, which belong to Microsoft. Most of the world’s largest stock exchanges, including the New York Stock Exchange, run on Linux as well.

What sets Linux apart from its competition is a reputation for security and stablity. Viruses and other malicious software typically target Windows machines and are therefore unlikely to infect Linux machines.

There are a variety of reasons for this, but chief among them is Linus’s Law.

Named for Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and coined by software developer Eric S. Raymond, it states that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

In other words, as more developers and testers work on a program, it becomes more likely that bugs, or flaws in the program, will be caught and fixed by those developers and testers.

Windows and Mac OS X are proprietary software, meaning that they are developed by a company that owns the exclusive rights to that software — in this case Microsoft and Apple. A small team of developers is paid by the companies to find bugs in the software.

When bugs are discovered, these developers are not obliged to report them until they have been fixed, leaving users open to potential exploits.

By contrast, Linux is open-source software, meaning that its source code is available to the public and can be seen by the user at any time.

As such, it becomes more likely that users looking at the code will find and report bugs sooner rather than later, and perhaps even fix them.

Linux reaches a smaller base of users than Windows and Mac OS X, but has a larger set of “eyeballs” that can find, report, and fix bugs more quickly than the developers paid by Microsoft and Apple.

Being open-source also means that Linux is available at no cost to the user.

The name “Linux” is trademarked by Torvalds and the source code is copyrighted by its many individual authors, but Linux and its source code are freely available to all.

Because of this, a variety of distributions of Linux exist, each of which is based on the Linux kernel.

Popular distributions include Ubuntu and Linux Mint among casual users and Debian and Fedora among professional users.

Some are commercially backed, such as Ubuntu and Fedora, while others, such as Mint and Debian, are backed entirely by their online communities.

There are hundreds of distributions of Linux, and deciding between them can discourage potential users. When choosing a distribution, users must consider not only their level of computer expertise, but their computing preferences. For instance, the Mint desktop is more similar to the Windows desktop than Ubuntu. Both distributions are friendly to Linux beginners and contain pre-installed software programs such as LibreOffice, an open-source office suite that supports the file formats used in Microsoft Office.

However, those migrating from Windows should feel more comfortable with Mint by virtue of its familiarity.

Although computer professionals have been the primary adopters of Linux, many distributions of it are accessible to the casual user.

It is a secure and stable operating system that respects the freedom of its users and is worthy of consideration as a viable alternative.

Photo Courtesy: Larry Ewing & Garrett Lesage


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