Dec 13, 2009

Understanding Linux

People who don’t know what Linux is sometimes ask me if it’s a program that runs on Microsoft Windows. When I tell them that Linux is, itself, an operating system like Windows and that they can remove (or never purchase) Windows, I sometimes get a surprised reaction: “A PC can run with nothing from Microsoft on it?” The answer is yes!

The next question about Linux is often: “How can Linux be free?” While the full answer to that is a bit longer, the short answer is: “Because the people who write the code license it to be freely distributed.” Keep in mind, however, that the critical issue relating to the word “free” is “freedom,” meaning that you are free to rebuild, reuse, reconfigure, and otherwise do what you like with the code. The only major responsibility is that if you change the software, you pass it forward so that others may benefit from your work as well.

Linux is a full-blown operating system that is a free clone of the powerful and stable UNIX operating system. Start your computer with Linux, and Linux takes care of the operation of your PC and manages the following aspects of your computer:

* Processor — Because Linux can run many processes from many different users at the same time (even with multiple CPUs on the same machine), Linux needs to be able to manage those processes. The Linux scheduler sets the priorities for running tasks and manages which processes run on which CPUs (if multiple processors are present). The scheduler can be tuned differently for different types of Linux systems. If it’s tuned prop erly, the most important processes get the quickest responses from the processor. For example, a Linux scheduler on a desktop system gives higher priority to things such as moving a window on the desktop than it does to a background file transfer.

* Memory — Linux tries to keep processes with the most immediate need in RAM, while managing how processes that exceed the available memory are moved to swap space. Swap space is a defined area on your hard disk that’s used to handle the overflow of running processes and data. When RAM is full, processes are placed in swap space. When swap space is full (something that you don’t want to happen), new processes can’t start up.

* Devices — Linux supports thousands of hardware devices, yet keeps the kernel a manageable size by including only a small set of drivers in the active kernel. Using loadable modules, the kernel can add support for other hardware as needed. Modules can be loaded and unloaded on demand, as hardware is added and removed. (The kernel, described in detail a bit later on, is the heart of a Linux operating system.)

* File systems — File systems provide the structure in which files are stored on hard disk, CD, DVD, floppy disks, or other media. Linux knows about different file system types (such as Linux ext3 and reiserfs file systems, or VFAT and NTFS from Windows systems) and how to manage them.

* Security — Like UNIX, Linux was built from the ground up to enable multiple users to access the system simultaneously. To protect each user’s resources, every file, directory, and application is assigned sets of read, write, and execute permissions that define who can access them. In a standard Linux system, the root user has access to the entire system, some special logins have access to control particular services (such as Apache for Web services), and users can be assigned permission individually or in groups. Recent features such as Security Enhanced Linux enable more refined tuning and protection in highly secure computing environments.

What I have just described are components that are primarily managed by what is referred to as the Linux kernel. In fact, the Linux kernel (which was created and is still maintained by Linus Torvalds) is what gives Linux its name. The kernel is the software that starts up when you boot your computer and interfaces with the programs you use so they can communicate effectively and simply with your computer hardware.

Components such as administrative commands and applications from other free and open source software projects work with the kernel to make Linux a complete operating system. The GNU proj ect, in particular, contributed many implementations of standard UNIX components that are now in Linux. Apache, KDE, GNOME, and other major open source projects in Linux,have also contributed to the success of Linux. Those other projects added such things as:

* Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) — Consisting of a graphical framework (typically the X Window System), window managers, panels, icons, and menus. GUIs enable you to use Linux with a keyboard and mouse combination, instead of just typing commands (as was done in the old days).

* Administrative utilities — Including hundreds (perhaps thousands) of commands and graphical windows to do such things as add users, manage disks, monitor the network, install software, and generally secure and manage your computer.

* Applications — Although no Linux distribution includes all of them, there are literally thousands of games, office productivity tools, Web browsers, chat windows, multimedia players, and other applications available for Linux.

* Programming tools — Including programming utilities for creating applications and libraries for implementing specialty interfaces.

* Server features — Enabling you to offer services from your Linux computer to another computer on the network. In other words, while Linux includes Web browsers to view Web pages, it can also be the computer that serves up Web pages to others. Popular server features include Web, mail, database, printer, file, DNS, and DHCP servers.

Once Linus Torvalds and friends had a working Linux kernel, pulling together a complete open source operating system was possible because so much of the available “free” software was:

* Covered by the GNU Public License (GPL) or similar license — That allowed the entire operating system to be freely distributed, provided guidelines were followed relating to how the source code for that software was made available going forward (see

* Based on UNIX-like systems — Clones of virtually all the other user-level components of a UNIX system had been created. Those and other utilities and applications were built to run on UNIX or other UNIX-like systems.

Linux has become one of the most popular culminations of the open source software movement.But the traditions of sharing code and building communities that made Linux possible started years before Linux was born. You could argue that it began in a comfortable think tank known as Bell Laboratories.

Reference: Negus, Linux Bible 2007

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