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The Complete Beginner's Guide to Linux

What is Linux

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, secure, and worry-free 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.

What is Linux?

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. 

Ubuntu software center screenshot

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, and want to free yourself from the 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. Combine that reliability with zero cost of entry and you have the perfect solution for a desktop platform.

That’s right, zero cost of entry...as in free. 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 all free and 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, trouble free, 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:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.

  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.

  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.

  • The freedom to 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. It’s about freedom and freedom of choice.

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 for free, burned onto disk (or USB thumb drive), and installed (on as many machines as you like).Unity desktop The most popular Linux distributions are:

Each distribution has a different take on the desktop. Some opt for very modern user interfaces (such as Ubuntu’s Unity, above, and Deepin’s Deepin Desktop), whereas others stick with a more traditional desktop environment (openSUSE uses KDE). For an easy guide to Linux desktops check out How to Find the Best Linux Desktop for You. 

You can check out the top 100 distributions on the Distrowatch site.

And don’t think the server has been left behind. For this arena, you can turn to:

Some of the above server distributions are free (such as Ubuntu Server and CentOS) and some have an associated price (such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Enterprise Linux). Those with an associated price also include support.

Which distribution is right for you?

Which distribution you use will depend upon the answer to three simple questions:

  • How skilled of a computer user are you?

  • Do you prefer a modern or a standard desktop interface?

  • Server or desktop?

If your computer skills are fairly basic, you’ll want to stick with a newbie-friendly distribution such as Linux Mint, Ubuntu, or Deepin. If you’re skill set extends into the above-average range, you could go with a distribution like Debian or Fedora. If, however, you’ve pretty much mastered the craft of computer and system administration, use a distribution like Gentoo.

If you’re looking for a server-only distribution, you will also want to decide if you need a desktop interface, or if you want to do this via command-line only. The Ubuntu Server does not install a GUI interface. This means two things – your server won’t be bogged down loading graphics and you’ll need to have a solid understanding of the Linux command line. However (there is always an “however” with Linux), you can install a GUI package on top of the Ubuntu Server with a single command like sudo apt-get install ubuntu-desktop. System administrators will also want to view a distribution with regards to features. Do you want a server-specific distribution that will offer you, out of the box, everything you need for your server? If so, CentOS might be the best choice. Or, do you want to take a desktop distribution and add the pieces as you need them? If so, Debian or Ubuntu Linux might serve you well.

For new users, check out “The Best Linux Distribution for New Users”, to make the selection a much easier task.

Installing Linux

For most, the idea of installing an operating system might seem like a very daunting task. Believe it or not, Linux offers one of the easiest installations of all operating systems. In fact, most versions of Linux offer what is called a Live distribution – which means you run the operating system from either a CD/DVD or USB flash drive without making any changes to your hard drive. You get the full functionality without having to commit to the installation. Once you’ve tried it out, and decided you wanted to use it, you simply double-click the “Install” icon and walk through the simple installation wizard.

Typically, the installation wizards walk you through the process with the following steps (I’ll illustrate the installation of Ubuntu Linux): 

  • Preparation: Make sure your machine meets the requirements for installation. This also may ask you if you want to install third-party software (such as plugins for MP3 playback, video codecs, and more).

    install ubuntu

  • Wireless Setup (If necessary): If you are using a laptop (or machine with wireless), you’ll need to connect to the network, in order to download third-party software and updates.

  • Hard drive allocation (Figure 4): This step allows you to select how you want the operating system to be installed. Are you going to install Linux alongside another operating system (called “dual booting”), use the entire hard drive, upgrade an existing Linux installation, or install over an existing version of Linux.

    install choices

  • Location: Select your location from the map.

  • Keyboard layout: Select the keyboard layout for your system.

  • User setup: Set up your username and password.

That’s it. Once the system has completed the installation, reboot and you’re ready to go. For a more in-depth guide to installing Linux, take a look at “How to Install and Try Linux the Absolutely Easiest and Safest Way”, or download the Linux Foundation's PDF guide for Linux installation.

Installing software on Linux

Just as the operating system itself is easy to install, so too are applications. Most modern Linux distributions include what most would consider an “app store”. This is a centralized location where software can be searched and installed. Ubuntu Linux has the Ubuntu Software Center, Deepin has the Deepin Software Center, some distributions rely on Synaptic, while others rely on GNOME Software.

Regardless of the name, each of these tools do the same thing – a central place to search for and install Linux software. Of course, these pieces of software depend upon the presence of a GUI. For GUI-less servers, you will have to depend upon the command line interface for installation.

Let’s look at two different tools to illustrate how easy even the command line installation can be. Our examples are for Debian-based distributions and Fedora-based distributions. The Debian-based distros will use the apt-get tool for installing software and Fedora-based distros will require the use of the yum tool. Both work very similarly. I’ll illustrate using the apt-get command. Let’s say you want to install the wget tool (which is a handy tool used to download files from the command line). To install this using apt-get, the command would like like this:

sudo apt-get install wget

The sudo command is added because you need super user privileges in order to install software. Similarly, to install the same software on a Fedora-based distribution, you would first su to the super user (literally issue the command su and enter the root password), and issue this command:

yum install wget

That’s it...all there is to installing software on a Linux machine. It’s not nearly as challenging as you might think. Still in doubt? Recall the Easy Lamp Server Installation from earlier? With a single command:

sudo tasksel

You can install a complete LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) server on either a server or desktop distribution. It really is that easy.

More Resources

If you’re looking for one of the most reliable, secure, and dependable platforms for both the desktop and the server, look no further than one of the many Linux distributions. With Linux you can assure your desktops will be free of trouble, your servers up, and your support requests at a minimum.

If you’re looking for more resources to help guide you through your lifetime with Linux, check out the following resources: 

 

Comments

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  • Torin Said:

    Hi. GNU deserved a mention. The OS could not have existed without it.

  • Richard Said:

    He is not being ungrateful, we don't need the stupid first three letters and a slash.

  • Torin Said:

    Now you are being childish and disrespectful. I never said you should say GNU/Linux - I said GNU deserved a mention. Show some respect to Richard Stallman.

  • juanso Said:

    without GNU, the linux... kernel ..... would have never been developed RS has been shafted because he loves the concept known as FREEDOM!

  • Masoud Said:

    "Open source follows the following key philosophies" ... That is not open source. That is for "Free Software" as defined by the Free Software Foundation originally for the GNU project. Jack, you don't mention a word about FSF and GNU, yet you quote their definition, not "yours." If you don't care about freedom "crap", fine. Use the Open Source Definition from here: http://opensource.org/osd

  • Paul Harper Said:

    Masoud is correct that those are the Free Software guidelines rather than the Open Source Definition. A correction would be in order. Personally I think there is room for both Free Software and Open Source Software (and dare I say it proprietary software). But my default is Free Software where possible.

  • Lawrence Hearn Said:

    I must thank MicroSoft for my total Linux conversion. Although ideologically inclined towards Linux for many years I stuck with the MS pre-installed OS's out of familiarity and ease - until Windows 8! The unexpected nightmare following my purchase of a new laptop last year with Win 8 was all the motivation I needed to install LinuxMint as dual OS on my Lenovo machine, after disabling Secure Boot. I couldn't be more satisfied. I've now installed Mint on another old Vista laptop for my wife and too on and old desktop which my 5 year old grandson uses. Why play the beg MicroSoft to be nice game? Linux distros have anything anyone wants. Too bad major PC makers don't offer dual booting as a given option. So thanks MicroSoft, for being such crap.

  • JCH2 Said:

    Nicely done, and what most comments here missed is that this is for beginners with no knowledge of the community's history, diversity, commonality, and contentions. I for one am glad that stuff was left out... and avoid driving off the tentatively curious with superfluous noise. If you had tried to dump in all of the flotsam, I would have had a decent article to link / share for the true beginners. Can't believe the number of comments here that missed the point.

  • W. Anderson Said:

    The one critical aspect of switching from (mostly) Microsoft Windows computing - any iteration Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 or 8.x - to a better quality and reputation Linux Desktop or Laptop use is that the "re-learning experience" is significantly less than what is incessantly quoted by Microsoft zealots, except those persons for whom Windows is already confusing and above their capability to decipher. Over the past 5 - 6 years, several universities, technology research organizations and even a few Fortune 500 Financial Services firms have conducted very controlled test studies on such transition, and generally found by consensus that the average experienced Windows user can grasp the fundamentals of a Linux desktop, particularly those distributions with GUI similar to Windows, in approximately 15 - 20 minutes. A high proportion of these same test subjects were able to become fairly proficient and comfortable with Linux desktop use in 2 - 3 hours. My experience in switching users over with about 25 clients, friends or acquaintances in last 2 years mirrors the results indicated above, with one particular memorable case of an 81 years of age long retired commercial airline pilot who ran PCLinuxOS desktop with delight and nary a crash, especially when all his children and grandchildren (some of latter college students) were always complaining about Windows stopping, attracting viruses/trojans, requiring updates every week and driving these Windows users to pull out their hair in despair.

  • juanso Said:

    Why has Richards name become such a dirty word?! I wonder how many know the story. Youtube has a great video that tells it like it is! http://youtu.be/jw8K460vx1c

  • Hugh Said:

    Once again.... one gives advice to beginners, to absolute beginners, and the cracks step in and begin an argument about how to call the OS, if it is free software, ore open source, who has more done for the OS and if Richard Stallman is set in the right light and all that crap that is repeated since Linux got some momentum. And then people wonder why the beginners clap their hands over the head in dismay and run away as fast as they can. When Linux is not the OS of the masses, it's your fault. With you I mean the people who are repeating this argument at every occasion. For a beginner it's only important how the OS works, not who has a bigger share of the fame.

  • Tammi Said:

    Thank you, Jack Wallen, for an informative article. I am your demographic - an absolute beginner to Linux. This is the first week of my "Intro to Linux" class. We are using the Linux Bible - 8th ed. as our textbook and neither the author of the book nor our instructor has provided this helpful and necessary information to understanding the absolute basics thus far. Bookmarking this forum so the blanks can be filled in where necessary.

  • Xurxo Said:

    You dare to say that Linux is not the OS of the masses? It might not be the most popular OS for desktop/laptops but that does not mean that it is the most used OS. You can find things running Linux even in washmachines, coffee machines, cars, mobile phones, TVs... Just as an example: http://www.siliconindia.com/news/technology/10-Surprising-Things-You-Never-Knew-Is-Running-On-Linux-nid-150737-cid-2.html

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